November 11, 2019

Saying “Amen” to Life

When my husband and I put our 2-year-old to bed, we help him with the usual array of activities: changing into pajamas, reading a book, drinking milk, singing songs
and — most beloved to me — chanting the Shema and Ve’ahavta.

Each evening at the conclusion of the nighttime Shema, my son says something he reserves for this prayer and no other. Taking a breath and a pause from his bottle, he shouts out: “Amen to that!” and then goes back to drinking.

My son’s nightly affirmation informs my reading of Parshat Mishpatim this year. In this week’s Torah portion, the Children of Israel respond fervently to words of Torah, repeated by Moses: “All the people answered in one voice, saying, ‘All the things that Adonai has commanded, we will do!'” (Exodus 24:3).

Moses then puts the commandments in writing and reads them aloud, and the people confirm their commitment: “All that Adonai has spoken we will faithfully do” (Exodus 24:7).

It raises the question: How do we respond to God’s words and Torah’s laws? It’s hard to imagine contemporary Jews embracing Law and Covenant as our ancestors did. Most of us are too impatient to tolerate the repetition, too ambivalent for such unbridled enthusiasm. Unconditional, all-inclusive agreement may seem foolhardy to us. Do we really mean that “all Adonai has spoken, we will faithfully do”?

“We will faithfully do” is a translation of the famous Hebrew phrase na’aseh venishma, which could also be translated as: “we will do and obey” or “we will do and harken.” The verse is classically interpreted to mean: “first we will do or practice these commandments, and only then, thereby, we will come to understand them.” The root ‘sh.m.’ allows for all these renditions, because it can mean listen, harken, obey, do or understand.

“Na’aseh venishmah” — like “Amen to that!” — is a way of saying “yes!” to life. We are so used to saying, “yes, but …” that it might seem normal, wise or at least prudent to do so. This week’s parsha encourages us to cultivate radical agreement and enthusiasm. “Yes” to life and to God — no ifs, ands or buts. “Yes” to Torah, even if we don’t understand it all yet. “Yes” to wherever it leads us. Caveat-free covenant.

Some things — in fact, some of the most important things in life — cannot be fully understood before they are assented to. While you can select a partner wisely, you can never know what marriage will be like before you say, “I do.”

(Checklists and cost-benefit analyses are inadequate, if not irrelevant.) No amount of research or weekend babysitting can prepare you for what it means to have a child. These relationships, like our relationships with God or Torah, can’t be neatly mapped or easily explained; they must be experienced. Life’s biggest decisions are leaps of faith and, in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s phrase, “leaps of action,” too. If you wait until you are completely ready, until you have all the knowledge and tools to “do” them, you will wait forever. Covenant — whether under the chuppah or at Mount Sinai — is not a single event or decision; it is ongoing discovery, awakening and growth. The journey starts with a committed “yes.”

Covenant, radical agreement, “na’aseh venishma,” “amen to that” — all these phrases mean “love without a net.” A profound and daring “yes” should not be offered lightly or blindly. The cause and stakes and partner must be worthy. When they are, unreserved commitment fosters not just love and generosity but also freedom and security. There is power in “yes.” Strength comes with and from this kind of commitment. Doors and possibilities open for “yes” that will never open for “maybe.”

It may feel safer to weigh your options than to measure your growth against a declared goal, but actually, quite quickly, it is less safe. Staying undecided saps you and distances you from your purpose. The prophet Elijah challenged the people of Israel, “How long will you straddle [or hobble between] two opinions?” (I Kings 18:21).

Imagine what we could do collectively with all the time and energy we now spend in ambivalence about holy causes. It would be nothing short of miraculous.
At the end of this week’s Torah portion, the Elders indeed experience a miracle as a result of their radical assent: “They saw the God of Israel and under His feet there was the likeness of sapphire pavement, like the very sky for purity…. They beheld God.” (Exodus 24:10-11).

Following this vision, Moses ascends the mountain to receive the tablets, the inscription of God’s words by God’s own hand. Only we, humanity, have the power to say “yes!” and “amen!” to that. Again this year, we are called. How shall we answer?

Rabbi Debra Orenstein, editor of “Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life” (Jewish Lights), is spiritual leader of Makom Ohr Shalom synagogue in Tarzana. More of her writings can be found at