June 19, 2024
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Two Diamonds, a Chasidic Rebbe and a Cow

Two intriguing stories about the eternal impact of Har Sinai: one fable about two engagement rings and one actual story about a chasidic Rebbe and a cow. First the tale of the two rings.

Typically, a husband presents his bride with only one engagement ring—a ring she will treasure throughout her marriage; it would be unusual and even a bit abnormal to gift two separate engagement rings…unless the husband didn’t trust the woman to look after the original one. In that instance, it would be wise to present the young bride with two engagement rings to assure that she always has a backup.

The Midrash applies this story to the events at Har Sinai. Atop this mountain, God and the Jews were married, and this marriage was riveted upon two diamond rings. The iconic Jewish response of “na’aseh v’nishma”—the dual promise to both perform mitzvot as well as listen to God—amounted to two engagements rings. According to the Midrash, God implored the Jewish people: You may misplace the engagement ring of “na’aseh” but preserve the engagement ring of “nishmah,” What makes the ring of “na’aseh” so insecure and, likewise, what renders the ring of “nishmah” so durable and eternal?

The ring of “na’aseh” reflects commitment to Divine commandments, a novel concept for ancient religions that saw gods as merely stronger versions of human beings. In those paganistic systems, wholesale submission to the commands of a Higher Being was absurd. Har Sinai introduced a broad system of mitzvot spanning the entirety of human experience; we live “summoned lives” beckoned to fulfill the commands of a transcendent God. The “na’aseh” declaration cemented our readiness to submit to commandments.

Furthermore, the sequencing of “na’aseh” prior to “nishmah” was also momentous. We enthusiastically accepted Divine obligation before studying the details or analyzing the logic of God’s commandments. Having been rescued from Egypt and transported through the dry ocean bed, the Jews had enough trust in God to accept religion as an “article of faith” without inspecting the fine details. Trust lies at the basis of any relationship and, even more so, forms the cornerstone of religious belief. At Sinai, the stout faith and the fervent embrace of mitzvot glittered through the declaration of “na’aseh”!!

However, the “na’aseh” ring is also transient. God recognized the inherent weakness of human nature and the frailty of religious commitment. However precious the stone of “na’aseh” seemed, God knew that with the passage of time, commitment to His word would eventually wane. It didn’t take more than a few weeks for the Jews to construct a golden calf and relinquish their “na’aseh” conviction. Throughout history, not every Jew would be faithful to the call of “na’aseh.” Historical pressures, financial poverty, philosophical confusion, cultural drifting and, of course, hostile anti-Semitism would cause Jews to wander from the path of mitzvot and disregard the ring of “na’aseh.” For this reason, God cautioned us to protect the ring of “nishmah” even if we were to turn a blind eye to the glow of the “na’aseh” ring.

The ring of “nishmah” is based upon something even more fundamental than the Torah and mitzvot delivered on this mountain. Even if the mitzvah pledge of “na’aseh” is renounced, the memory of “nishmah” will still persist. Beyond whatever “content” we received at Sinai, the entire Jewish people spoke directly with God in an unmediated fashion. Judaism stakes a bold claim that no other religion has ever asserted nor will ever allege: that 3.5 million people stood shoulder-to-shoulder speaking directly with God in a non-hallucinatory fashion, and in a manner that was corroborated by joint experience. We didn’t receive the word of God indirectly, through a prophet, but directly heard His voice. Jews may stray from the specific mitzvot of Sinai or may neglect the Torah delivered from Heaven, but the voice of God forever resonates within the deep recesses of every Jewish soul. No matter how far a Jew strays from Torah and mitzvot, the voice of God and the memory of the direct conversation with God remains etched in Jewish identity. Though the “na’aseh” diamond of Torah and mitzvot may ultimately be lost, the “nishmah” diamond never disappears; the echo of the Sinai conversation haunts Jewish consciousness and resonates eternal within a Jewish heart.

For this reason, Har Sinai began with the recital of the most iconic pasuk in the entire Torah. Prior to delivering the Ten Commandments, God launched Har Sinai by reciting “Shema Yisrael.” Before delivering the content, God announced that the “conversation” was about to begin and that the Jews should literally listen to His voice: Shema Yisrael. It is not incidental that no matter how distant a Jew strays, he can still recite the verse of Shema Yisrael. That verse was God’s way of showcasing the value of the conversation with Him even in the absence of loyalty to Torah and to the legal mandates of Sinai. The haunting pasuk of Shema, which describes the conversation with God, lingers within the subconscious of every Jew, regardless of their fidelity to Torah and mitzvot.

Now to the story about the cow. Reb Moshe of Kobrin, the 18th-century chasidic rabbi, once joined Reb Avraham Yehoshua Heschel of Apta for Shabbat, arriving early to participate in the pre-Shabbat recital of the book of Shir Hashirim. The sacred melody of their sweet singing filled the air and Rav Avraham looked radiant as Shabbat approached. Suddenly, a stench-filled farmer burst into the room, bringing with him the foul odors of cow stables. What possible question could warrant this rude interruption of the hallowed moment?

The farmer began moaning about his cow that was afflicted with a life-threatening illness. Much to Rav Moshe’s shock, Rabbi Avraham of Apta answered the question patiently, compassionately assisting the desperate owner of the stricken cow. Unable to contain his astonishment, Rav Moshe, the guest, asked Rav Avraham why he tolerated this impolite disruption of his Shabbat preparations. Rav Avraham answered that this simple villager wasn’t actually interested in a remedy for his cow. He was seeking a connection with his Rebbe and, through his Rebbe, a connection with God. He desperately wanted contact with the Rebbe, and the cow story was merely the pretext. Sometimes, in life, people seek connection with us and supply pretexts for grabbing our attention; we all must learn to read between the lines!

For that simple farmer, the content of his question wasn’t nearly as important as the conversation itself. So it was for that anxious farmer and so it is for so many people who are puzzled by religious confusion. Har Sinai was a moment of Torah content but also of a direct conversation with God. Sadly, for many, the content has become less compelling but the conversation with God is unforgettable. Some Jews wear two rings, others wear one; they each dazzle!


The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has semicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.

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