Someone asked me recently why there is such a noticeable difference in what I write as compared to when I speak. He asked why I don’t write about the esoteric subjects I often discuss during class. I explained that I try to gear what I write and what I speak about to the specific audience. The newsletter and newspaper readership is obviously geometrically larger and much more diverse than those sitting in a class so I write for that audience each week.
I reminded him that even when I speak, the subject matter varies greatly. In my own synagogue there is a big difference in what I discuss from the pulpit on Shabbat morning to the class I give in the afternoon where people are specifically coming to hear about the Snake and the Garden of Eden. And it’s the same whether I am speaking in Safra in Manhattan or Florida. And don’t forget that my brother Victor writes a more esoteric piece each week and although we don’t include it in the newsletter (for the same reason, because it is geared to a specific audience), it is available.
In thinking about this perasha, my class might begin by quoting the Zohar which opens this perasha with Rabbi Shimon saying "VehEleh HaMishpatim", "Now these are the ordinances which you shall set before them". The Zohar explains, that these are the laws of gilgulim or reincarnation. These are the laws for the souls coming back to this world. We know that topic of reincarnation of souls is not a subject cited openly in the Torah.
In the Zohar, on the other hand, in this weeks portion under the title Saba deMishpatim (the Old Man or the Grandfather of Parashat Mishpatim), the secrets of reincarnation are discussed at length. They are then further expanded upon by the Rabbi Chaim Vital based on what he learned from his teacher, The Ari HaKadosh, Rabbi Yitzhak Luria in both Sefer HaGilgulim, the book of reincarnation and Shaar HaGilgulim, The Gate of Reincarnations.
The subject is fascinating. I hope to discuss some of this when I speak to a group of amazing women on Monday, at the Ohel Sara Amen Group in Lawrence. On Monday February 8th . I will be speaking on behalf of my dear friend Gayle Sassoon as next week is the 11th month yahrzeit of her seven children who were taken from us on Rosh Hodesh Nisan of last year. In the coming weeks we also hope to introduce a new project that Gayle and another group of incredible women are working on in honor of the children.
So setting aside reincarnation for a moment, the Rabbis teach us that at the time the Torah was given at Sinai, each of us or each of our souls was standing with the people and heard the commandments. We read this week, that the people, which I guess would include each of us, stood at Sinai and when Hashem offered us the Torah, we announced in unison, "Everything that Hashem requests of us we will do [Na'aseh] and we will hear [Nishma]".
The idea of being offered the Torah is interesting. At the end of the Torah, Moses tells the people, “Hashem came from Sinai, and rose unto them from Seir, He shined forth from Har Paran”.
The Midrash explains that when Hashem offered us the Torah, He did not offer it to the Children of Israel alone, but to all of the nations. First He approached the children of Esav who lived is Seir and asked them, "Do you wish to accept the Torah?" They replied, "What is written in it?" "Do not murder." They said, "...Our father Esav was assured [by his father, Isaac] that, 'By your sword will you live!'" [In other words, "We cannot accept such constraining laws."]
Next Hashem went to the children of Ammon and Moav, and asked, "Do you wish to accept the Torah?" They asked, "What is written in it?" "Do not commit sexual immorality." They responded, "Master of the Universe, our very existence is based on an immoral act!" [These two nations are descended from the daughters of Lot, who were impregnated by their father (Bereishit 19:37-8). Thus they also refused the offer].
Hashem then went to har Paran, to the children of Yishmael, and asked them, "Do you wish to accept the Torah?" They asked, "What is written in it?" "Do not steal." They responded, "Master of the Universe, the essence of our father was to be a bandit, as it is written, 'And he will be a man of the wild; his hand will be in all...'" [They also refused.]
It was only after Hashem offered the Torah to the other nations and they refused did he offer the Torah to us.
This Midrash disturbs me. It is so difficult to understand. After all, how can they refuse a law which says not to kill, commit immoral acts or steal? Aren’t they already obligated to these laws as human beings?
The Rabbis teach us that there are seven universal laws given to the descendants of Noah; to all humanity. They include, Belief in G-d, Not to Blaspheme His Name, Do Not Murder, Do Not Commit Immoral Sexual Acts, Do Not Steal, Pursue Justice and Do not be cruel to animals. So how can the nations refuse to accept the Torah based on the inclusion of forbidding murder, theft or immorality?
There are 613 commandments given to the Jewish people which actually break down to thousands and thousands of laws, both things we must do and things we must refrain from doing. But none of us is perfect and we all mess up. Many of us mess up on the same item again and again. And when we do, and we understand we have done something wrong, we have two ways of looking at it. Either we say we are not strong enough yet spiritually to do this or we can say that we don’t because the law is wrong.
The first response can be considered acceptable. The second presents a huge problem. If we accept that the Torah is Divine and the laws of the Torah are G-d given, then by even saying that 612 make sense but because the 613th makes no sense and I won’t follow it, is either denying the divinity of the Torah or saying we know better. And if we only do what we like, we might as well follow our own book of laws rather than G-ds.
When the children of Esav refused to accept the law that said not to murder, they were not saying that murder was acceptable. They agreed that one cannot murder. The refusal was based on whose definition of murder would apply. Did the Nazis killing Jews consider their actions murder? No! They dehumanized their victims and justified their actions.
Everyone would say that its forbidden to steal, yet society glorifies Robin Hood whom robs from the rich and gives to the poor, because that’s not really stealing. Or the guy staying at the Hilton who finds out he paid $200 for the night while a friend paid $89. Does he think he is stealing when he empties the cleaning lady’s box of shampoo and conditioner into his bag? He justifies it.
The idea behind Naaseh – we will do and then Nishmah – we will understand is the acceptance that this is coming from G-d and whatever G-d tells us must be right. This is what separates us from the rest of the world and this is what prompted the angels to place two crowns on each had at Sinai.
Every criminal in jail will either plead innocence or can justify his crime. When man writes the laws, loopholes will allow anything to be possible.
When each of us said Naaseh VeNishmah we proclaimed that we accepted that G-d knows best. Let’s remember that! We should never say we don’t do something because it makes no sense, rather we don’t do it yet because we don’t know enough or are not strong enough. We need to admit that we don’t know better and only G-d knows best!
Rabbi David Bibi