Deed and Creed
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The Summary

This summary is adapted from this week’s main Covenant & Conversation essay by Rabbi Sacks.

Parshat Yitro records the revolutionary moment when God first enters into a mutually binding agreement with a nation, Bnei Yisrael, in a contract which we call a brit, a covenant.

Of course, Matan Torah is not the first brit in the Torah. God had already made one with all humanity through Noach, and another with Avraham. But those were not fully reciprocal. God did not ask for Noach’s agreement, nor for Avraham’s. The brit at Har Sinai was different. For the first time, God ensured the covenant was entirely mutual and fully accepted by Bnei Yisrael.

The point is important. God wants to rule by right, not might. He brought enslaved people to liberty, and He seeks the free worship of free human beings. The Sinai Covenant needed the people’s agreement.

What is interesting is the exact wording in which the Israelites give their consent. They do so three times, first before the Revelation at Har Sinai, and then twice afterwards, in the parsha of Mishpatim.

There is a subtle difference between the three recitations of Na’aseh Venishma. In two cases, the people say “We will do all that God says.” In the third, the double verb is used: na’aseh ve-nishma. “We will do, and we will hear (or obey, or understand).” Now notice that there is another difference. In the first two cases, there is a clear emphasis on the unity of the people. Both phrases are very striking. The first time, we are told that all the people answered as one. The second time, the people all responded with a single voice. In a book that emphasises how prone to disagreement the people were, such declarations of unanimity are significant and rare. But the third verse, which mentions na’aseh venishma, both doing and listening, contains no such statement. It simply says: They replied. This time there is no emphasis on the people speaking in unison.

Here, we have a biblical comment on one of the most striking features of all in Judaism: the difference between deed and creed, asiyah and shemiyah, and doing and understanding.

Judaism is about a community of action. It is about the way people interact in their dealings with one another. It is about bringing God into the shared spaces of our collective life. Just as we know God through what He does, so God asks us to bring Him into what we do. In the beginning was the deed. That is why Judaism is a religion of law, because law is the architecture of behaviour.

When it comes, however, to belief, creed, doctrine, all the things that depend on shemiyah rather than asiyah, understanding rather than action: on this Judaism does not call for unanimity. Not because Judaism lacks beliefs. On the contrary, Judaism is what it is precisely because of our beliefs, most importantly the belief in monotheism, that there is, at least and at most, one God. Judaism has a robust set of beliefs, but it is not a community based on unanimity; instead, it is about the way we understand and interpret those beliefs. Judaism recognises that intellectually and temperamentally we are different. Judaism has had its rationalists and its mystics, its philosophers and poets, its naturalists and supernaturalists. Na’aseh, we act in the same way, but nishma, we understand each in our own way. That is the difference between the way we serve God collectively and the way we understand God individually.

It is fascinating that this well-known feature of Judaism is already being signalled in the Torah: in the difference between the way it speaks about na’aseh, “as one,” “with a single voice,” and nishma, with no special collective consensus.

Our acts, our na’aseh, are public. Our thoughts, our nishma, are private. That is how we come to serve God together, yet relate to Him individually, in the uniqueness of our being.

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Around the Shabbat Table

  1. What made the covenant at Har Sinai different from the other agreements between God and His people?
  2. How do you decide when to say “yes”? Can you think of a time when you agreed to something important by acting first, and understanding later, or vice versa?
  3. How can we balance na’aseh and nishma in our personal and collective decision-making processes?
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Parsha in Passing

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Parshat Yitro opens up with a warm reunion between Moshe, his wife, his two sons and his father-in-law, Yitro. Yitro observes Moshe spending long days trying to help every individual who comes to him with questions and disputes, and he quickly understands that Moshe’s duties as a leader are too great for one person to bear.

So Yitro suggests that Moshe set up a judicial system, delegating some of the more mundane challenges within the camp of Bnei Yisrael to other judges. Teamwork makes the dreamwork!

After some time in Midian, Moshe leads Bnei Yisrael to the base of Chorev, Har Sinai, where they begin their preparations to receive the Torah. Finally, on the 6th of Sivan, after three days of intense purification, the people are ready. That morning there is thunder and lightning and a heavy cloud over the mountain.

Then God gives Bnei Yisrael the Ten Commandments. They accept all that God expects of them by saying “Na’aseh Venishma” - we will do and will listen!

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Parsha People

Moshe: Paroh’s cruelty is in our past. Here’s a taste of redemption: Matan Torah at last.

Yitro: My son-in-law is Moshe, bless his big heart. But being a leader is a delicate art. Of being in charge and sharing the task - now there are judges for Bnei Yisrael to ask.

Bnei Yisrael: With trembling fear and utmost conviction, we will do, and we will understand. This will be our tradition.

Har Sinai: I am the pinnacle, and I feel so much pride, that the Torah was given on my mountainside. I am the peak on which he stands, the Ten Commandments held tightly in Moshe’s hands.

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Parsha Philosophy

How is it that one set of laws can be kept by so many people, but at the same time understood and even practised so differently?

