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Understanding Through Doing. Perashat Yitro, 5781

02/06/2021 02:29:03 PM


Rabbi Avi Alpert


It would be a miraculous occurrence for all the Children of Israel (the Jewish people) to join our voices in unison and together agree, wouldn’t it?…   נעשה ונשמע  “all that Hashem has spoken we will do and (afterward) we will understand (Ex 24:7).” It is difficult for me to imagine our “stiff-necked people” agreeing on anything, let alone unanimously deciding to follow the commands. These are the same people who were not really impressed with the plagues or the splitting of the sea. We are the people who challenge God, who struggle and wrestle with God; we are not generally the people who submit to God. We are people with abundant chutzpah. And yet, our people all experienced revelation together at Sinai and we bound ourselves to that instruction - to Torah. 


Now you might say that we bound ourselves to Torah because, as the Midrash explains, Hashem threatened to drop the mountain on us and crush us if we refused to agree. Perhaps, but the passage I quoted comes later, after that Sinai experience. Rashi quoting the Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael explains that after Mount Sinai Moses read from “the beginning of Genesis through the giving of the Torah” and the people gave their response נעשה ונשמע “all the Hashem has spoken we will do and (afterward) we will understand.”


Could it be that this simple response נעשה ונשמע was a prophetic statement? If not prophecy it is clear to me that doing, then understanding describes a healthy phenomenon. If you want to feel God and align with Divine Energy a moving way to do so is through action. 


I am currently finding myself enamored with the writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel. We are using Dr. Heschel’s essays found in the book Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity as a springboard for discussion in our Monday afternoon class called Thinking Jewishly (I invite you to join us at 1 p.m. on Mondays). We came across a pertinent thought on נעשה ונשמע from Heschel’s perspective last week which really gets to the heart of the issue:


“What is the Jewish way to God? It is not a way of ascending the ladder of speculation. Our understanding of God is not the triumphant outcome of an assault upon the riddles of the universe or a donation we receive in return for intellectual surrender. Our understanding comes by the way of mitzvah. By living as Jews we attain our faith as Jews. We do not have faith in deeds; we attain faith through deeds.”


Heschel is telling us if you are unsure or troubled even by the idea of God, that’s expected! Do mitzvot and later the idea of God in the Universe will make sense. Faith and understanding come through action. Another opportunity to feel God: Kindle flames each Friday before Shabbat comes in and a few months later the need for Shabbat will probably become clearer. If you feed the hungry regularly, after a while you will see that God is using you to make a difference. Place the leather straps of tefillin on your arm and head each weekday morning and six months later I bet you will see that in general, your patience has increased and so has your ability to overcome challenges. You will feel the presence of our Creator in your life. Start giving 10% of the money that comes into your hands to worthy causes, before you use the rest for your needs. After a few months, you may feel that Hashem is directing you to do so. 


You and I will not be able to fully return to the 3,000 year plus communal jubilation at Mount Sinai. We will not be able to hear our leader and teacher Moshe Rabbeinu present us with a summary of Sinai, a reminder of our obligation to live Godly. I would be shocked if all of us Jews started agreeing on anything these days. But, I can tell you with absolute certainty that Heschel was right, “A Jew is asked to take a leap of action rather than a leap of thought.” Because “in doing we perceive.” In doing we become partners with Hashem. In doing, we change our hearts, and we start to feel God’s presence everywhere.

Thu, December 2 2021 28 Kislev 5782