The Three Definitions of “Shemah”

February 12, 2021


This weeks Torah portion, Mishpatim, has one of the most influential Jewish phrases in religious education: na-aseh vnishmah (we will do and we will shemah”). I don’t translate this last word yet because its meaning has more than one possible translation.

Like Shalom, the word that most Jews and non-Jews alike understand to mean “hello”, “goodbye” and “peace”, so too does the word shemah have multiple meanings. And in this phrase, shemah could mean “hear”, “obey”, or “understand”.

Our sages have argued these interpretations for millennia, and depending on one’s ideology, religious observance, and even modern psychology, completing the phrase, “we will do and we will …” changes everything about the meaning of these famous words.

Making a commitment “to do” first and then “to hear” suggests a level of faith; no matter what you are about to ask of me, I am agreeing to do it without hesitation. As we can imagine, this unquestionable faith is embraced by many as a sign of unyielding dedication and commitment to Gd.

The second translation, “we will do and we will obey”, seems similar to the first, but suggests a very different relationship between Gd and humanity. “Hearing” suggests a loving relationship built on a desire to get close and fulfill a purpose, but “to obey” suggests an authoritarian relationship built on consequence and reward.

The third definition,to understand”, opens us up to a whole new perspective on our responsibility to Gd, faith and our Jewish community.

In the words of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, z”l:

“There are certain things we only understand by doing. We only understand leadership by leading. We only understand authorship by writing. We only understand music by listening. Reading books about these things is not enough. So it is with faith. We only truly understand Judaism by living in accordance with its commands. You cannot comprehend a faith from the outside. Doing leads to understanding.”

This is true of building community. In order to appreciate and experience the possibilities of community, one first needs to “do” something to connect. Building community cannot be forced on anyone, just like developing an appreciation for music cannot be thrust on the listener. Sure, someone can “hear” music and decide if they like it or not, but to “understand” the music, they must engage.

As the Jewish Federation, we are tirelessly committed to involving the community, whether through our support of local Jewish organizations or through the community-wide programs and events we offer each year — even virtually during COVID. The Jewish Federation exists to connect with everyone across our community.

Federation is often misunderstood as only being a fundraising organization for the Jewish community. Yes, we lead the charge every year on our community’s Annual Campaign and emergency campaigns (Federation raised half a million last year for COVID response in addition to yearly fundraising!) and yes, we want every community member, no matter their financial ability to participate in a meaningful way.

The larger part of Federation’s purpose is to plan, convene, and connect the community.

When an anti-Semitic event occurs at one synagogue, the Federation liaises across the community to ensure every synagogue and agency is on high alert. When our local elected officials want to hear from the Jewish community, the Federation convenes the gathering. When our local schools want resources to teach real Holocaust education, the Federation operates the Holocaust Memorial Museum of San Antonio to keep our history and the memory of those who perished alive.

So, when the time comes and you’re encouraged to engage with the greater San Antonio Jewish community, please remember the words from this week’s Torah portion, “We will do, and we will understand.” Please participate. We believe you will understand.


Wishing everyone a wonderful and restful Shabbat shalom.


June 11 – Equity, Equality, and Investing in Our Future Leaders 

June 4 – An Optimist’s Perspective

May 28 – The Gathering of Feathers

May 21 – We Must be Proactive

May 14 – Here for Israel

May 7 – Behar Behukotai

April 30 – Lessons From My Saba

April 23 – Kedushah: Rising to Holiness

April 16 – Learning Empathy from Leprosy

April 9 – Finding Our Collective Hope

April 2 – Prayer Without Action is Simply Empty Noise

March 26 – Chag Pesach…

March 19 – First They Came For…

March 12 – A Prayer for Healing

March 5 – Combatting anti-Semitism

February 26 – A Story Without Supernatural Miracles

February 19 – Federation is Here

February 12 – The Three Definitions of “Shemah”

February 5 – One Nation with One Purpose

January 29 – Prayer, Action, and Perspective

January 22 – Texas Holocaust Remembrance Week

January 15- The Role of Our Tent 

January 8 – Shemot

December 31 – Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazak!

December 25 – A “Community-First” Approach

December 18 – Dreaming in Color: Dreaming & Planning for Our Community

December 11 – The Big Room

December 4 – Wrestling with Our Angels

November 25 – The People Who Give Thanks

November 20 – We are the Toldot

November 13 – Your Personal Life and Legacy

November 6 – The Value of Calm and Reflection

October 30 – We Must Come Together

October 23 – For Hope For Humanity

October 16- The Good and the Very Good 

October 9 – The True Celebration of Simhat Torah

October 2 – The Festival of Ingathering

September 25 – The Two Goats and Yom Kippur

September 18 – The 10 Days of Awe

September 11 – Be Strong and Courageous

September 4 – Acknowledging Good

August 28 – Embracing Multiple Perspectives 

August 21 – Recalibrating in the month of Elul

August 14 – A Blessing and A Curse 

August 7 – A Good Name and A Good Reputation

July 31 – Comfort, Comfort My Nation

July 24 – Words Have Power

July 17 – Our Hope and Promise for the Future

July 10 – It Shall be for You and Your Descendants After You

July 2 – The Indescribable Bond of a Community

June 26- Jewish Wisdom from Our Community and the Torah

June 19- Milk and Honey

June 12- The Next Chapter

Sign up for our Email List!

Sign up for our email list to receive the weekly e-newsletter ("Chai-lights"), information on upcoming events, and all other happenings in Jewish San Antonio.

Select list(s) to subscribe to

By submitting this form, you are consenting to receive marketing emails from: Jewish Federation of San Antonio, 12500 NW Military Hwy. Suite 200, San Antonio, TX, 78231, You can revoke your consent to receive emails at any time by using the SafeUnsubscribe® link, found at the bottom of every email. Emails are serviced by Constant Contact

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *