Mishpatim (Exodus 21ff) contains a wealth of powerful social rules. This chapter, immediately following the Sinai revelation, begins the slow development of how society would operate. Within this portion are many famous verses, including ones dealing with compensation in terms of physical injury, the payment of interest, the beginnings of festivals and calendar, the treatment of slaves and parents, and the treatment of strangers within the camp.
As Confirmation students, in many congregations come to know, there is a famous line from the end of the portion (24:7) in which Moses, having written down the laws, proclaims them to the people and they respond “all that God has said we will do and we will listen” (na’aseh v’nishmah). In some commentaries, this is rendered “we will do”. But there is the Hebrew which literally states that first we will “do” and the we will “listen” or “hear” (sh’ma)
I was struck by this verse as I recently completed a web long road trip for Jewish Sacred Aging.The teaching took me to a congregation in suburban Sacramento and a JCC in Phoenix. The sessions were varied and the demographics of the crowds were all our age group, the over 50 years of age cohort. In session after session, this verse seemed to take hold. Why? Because in so much of the discussion so many people reflected on the value of the life experience that they had acquired and it was that life experience (the doing) that allowed them over time to understand ( the hearing) what was truly of value.
It is that moment that so many of us experience when we come to understand that the acquisition of more material things is meaningless, rather the acquisition of spiritual truths is the real goal of this life stage. It is looking back to what we have done (na’aseh) that allows us to “hear” the truths of life and to eventually, we hope, to understand what is important and what is so very temporal. In that we listen to our true soul and self (nishma). What often is so sad is that we have people who try and discount that life experience. What also is so sad is that we often have some of society and congregations that ignore that life experience and the wisdom of living that can be, and should be shared with others. This remains challenge for us as a society. In every congregation there is a wealth of life experience waiting to be shared. To allow it to go untapped turns a deaf ear to accumulated wisdom.
Rabbi Richard F Address