Do First, Understand Later

The Jews accepted the Torah with the statement naaseh v'nishma--we will do and we will hear.

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Judaism is often said to be a religion of deed rather than of intention. Though overly simplistic, this description reflects the centrality of mitzvot (commandments) in Jewish life, as well as the rabbinic conclusion that, in most cases, a person who performs a mitzvah without focusing on its significance has nevertheless fulfilled his or her religious obligation.

This understanding of Judaism as a religion of action is encapsulated by the biblical verse in which the Jews standing at Mount Sinai signal their acceptance of the Torah with the words "na'aseh v'nishma"--"We will do and we will hear/understand." In other words, the Jewish people promise first to observe the laws of the Torah, and only afterward to study these laws. In traditional Jewish culture, this statement has come to epitomize the Jewish commitment to the Torah.

Study vs. Action

Three separate biblical verses record the Israelites' acceptance of the obligations that the Torah will impose on them, but only the last of these contains the now-famous phrase "na'aseh v'nishma." When Moses first ascends to Mount Sinai, God commands him to tell the people that if they accept the covenant, God will make them a "kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:6). Upon hearing these words, the people respond, "All that God has said, we will do" (19:8).

Later in the text, after Moses relates specific divine rules to the people, they again say, "All of the things that God has said, we will do" (24:3). A few verses later, after Moses writes and reads aloud the words of the Torah, the people utter the phrase "na'aseh v'nishma," "We will do and we will hear" (24:7).

The rabbinic tradition understands the words na'aseh v'nishma as a correction of the earlier promises simply to "do" what God has commanded. According to one midrash:

"'And they [the Children of Israel] said, "all that God has said we will do and we will hear,"' since they had initially prioritized doing. Moses said to them, 'Is doing possible without understanding? Understanding brings one to doing.' They then said, 'We will do and we will understand,' [meaning] 'We will do what we understand.' This teaches that the people said 'na'aseh v'nishma' before receiving the Torah" (Mekhilta d'Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai 24:7).

This midrash reflects a classical rabbinic debate about the relative merits of study and action. In a well-known talmudic discussion, the rabbis conclude that "study is great, for it leads to action" (Kiddushin 40b). While emphasizing deed over study, the rabbis appear wary of promoting a religion by rote, in which people perform rituals without any understanding of the significance of these actions. In claiming that "understanding brings one to doing" or "study... leads to action," the rabbis can prioritize action without negating the meaning of one's actions. The insistence that "na'aseh" precedes "nishma" also allows for the creation of a coherent community unified by its practice, even while allowing for discussion about the details and significance of this practice.

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Rabbi Jill Jacobs

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. She previously served as the Rabbi-in-Residence for the Jewish Funds for Justice.