“And Moshe took the Sefer Habris and read it within earshot of the people, and they said, “Everything that Hashem has stated, we will do and we will nishma.” This famous phrase has come to represent Bnei Yisroel’s acceptance of the Torah at Har Sinai; na’aseh v’nishma rings down through the ages.
But what does it mean? Na’aseh we are pretty sure about — we shall do. What about nishma? The Rashba in his Teshuvos (V:55) states that the verb lishmo’ah has three meanings throughout Tanach. One is the simplest meaning — to physically hear something. Rashi in Maseches Shabbos (88a) defines it as such in the context of our posuk — Bnei Yisroel saying that they accept the complete Torah, and only then do they feel it necessary to hear exactly what the various commandments are. This is a manifestation of complete faith exhibited by Bnei Yisroel at that time (see the Gemara there with Rashi, 88b).
The second meaning given by the Rashba is to understand. As it says concerning Shlomo Hamelech’s request to Hashem, “And may You give to your servant a discerning heart (lev shome’ah) with which to judge Your nation” (Melachim I, 3:9). And indeed Tashbatz (III:310) ascribes that meaning to in our posuk — to study and understand the Torah. We shall do, and we shall learn and understand.
Thirdly, says the Rashba, lishmo’ah can mean to accept, to obey. This is the meaning that Targum Onkelus gives the word in our posuk — we shall do and we shall accept. (The difference between “we shall do” and “we will accept” is not at all clear; certainly to commit to doing involves obeying, not just “doing”! But that explanation shall have to wait for another day.)
And so we have these three meanings of the verb lishmo’ah, all of them said to be taking place through the physical medium of hearing, or listening, with one’s ears. But why, and in what way, are they interconnected? Surely there must be some common denominator to all three meanings of the same verb! Especially since the second and third meaning must always start with the first!
The Mechilta in Parshas Yisro describes the nissim at Matan Torah as the people “seeing what is normally heard, and hearing what is normally seen.” Now, I can conceive of a miracle where people see what is heard — sort of a Divine ultrasound experience. But what in the world does it even mean to “hear what is normally seen”? “I heard the bookcase”? And what in the world was the purpose of such a fantastic miracle? Surely Hashem felt it was needed in order to have a proper Matan Torah; why is that?
The Maharal in his sefer on Aggados Hashas explains a Chazal on the very first halachah in this parsha, that of the eved Ivri. If he insists on staying an eved after the basic duration of six years, he has to first undergo a ceremony in which his ear is bored through. Why is his ear punished? Chazal answer that it is because it is the ear that heard at Har Sinai that one must not steal (which can ultimately lead to his being sold as an eved Ivri), and that one may not sell oneself as an eved Ivri. The ear that heard this did not obey; thus it must be punished. Maharal explains that the ear of a person is the limb through which a person is considered to be “complete.” A vessel is considered complete when it is fully functional; and the primary function of a kli is its ability to contain things, to hold them. And so too a person is “complete” when he is ready to be mekabel — to listen, to understand, to incorporate what he has learned, to internalize it, and to grow from it. All these things occur through a person’s ear. And it is through this that he is deemed a completely functional person. Thus the ear is bored through when it has failed in its task.
There is a basic difference between the sense of seeing and the sense of hearing, especially the type of hearing we have just described. Seeing provides a sense of clarity; of all the senses, seeing is the one which imparts the highest degree of certainty. Thus do we say, “I see what you are saying” or “I see your point.”
But it is hearing, as explained by the Maharal, which is the primary means of acquiring information in a way that will lead to its eventual contemplation, understanding, internalization, acceptance, and obedience… The ear is the kli for being mekabel things, understanding them, and being influenced by them — if we but hear them in an accepting, willing-to-learn, way. There may be more clarity in “seeing,” but the key to influencing behavior is having the person “hear you.” That is why the ear is a limb which takes in yet doesn’t emit (unlike the eye), to emphasize this role it has in human physiology.
This, in fact, is the essential difference between Yisro and Amalek. The Midrash at the beginning of Parshas Yisro contrasts the two. At the beginning they were so similar, but, as things turned out, they could not have been more different. Amalek is famously known as a letz — a scoffer and a cynic; and he tried to influence the rest of the world as well to ignore the lessons of Yetzias Mitzrayim by attacking Klal Yisroel and “cooling off” the excitement Yetzias Mitzrayim had caused. The inability — the unwillingness! — to “hear” or let others hear made him the polar opposite of Yisro, his onetime fellow non-Jew and advisor to Pharaoh, and ultimately the epitome of evil. While concerning Yisro it says “Vayishma Yisro” — “and Yisro heard” — and yes, how he heard! — but he really, really heard, and thus allowed himself to be influenced by the reality of events, and arguably become the most famous proselyte in history.
What was necessary for Matan Torah was for Bnei Yisroel to say na’aseh vnishmah — but really, really hear. For that it would be crucial to combine the clarity of seeing (saw what normally is only heard) and the absorbing of the lessons of Sinai in a penetrating, influential, impactful way (hearing what normally is only seen).
So don’t just read this column. Read it aloud to yourself, so that you actually hear what I am saying to you!