I am currently in the midst of teaching a 7-week class on prayer. One of the most challenging aspects has been figuring out, "Do I teach how to do it or why we do it first." The how and the why have their own multilayered histories that intersect but are still distinct. Several of the students are interested in learning to wear a Tallit and wrap Tefillin. And their first questions are inevitably and understandably, "Why do we do this?" I am deeply empathetic to this question, and yet I find myself sounding a lot like Moses in this week's Torah portion when he famously declares, "Na'aseh v'Nishmah / We will do and we will hear" (Ex. 24:7). In other words, "Try it and then let's talk."
Now, to us post-modern critical thinkers, this does not come easy. In fact, when I suggested to one student that he might just want to try on Tefillin before reading a book about it, he responded, "I prefer to understand it first." That's reasonable. I am much more comfortable doing something that I understand. It is hard to trust that which we don't understand. And yet! I have found it important to remember that there are things we can only understand by way of experience. There is learning that happens beyond language and insight that is deeply personal, none of which can be prescribed to you.
Sometimes we need to Na'aseh v'Nishmah - sometimes we need to experience something in order to really hear it. Because, in truth, sometimes the reasons why we do things are not nearly as compelling as the doing itself. This is my own experience for example with wearing Tefillin. The fact that the Torah says I should make "a sign upon by arm and upon my forehead" is not what compels my practice. It is the fact that I inherited a pair of never-worn Tefillin from my father who received them for his Bar Mitzvah and I get to be the generation that reclaims them; It is the visceral acupressure-like feeling; It is the gender subversion; It is the ancient unknown.
In a midrash about this verse, the rabbis imagine Moses asking: Is doing something possible without understanding? Understanding leads one to doing. And then the rabbis reread the line in our Torah to mean, "Na'aseh v'Nishmah - We will do what we understand" (Mechilta 24:7).
While I appreciate and agree with this rational rendering, it is not the whole truth. This Shabbat I invite you to dwell in the discomfort and wisdom that sometimes we do things irrationally and only later understand why. Not in some naive, "You'll understand when you are older" kind of way. But in a, "Revelation takes many forms" kind of way.
Rabbi Ari Lev
You can search Rabbi Ari Lev's blog below:
Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek Synagogue through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.