The 1984 movie, The Karate Kid, directed by John G. Avildsen, tells the story of a young boy who has the dream of learning karate. Upon meeting his teacher, the boy is told that in order to learn karate, he must follow the lessons of his teacher. Initially, the boy is confused as to why he must learn how to wash a car in a certain way in order to learn karate. It is only later that the boy understands how this seemingly unrelated activity helped him to learn karate.
As the Jewish people were standing at the foot of Har Sinai, they accepted the Torah with arguably the two most famous words in the Torah: na‘aseh veNishmah, ―We will do and we will listen‖ (Shemot 24:7). The language of na‘aseh veNishmah begs the following question: why does the na‘aseh the action, precede the passive veNishmah, the listening and comprehending? It should be the other way around. We don‘t usually perform an action until we fully comprehend what we are doing. Can it be that Bnei Yisrael‘s utterance of the words na‘aseh veNishmah indicates that Judaism is to be considered a religion of blind faith? By examining the sugya of ta‘amei haMitzvot, the reason behind mitzvot, we can gain a better understanding of why the Torah puts the ―na‘aseh‖ before the nishmah.
Rambam, in his Moreh Nevuchim, writes with regard to the sugya of ta‘amei haMitzvot that all mitzvot have a reason. He explains that each mitzvah as a whole has a reason, but the details of every single mitzvah may not have reasons that are apparent to us. The Maharshal argues with Rambam and writes that even the small details of the mitzvot have reasons.
There is a Midrash quoted by Ramban which says that the only intention that one need have when fulfilling the mitzvot is that one is observing the word of Hashem. Although this opinion is not accepted by most meforashim (Ramban, Rambam, Maharshal, and the Sefer HaChinuch), the ideas behind this opinion shed light on our discussion. The Sefer HaChinuch explains that if one is looking to change his ways, he should start by performing mitzvot. The Chinuch writes in halachah 16, ―acharei haPe‘ulot nimshachim haLevavot, performing mitzvot (or other positive actions) ignites a person‘s inner spirit. It is not easy to perform mitzvot that we don‘t understand, but, as the Gemera in Pesachim writes, ―sheLo liShma ba liShma,‖ something that is not begun for the sake of heaven will ultimately be done with heavenly purpose and intent.
Another way of understanding why the Midrash states that the reason for mitzvot is to serve Hashem can be found in an answer to our original question as to why the ―na‘aseh‖ preceded the ―nishmah.‖ The Torah is teaching us an important lesson, namely that the more we perform certain actions (―na‘aseh‖), the more we will be able to understand what it is that we are doing (―nishmah‖). Performing the mitzvot brings us closer to understanding the ways of Hashem and the reasons for many of the mitzvot.
This focus on performing actions before we understand them brings us back to ―The Karate Kid.‖ In order to master the necessary concentration and attention to perform karate, the kid needed to fully absorb and follow everything the teacher taught him, even things like how to wash a car which, to the boy, seemed unrelated to karate. However, it was only by absorbing all of the lessons of his teacher that the kid ultimately excelled at karate. We too must first do the ―na‘aseh by following God‘s words. In doing so, we will hopefully be led to the ―nishmah, an understanding of Hashem‘s ways and the reasons for His mitzvot.