Naaseh vNishmah – A Crowning ‘Moment’
Prior to the Jews’ receipt of the Torah and the Ten Commandments, Moses read the “Book of the Treaty” to the nation. (Exod. 24:7) Rashi (ibid) says this book refers to the Torah that transpired up to that point in history – namely, from Genesis through Parshas Yisro.
Moses read this book to the Jews, apparently for good reason: the imminent acceptance of Torah must not be accepted blindly. Man is not expected to accept a Torah, without knowing its fundamentals. Man earns no merit through blind acceptance. This outlook is only sustained by false religions offering no reasoning. But God’s Torah reflects the wisdom of the Creator, and God therefore gifted mankind with intelligence, essentially, to perceive the Torah’s wisdom, guiding him intelligently in his religious life. Wisdom is to be applied in all areas, starting with religious life.
Subsequent to hearing this book read, the Jews unanimously said they would “perform and listen” to all contained. Their famous words “Naaseh v’Nishmah” are a testament to their great level. Based on what they had heard, they even accepted what they had not yet heard. In other words, they said “We will do what we have heard, and we will listen and perform all what we have not yet heard.” Based on first fifth of the Torah they had heard, they were convinced that all else must be of the same perfected character…a lifestyle they had no doubt was to be cherished. On this verbal acceptance, Talmud Sabbath 88a records a metaphor:
R. Simai lectured: “At that time, when Israel preempted “We will do” to “and ‘we will listen”, there came six hundred thousand ministering angels to each and every Jew, binding two crowns: one corresponding to “we will do”, and one corresponding to “and we will listen”. Thereafter when Israel sinned [with the Golden Calf] twelve hundred thousand destroying angels descended and took them away; as it is written [Exodus, xxxiii. 6]: “The children of Israel then stripped themselves of their ornaments (they wore) from (the time they were at) Mount Horeb.” R. Chama b. R. Chanina said: “At Sinai they received the crowns and at Sinai they lost them”, as it is written “The children of Israel then stripped themselves…”. Said R. Johanan: “All of them Moses merited and he took them, as immediately after the verse cited it is written, “And Moses took the tent and pitched it outside the camp of the Jews.” Said Resh Lakish: “In the future God will eventually return them to us, as it is written [Isaiah, xxxv. 10]: “And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with song, with everlasting joy upon their head.” The expression everlasting means that it was already upon their heads at the time of reception of the Torah.”
This Talmudic section refers to the verses below in Exodus 33:4-7 where after the sin of the Gold Calf, God instructed the Jews to “take down” their adornments:
“When the people heard this bad news they mourned and no man wore his ornaments [crowns]. God said to Moses, “Say to the B’nei Yisrael, ‘You are a stiff-necked people. Were I to go up among you for one moment, I would destroy you. And now remove your ornaments and I know what to do with you’. The B’nei Yisrael took off their ornaments that they had [worn] at Mount Sinai. And Moses took the tent and set it up outside the camp, a distance from the camp, and he called it [the] Tent of Meeting. Everyone who sought God would go out to the Tent of Meeting that was outside the camp.”
The Talmud refers to the adornments as crowns, while according to other Rabbis, there are quite disparate views held by each. One Rabbi says they were crowns, another says they were select garments worn at Sinai, still another (Unkelos) says they were military objects, one adding they were “gold” military objects (Yonasan ben Uzziel). On that mention, Yonasan ben Uzziel adds that when Moses removed the tent out of the camp, Moses placed in it those adornments. (Exod. 33:7) What does he mean? And Sforno is most distinct in his view, saying the adornments were the Jews’ “spiritual preparedness”.
What caused such divergent opinions is that the term used in the actual verses is “edyo”, which simply refers to the “affect” of being adorned, not a crown or an object per se. Since the Torah verse is not addressing what the adornment was, this leaves interpretation wide open.
What is significant about the Torah from Genesis through Yisro, that it became the “Book of the Treaty”?
How are the words “Naaseh v’Nishmah” so unique, that here alone the Jews merited “crowns”?
What exactly are these “crowns”?
Why does the Torah use an ambiguous term of edyo, in place of a clearly described “crown”?
How are we to understand these angels and the entire Talmudic metaphor?