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As Rabbi Sacks shares, the answer is in Bnei Yisrael’s affirmative response, Na’aseh venishma. We will do - we will follow the rules - and we will understand. The lack of unanimity in their numerous responses throughout the Torah (to receiving the Torah) alludes to the possibility that while everyone will follow the Torah to a T, the individual internalisation - and sometimes even manifestation - will differ.

Why is this important? It allows us to have both a public and private expression of God. A public way to unite as a people in unified service, as well as an expression that we can appreciate privately. This duality is the unique definition of Judaism.

  • What do you think would happen if everyone had the exact same understanding of the Torah?
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Parsha Playoff

Let’s play Shabbat Treasure Hunt in honour of the fourth commandment; keeping Shabbat.

Players must divide into two teams: Hiders and Seekers. The Hiders must conceal small items symbolic of Shabbat or the Parsha, such as challah, a kiddish cup, or a birkon. The Seekers then have a set time to find these treasures. After each round, teams switch roles to ensure everyone experiences both aspects of the game. Other variations include hiding items symbolic of the Ten Commandments or items symbolic of the Pesach story.

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Parsha Practical

In exploring the practical application of mitzvot in this parsha, we often think of the big ones like ‘do not steal’ or ‘do not murder’. And these are of course very important. But this week’s parsha offers another insightful lesson that we can take to heart: the power of delegation.

This is exemplified when Yitro advises Moshe to share the leadership burden with trusted members of Bnei Yisrael. When Moshe shares out responsibilities between other leaders, it is not just about easing his load; it beautifully reflects the ‘nishma’ aspect of faith, acknowledging that while everyone adheres to the same commandments, the individual interpretation and application of these rules can wonderfully vary.

This diversity extends far beyond practical mitzvot, to the way that we connect with one another. Each person’s distinct approach and understanding fosters varied and meaningful relationships, enhancing our collective empathy and unity.

  • Can you think of a time in your life when delegating tasks is important?
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Parsha Parable

Eitan and Talya

Eitan the Elephant and Talya the Tiger were the best of friends. Eitan loved painting rainbows, and Talya preferred playing soccer. They were very different animals but shared the same golden rule: “Always be kind and helpful.”

One sunny day, Eitan was busy painting a gigantic, beautiful rainbow on a large canvas in the park. He hummed happily, his trunk moving this way and that as he mixed the colours. Meanwhile, Talya was kicking her soccer ball nearby. Suddenly, the soccer ball flew way too high and landed in a gigantic puddle, splashing mud all over Eitan’s rainbow painting. “Oh no!” cried Talya, bounding over. Eitan’s eyes widened, but instead of getting angry, he took a big breath and thought of how to best respond. Then he said, “It’s okay. Accidents happen!”

Upon feeling Eitan’s kindness, Talya had an idea. “Let’s fix it together?” So the two friends turned the splashes of mud into glorious brown trees and woodland animals. They made the painting look even better than before!

Soon Eitan felt inspired to be even more creative. He took his paintbrushes to the soccer field and painted bright, cheerful lines on the grass, outlining the penalty areas, the halfway line, and even marking out the goalposts, making it the most exciting and colourful soccer field ever. Tayla’s eyes sparkled with joy.

From that day on, the two friends were even closer. Sometimes Eitan played with Talya at the soccer field, and sometimes Talya tried her hand at painting rainbows in the park. They now knew that even though their interests were different, their shared values of kindness and teamwork made every activity fun and unique, especially when they played together.

These two friends found the balance of Na’aseh venishma. They followed the same rules, and celebrated their differences too!

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Parsha Ponderings

What Would You Do?

Imagine you’re Hashem, and you need to devise an 11th commandment. What would it be, and why?

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Parsha Puzzle

Question: When Bnei Yisrael heard God’s Voice at Har Sinai, how far back did they retreat in fear? (Have a guess, then check Rashi or see below for the answer.)

(See below for the answers)

This Week's Parsha Puzzle Answer:

According to Rashi (on Shemot 20:15) they fell back 12 ‘mil’. An amah (cubit) is approximately 1.5-2 feet and each mil is 2000 amot so they fell back between 6.8-9.1 miles.

This question has been adapted from Torah IQ by David Woolf, a collection of 1,500 Torah riddles, available on Amazon.


Covenant & Conversation Family Edition

Written as an accompaniment to Rabbi Sacks’ weekly Covenant & Conversation essay, the Family Edition is aimed at connecting teenagers with his ideas and thoughts on the parsha.

With thanks to the Schimmel Family for their generous sponsorship of Covenant & Conversation, dedicated in loving memory of Harry (Chaim) Schimmel.

“I have loved the Torah of R’ Chaim Schimmel ever since I first encountered it. It strives to be not just about truth on the surface but also its connection to a deeper truth beneath. Together with Anna, his remarkable wife of 60 years, they built a life dedicated to love of family, community, and Torah. An extraordinary couple who have moved me beyond measure by the example of their lives.” — Rabbi Sacks

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