The Hasty Nation

שבת פח

אמר רבי אלעזר בשעה שהקדימו ישראל נעשה לנשמע יצתה בת קול ואמרה להן מי גילה לבני רז זה שמלאכי השרת משתמשין בו דכתיב ברכו ה’ מלאכיו גבורי כח עושי דברו לשמוע בקול דברו ברישא עושי והדר לשמוע

א”ר חמא ברבי חנינא מ”ד כתפוח בעצי היער וגו’ למה נמשלו ישראל לתפוח לומר לך מה תפוח זה פריו קודם לעליו אף ישראל הקדימו נעשה לנשמע

ההוא צדוקי דחזייה לרבא דקא מעיין בשמעתא ויתבה אצבעתא דידיה תותי כרעא וקא מייץ בהו וקא מבען אצבעתיה דמא א”ל עמא פזיזא דקדמיתו פומייכו לאודנייכו אכתי בפחזותייכו קיימיתו ברישא איבעי’ לכו למשמע אי מציתו קבליתו ואי לא לא קבליתו א”ל אנן דסגינן בשלימותא כתיב בן תומת ישרים תנחם הנך אינשי דסגן בעלילותא כתיב בהו וסלף בוגדים ישדם

רש”י

דסגינן בשלימותא. התהלכנו עמו בתום לב כדרך העושים מאהבה וסמכנו עליו שלא יטעננו בדבר שלא נוכל לעמוד בו

Shabbos 88

Rabbi Elazar said: at the moment the Jews said (Ex. 24:7) “we will do” before “we will listen (i.e., learn)” a heavenly voice said to them “who revealed to My children this secret used by the ministering angels?” as it says (Psalms 103:20) “His angels of great strength who do His word to listen to the voice of His word should bless the Lord.” (The verse mentions) “who do” first, and only afterwards “to listen.”

Rabbi Chama b’Rebbi Chanina said: what does the verse mean (Song of Songs 2:3) “Like an apple tree among the trees of the forest….” Why is Israel compared to an apple tree? To teach that just as an apple tree produces its fruit before its leaves, so did Israel first say “we will do” and then “we will listen.”

A certain Sadducee once saw Rava engrossed in learning while his finger, lying beneath his leg, was being squeezed, drawing blood. The Sadducee said: “Hasty nation! Your mouths preceded your ears and your hasty nature persists! You should have first listened to see whether or not you could bear the burden of Torah and then decided.” Rava answered: “It is written (Proverbs 11:3) concerning we who are outstanding in perfection: “The innocence of the honest will provide them with comfort.” But of those who are outstanding in their false accusations it is written (ibid) “And the crookedness of rebels leaves them desolate.”

Rashi, in explaining the Jewish people’s description as “outstanding in perfection,” wrote: “…We rely on Him that He won’t burden us with something we are not able to withstand. “

A careful reading of the three parts of this passage raises some compelling questions:

  • Although the heavenly voice asked who revealed the secret – as though it was something that should have remained unknown – we are given no further information: who did reveal the secret? And why? Was this indeed meant to be a secret, or was God simply hopeful that it would get out and “surprised” when it actually did?
  • Just how were these words (“we will do and we will listen”) actually said: did the entire nation spontaneously burst out in a chant? Such an event would be clearly miraculous, and could therefore hardly prompt God’s question. Could Moses himself (or a few bright individuals) have figured it out independently and quickly spread the idea through the crowd? Perhaps, but then why would the rabbis have kept that detail hidden?
  • Had the Jews at that point really heard nothing of the Torah? The verses that immediately precede ours (particularly Ex. 24:3-4) suggest that, besides what they’d already learned about the New Month, Sabbath, financial law and the Passover offering, they had also learned the entire Pentateuch up until that point (see Rashi to Ex. 24:4) and something called “mishpatim”.
  • Do apples actually grow in advance of their leaves?
  • Even if they do, what is the point comparing the Jews to them? Let’s say that leaves, in general, protect and serve their fruits (by providing shade and acting as solar energy panels). So, if an apple were to “choose” to appear before its leaves, it is acting with what amounts to reckless – almost suicidal – disregard for its own wellbeing. The Jews on the other hand, by immediately accepting God’s Torah, may be taking a risk, but the danger certainly wasn’t as pronounced
  • How was Rava’s response appropriate? The Sadducee’s challenge was that the Jews had been reckless in accepting the Torah without preconditions and that Rava’s current behavior “proved” that the Jews, in fact, could not live normal, effective lives under the burden of its commandments. Rava’s answer – that we trusted God’s judgment – hardly addresses the question.

I believe that the key to understanding this Talmudic passage lies in the second-from-last question. It’s the dissimilarity between apples and Jews that provides the clue. We, who know the kindness and power of God, automatically (and correctly) assume that we’re safe in His hands. In symbolic terms, therefore, we wouldn’t consider trusting God as any kind of risk at all. However, an outsider who doesn’t share our background might in fact compare us to a foolhardy apple; blindly biting off more than he can chew (if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphor). It’s about the different perspectives of insiders and outsiders.

In that sense, Rava was correct in pointing to our guileless trust in God. As an insider, he knew it very well. And that injury to his hand? A very small price to pay for the endless joy and satisfaction of deep Torah study. Now, as Rava himself probably realized, the Sadducee, being an outsider, would have had little chance of understanding his message, but that doesn’t diminish its truth.

But how did the Jews know this at the very dawn of our relationship with God? Who did let us in on this secret?

We did. Because, simply put, Mt. Sinai wasn’t the dawn of our relationship. As the preceding verses make clear, we had enjoyed extensive exposure to both Torah and to God’s “style” of leadership. Enough exposure for a particularly perceptive people (as a group) to realize that there was no danger at all in a quick courtship and early marriage.

Sometimes the information you need already lies very much to hand.

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