At the end of parshat Mishpatim we find the famous declaration by Bnei Yisrael, “We shall do and we shall hear”, expressing readiness to perform whatever God commands even before hearing what this might entail.
Attention should be paid to the context of this declaration:
“Moshe came and told the nation all that God had said, and all the laws, and the entire nation answered with a single voice and said, “All the things that God has spoken – we shall do.” And Moshe wrote down all that God had said. Then he got up early in the morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, with twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel… And he took the book of the Covenant and read to the nation, and they said: “All that God has spoken – we shall do and we shall hear.” (Shemot 24:3-7)
From these verses it is clear that Bnei Yisrael had already heard what God had to say, and their declaration, “We shall do and we shall hear”, seems inappropriate: their fulfillment of God’s commandments will come after their having heard them! This understanding is further strengthened by the fact that their first declaration, “We shall do”, makes no mention of “We shall hear” – apparently because they had already heard which actions were involved.
What, then, was Bnei Yisrael’s intention in declaring, “We shall do and we shall hear”?
In order to understand this we must investigate which “doing” is referred to here, and what its purpose is. The action that Bnei Yisrael accepted upon themselves was the performance of the commandments. The generally-accepted perception of the commandments is that they not only guide the practical level of proper human behavior towards those around us, but also include a spiritual dimension that influences the person intellectually. The spiritual influence finds expression in the formation of a certain human character, in inculcation of opinions and views. The spiritual influence is created through actions, out of habitual repetition of these actions.
Bnei Yisrael had, admittedly, heard about the actions – but merely hearing about them is not enough. The actions must be internalized; a person must come to recognize the ideas that lie behind the physical performance of the mitzvot. One would think that a person who knows and understands God’s intentions and the spiritual world has no need for the mitzvot. This explains Bnei Yisrael’s intention in declaring, “We shall do and we shall hear”: we will perform the mitzvot without always knowing the purpose of those actions; only as a second stage will we come to recognize the depth of meaning within them. This is an expression of great faith in God: it represents an acceptance of the Covenant and the commandments that it entails with the faith that these actions contain meaning that is far greater and more profound than what appears at first glance.
This idea is also reflected in the transition from parshat Yitro to parshat Mishpatim. From the awesome Revelation at Sinai, the Torah moves directly on to a discussion of the laws, the actions, themselves: the laws pertaining to an indentured Hebrew servant, and the laws of damages. This transition teaches us the importance of the everyday, physical actions which, the Torah insists, are of paramount importance. God reveals Himself to Bnei Yisrael and then teaches them not lofty spiritual philosophies or ethereal religious concepts, but rather the physical actions themselves. It is through these very actions that the Divine philosophy and worldview is revealed.