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The Two Crowns

The Gemara states: “When the Jews prefaced naaseh (we shall do) to nishma (we shall listen), the malachim came and gave two crowns to every Jew, one for naaseh and one for nishma.”

This text is difficult to understand. The beginning implies that the Jews were rewarded for the order in which they spoke—naaseh before nishma. Yet, it concludes that they received two crowns, one for naaseh and one for nishma, implying that they were rewarded (not for prefacing naaseh to nishma, but) for each individual utterance!

Rational Submission

To understand this, we must first explain the meaning of prefacing naaseh to nishma.

Naaseh means to obey, while nishma means to comprehend. These represent two models of serving Hashem: kabalas ol­—to follow Hashem’s commands obediently, without regard for whether we understand them or not; and sechel—to serve Hashem based on intellect. Both methods are necessary. The question, however, is which comes first: naaseh and then nishma, or nishma and then naaseh.

Let’s start with the opposite order, nishma venaaseh. What does this mean?

This can be explained with an analogy. Let’s take a child who receives guidance from an adult, with consistently positive results. Whenever he follows the adult’s directions, he sees tangible benefits. Then, one day, the mentor gives him an instruction which appears to the child to be utterly inexplicable and outrageous.

If the child is not that clever, he’ll say that it was probably a mistake, and he won’t obey. However, if he is intelligent, he’ll conclude that the advice from his wise counselor must make sense, albeit perhaps on a deeper level. The fact that he doesn’t understand it doesn’t pose a problem; after all, it is to be expected that a young child won’t always understand a wise adult! In other words, the child’s very intellect concedes its own limitations.

Super-rational mitzvos like the parah adumah can similarly be observed on an intellectual foundation, without ever being understood. How so? You can calculate as follows:

“The Torah contains Hashem’s wisdom, the likes of which cannot be found elsewhere. Since there is so much of Torah that I can appreciate and comprehend, it is reasonable to conclude that everything it contains is supported by some deep rationale, even if I am not capable of understanding it. After all, it is to be expected that the limited human intellect cannot fathom Hashem’s wisdom!”

In this case, you seemingly have kabalas ol, as you perform even those mitzvos you do not understand. However, your actions aren’t predicated purely on Hashem’s authority, but on your own intellect. It is your intellect that leads you to conclude that you shouldn’t expect to comprehend everything. This is nishma venaaseh, where the conclusion may be naaseh, kabalas ol, but the basis is nishma, one’s own intellect and understanding.

Free from the Need to Understand

However, this is not the correct attitude. A rational submission such as this is something even the Greeks were able to consent to.

In Ve’al Hanissim we say that the Greeks desired “to make [the Jews] forget Your Torah and transgress the chukim of Your will.” The Frierdiker Rebbe explains this to mean that the Greeks had no problem with Torah study as an intellectual pursuit, but their aim was to make the Jews forget that the Torah is “Your Torah,” the wisdom of Hashem. Similarly, they weren’t against rational mitzvah observance, but they declared war against chukim, those mitzvos that are performed solely because they are “Your will”—the will of Hashem.

Seemingly, the word retzonecha, “Your will,” is repetitious. The definition of chukim are mitzvos we don’t understand and are performed solely because they are the Divine will. Why add the word retzonecha?  

Based on this, the Rebbe adds another point: The Greeks didn’t even mind if the Jews performed chukim, as long as it was based on a rational calculation, by ascribing it to our limited intellectual capacities. It was specifically “retzonecha,” doing things purely because Hashem wants us to, that irked them.

Nishma venaaseh means that it is our own existence that is the starting point. That’s not Yiddishkeit; that’s something even the Greeks could agree to.

The Jewish approach is one of naaseh; we are Hashem’s servants, ready to fulfill His command just as a slave obeys his master. Slaves don’t obey their master based on a logical rationale, by considering that the master must be smarter than them, and it makes sense to serve him even if they do not understand. Similarly, we obey Hashem not because of any calculation, but simply because this is what Hashem wants us to do.

In Mitzrayim, the Jews were slaves not only to the Egyptians, but also to their own ego. Refusing to do something because you do not understand is not a sign of freedom; to the contrary, it demonstrates you are subservient to your ego and cannot break free from it. (Never mind that we typically mimic what we see others doing, even when we know that it doesn’t make any sense!) When we left Mitzrayim, we were freed from this slavery and became Hashem’s servants, ready to do whatever Hashem commands—naaseh.

Kabalas Ol of the Mind and Heart

Now, if kabalas ol would be based on understanding, we can see why nishma is necessary. But since the foundation of Yiddishkeit is naaseh, there would seem to be no need for nishma altogether.

However, this is incorrect. In addition to naaseh, there is also nishma; the difference is that is does not come before naaseh but after it.

What does this mean?

Even when nishma isn’t the basis for our actions, there is still a need to study and understand. Matan Torah demands that naaseh result in nishma, that we ultimately achieve understanding as well. Because as obedient servants of Hashem, just as we observe tefillin—a physical act—because He wants us to, we also study and contemplate for the same reason.

The Arizal states that just as the intention underlying an act like tefillin is that we’re performing a particular mitzvas aseh, the same applies during the mitzvos of meditating on Hashem’s unity and experiencing love of Hashem. We meditate on “Shema…Hashem echad” with the intention of fulfilling the mitzvah of achdus Hashem, and we go on to experience “Ve’ahavta” with the intention of fulfilling the mitzvah of ahavas Hashem.

This sounds strange. Such intentions seem more appropriate for actions, which have no self-worth if not for the fact that they are a Divine command. On the other hand, when a person has an intellectual or emotional experience, it is typically because that is how he understands and feels.

But this is the meaning of nishma following naaseh. Our subservience to Hashem extends beyond our hands into our hearts and minds, so that they, too, are harnessed to serve Him. Naaseh venishma places kabalas ol at the foundation of our actions, and furthermore—at the foundation of our intellect and feelings as well.

Which Crown Is Greater?

We can now understand the Gemara cited above.

A crown is placed above the head, the seat of intellect. The “crowns” of the Gemara thus represent those elements that lie beyond intellect. And these crowns were only awarded since we prefaced naaseh to nishma.

In we would have said nishma venaaseh, chas veshalom, there would have been no grounds for receiving even a single crown. Nishma certainly doesn’t warrant a crown; but even naaseh doesn’t deserve it, because the starting point is intellect, and the so-called kabalas ol is based on it.

But since we said naaseh venishma, we were deserving of two crowns. One was for naaseh, for transcending the mind and subjugating ourselves to Hashem with kabalas ol, and the second crown was for nishma, because the understanding is also being done solely to fulfill Hashem’s will.

In fact, the second crown is even greater than the first. To submit yourself in the realm of action is not a novelty; what’s truly incredible is to apply that kabalas ol to your understanding and love of Hashem, indicating that your entire metzius is permeated with kabalas ol, and it is this submission that elicits a crown even more special than the first.

For further learning see 'לקוטי שיחות חלק ד‘ שבועות א.