How does the Gold Calf sin cause the crowns to be removed?
Finally, where do we start so as to find answers?!
The first place to seek clues always lies in the most unique aspects of a given account. Here alone do the Jews received crowns, or adornments. And this is due to something they did. So we must uncover the greatness of their act. They said they would accept to perform what they heard, and also all that they had not yet heard. We can now define their greatness. First, they used their intellects to realize how great the Torah was. But they also accepted that whatever God will eventually command, they would do.
We may answer that human perfection is expressed in man’s use of his intellect. He identifies human knowledge of what God is, and His commands, as correct and true. This was expressed when the Jews said “Naaseh”, “we will do”. They admitted what they heard was true. But when they said “Nishmah”, “we will listen”, they admitted to “human limitation”. They accepted that their understanding couldn’t be the litmus test for what man accepts. In other words, they said, “We have conviction in God’s nature and His commands based on what we heard already, so all that He commands must be good and true. And even what man cannot comprehend, we will accept.”
Here is the key:
It is insufficient if man follows only the Torah laws that please his mind. In such a case, he fails to confirm God as superior to himself. His view of God is compromised. Man must defer to God. If he doesn’t his emotional component is corrupt. His ego has obscured his view of God.
Thus, when the Jews said both Naaseh v’Nishmah, mankind reached the optimum level, where man 1) followed reason, and 2) he accepted he could not know all. For if man feels he can know all, then in the areas that he is ignorant, he will force faulty conclusions, and eventually destroy himself.
Here, man actualized the purpose in creation of Earth. This was a unique event, and why only here “crowns” are received.
It was these two perfections that the Talmud hinted to with the first set of angels. The ministering angels truly refer to man’s intellect, which earned him “crowns”. “Crowns” simply mean merit…exactly as Sforno stated. So valued before God is this state when man follows intelligence, that God equated this human perfection with “adornments”. God intended to elevate an intangible state of perfection, with something real and priceless, so man reading the Torah could more easily relate. King Solomon also refers to man following a life of wisdom, as “head adornments and necklaces”. (Proverbs 1:9) So the binding of these crowns by angels, simply means that man’s intellect (angels) earned him an elevated status (crowns).
The two crowns correspond to the two intellectual perfections: man’s allegiance to wisdom, and his admission of human limitation.
The sin of Calf is precisely man’s inability to accept human limitation. Those Jews caved in to their psychological need to relate tangibly to religious life. They – like Christianity’s inventors – fabricated a leader based solely on their own physical and psychological terms, ignoring the truth, that human intelligence is limited, and cannot fathom a metaphysical God. The Jews said, “Moses, the ‘man’ ….” was no longer with them. They craved the tangible man of Moses, as Christians crave the tangible Jesus, and as Jews today immortalize their Rebbes, or project powers onto them. It is all one sin.
The Jews lost their “crowns” when caving in to their need for tangible leaders with which they could relate physically. This danger existed at Sinai, and this is why God commanded Moses to relate the prohibition of ascending the mountain, and to rope it off. The Jews would have ascended, since they sought some sensual connection with God. And when they miscounted Moses’ day of decent, they quickly created a golden, physical replacement, since as they said, “Moses, the man who took us out of Egypt, we know not what has happened to him.” They needed the “man” of Moses. So with their creation of the Gold Calf, they no longer accepted human limitation, previously accepted with their words “We will listen”.
The Jews committed two sins: 1) they abandoned a life led solely by intellect, and catered to their psychological and emotional needs, and 2) they no longer accepted limitation of their intellects, assuming their fabricated god was correct. Thus, the Talmud says two angels of destruction removed their two crowns. This means that to earn the crowns, only one “ministering” angel was needed – ministering being a positive phenomenon, referring to the intellect’s ministering to every Jew. (Each man has but one intellect, or one “ministering angel”.) But to lose their merit of Naaseh v’Nishmah, two “destructive” angels, or two emotions, were responsible, as we stated above. There were two, distinct instinctual flaws.
R. Chanina said: “At Sinai they received the crowns and at Sinai they lost them.”
Rabbi Chanina means that the very event of Revelation was a double-edged sword. God’s revelation endangered the Jews into the heightened emotional and religious state, and this excitement arouses emotions; dangerous religious emotions.
