“now, if you will obey My Voice indeed, and keep My Covenant, then….”
this is the king james version of the conditional preamble of Exodus 19:5. does it puzzle you like it does me? first because of that “indeed”….obey me indeed. how does one obey more than just to obey? and is that the standard against which we measure whether we have failed in the doing of a mitzvah (“commandment”)? if so, doesn’t it seem that we are all pretty much doomed to fail? to obey indeed…to obey extremely well….to go the extra mile in obeying…..tough standard…indeed.
but this translation, like virtually all of the english translations is simply wrong. but not so much in the use of the intensifier “indeed” as in the use of the word “obey”, for in biblical hebrew there simply is no word for “obey”. surprised?
it isn’t that we are not to do the commandments. there is a word for “to do” in Torah. and we have a word for “to guard/keep/watch over”…in fact, it is the word that you see before “My Covenant” in the quote we began with. but “obey”? nope. the word used at Exodus 19:5 for what is translated as “obey” is the root shin mem ayin, the familiar shema, usually translated as simply to hear/to listen. at 19:5 it is intensified as shamoa tishm’u…perhaps “really hearken to My Voice”. and it is used hundreds of times in Torah, most often in connection with mitzvot and how we are to react to them.
the 19th day of Elul is for t’shuvah for the month of cheshvan, which has the distinction of being the only month in the jewish calendar that has no particular holidays or mitzvot associated with it. many modern jews see it as a sort of break after the heavily “burdened”, if you will, month of Tishrei, which has not only the Days of Awe, but also the long Festival of Sukkot, and all the particular mitzvot associated with all those special days and that special season. there is, of course, Rosh Chodesh in Cheshvan and Shabbatot, but none with special character associated with that month.
but Cheshvan does have something special in it (aside from my birthday, which is neither here nor there), for being the 8th month of the year (why the new year begins in the 7th is for another time), it is associated with the beyond natural…..and we learn in the kabbalistic text Sefer Yetzirah that Cheshvan is reserved for the Messiah and the mitzvot that will come to be understood in that Time. but the thing to remember is that the month is associated with redemption….
and that brings us back to why there is no word for obey for redemption is not a matter of obedience, but of hearing, truly listening to the Voice of G’d in the mitzvot, in the world, in ALL.
“we will do and we will hear”
this is the third and definitive reply of the People (Exodus 24:7) to the call to hearken and to keep that we began with. through the doing we will get at the hearing, the listening to the Voice of G’d, which is full understanding. and it matters, for transgressions are less “wrongdoings” in the end than “wronghearings”, akin to “misunderstandings”. we learn that “we will do what we understand” (Mekilta d’rabbi Shimon bar Yochai 24:7). and it is this distinction that allows for chesed (loving-kindness) to overtake gevurah (strict justice) allowing for t’shuvah to be the central point in judaism…not obedience. sin is disconnection that comes from “wronghearing”. t’shuvah is getting the listening/understanding aright. the life of t’shuvah is one that gets and stays attuned to the Voice of G’d. and the mitzvot are the notes and and the holidays the rhythms by which we
“sing unto haShem a new song”
perennially new, miyom l’yom (“from day to day”), everyday, as King David, model and sire of the line of Messiah, sings in Psalm 96. maybe in Cheshvan we have the time to listen to all the doings of Tishrei as they echo in our souls…the lingering sostenuto.
a practice to follow might be to linger on what you are doing right…what brings you close to G’d already…the “righhearing” you already have. abide in it today.