God uses a term that could be understood as a literal crown. He does so in order to convey how real and prized is the state of man when he lives in line with reason. When man both 1) realizes the perfected wisdom in Torah, and 2) accepts limitation of his human knowledge, he exemplifies man’s highest state…a state worthy of being “crowned”. God alludes to the reality of this non-physical perfection, by equating it to a real physical and prized object: a crown.
Man is thereby taught that although intangible, human perfection is what God values most. So the “Torah speaks like human language”, as the Rabbis said, “Dibra Torah kilashon bnei adam”. Man views the physical as most real, so God equated what is truly most real – human perfection – with something physical. But God does not call that perfected state a literal crown, for that would be false, and misleading. Therefore, “adornment” is used, so as to confirm the positive nature of the subject at hand, while alluding to its intangible state. Indeed, a highly clever maneuver. Again, this state is the purpose of Earth’s creation, and why here alone, mankind earns a crown. God’s plan was achieved. It was truly a crowning moment…but a moment, and no longer.
To reiterate, mankind’s perfection lies in his intellectual life. And when man expresses complete satisfaction with the Torah, he demonstrates this perfection. But this perfection of “We will do” must be accompanied by “We will listen”. Meaning, man must simultaneously accept his intellectual limitations. Admitting what we know, and what we can’t know, are equally important beliefs.
Although God does not exist in physical space or in the Temple, God corrected man’s flaw with the Holy of Holies – the central focus of Temple – where man must never enter. Thereby, God instituted the fundamental that man’s knowledge is limited. Man cannot enter this room, as a demonstration that he cannot approach any understanding of God. Additionally, man must not make his obedience to God dependent on his knowledge. God created everything, and as the source of all, He alone determines what is true…what is real. For man to argue with God, man denies the absolute and exclusive authority God reserves as the only Creator.
Said R. Johanan: “All of them [the crowns] Moses merited and he took them, as immediately after the verse cited it is written, “And Moses took the tent and pitched it outside the camp of the Jews.”
Yonasan ben Uzziel adds that when Moses removed the tent out of the camp, Moses placed in it those removed adornments. This is our previous point…
The Tent of Meeting was where God communicated with Moses, seen by the descending cloud pillar miracle. Moses now intended to teach the Jews that only through searching out God and living intelligently, would they merit that perfection. That is what Yonasan ben Uzziel means by “Moses placing the crowns in the tent.” Since we are subscribing to Sforno’s interpretation of “edyo”, there were no literal crowns. They represented the Jews’ perfection. Thus, to repossess that perfection (crown) the Jews had to seek out God at His Tent of Meeting. Therefore, saying that “Moses placed the crowns there” means Moses directed the Jews’ perfection to that tent, or rather, to the act of seeking out God.
This refers to the future when God will teach the whole world His undeniable truth. At that time, we will once again enjoy those “crowns”, or rather, a state of perfection. May it come soon!
As a final note, my friend Lewis added that the reason the Jews accepted the entire Torah based only on what they heard read from Genesis through Yisro, is for good cause.
That first fifth of the Torah describes the perfections of Adam, Noah, and Abraham, the patriarchs and matriarchs, and the tribes. As well, it includes God’s providence of those perfected people. This portion includes accounts of people who possessed the perfections of the Torah, but without having the Torah. These accounts depict man at his finest, where without Torah direction; man’s mind alone directed him and her to the service of God, which really is the service of the self, as a wise Rabbi once stated. When the Jews heard Moses read these accounts, they were filled with a deep contentment with the lives of the righteous, with God’s fulfillment of His promises to them, and His providence. They understood the fundamentals of rejecting false gods and idolatry, of being honest, of not chasing wealth, of observing modesty, and of upholding defending morality. They valued these at the cost of life itself. Grasping and agreeing with these fundamentals, the Jews unanimously accepted all which God said, and all He will ever say. In other words, the Jews recognized the great gift God gave man of being able to recognize and live by truth, without any external direction, using intellect alone. They deserved the two crowns of subscribing to intelligence, and accepting the limit of that intelligence. This is Naaseh v’Nishmah.
I thank my dear friends Lewis, Howard and Yehoshua for working through this area with me.