This week’s torah portion, Mishpatim, which translates into ‘these are the rules’, covers three broad areas: interpersonal laws, laws about ritual and the assent to the covenant, na’aseh venishma, which begins the start of Moses’ forty days on the mountain. Here we find familiar passages such as ‘an eye for an eye’ alongside dictates on how to treat the widow and the stranger. With over fifty mitzvot outlined in this section alone, it’s clear this portion ‘presents the rabbis with a field day of Torah laws and statutes.’
While there are many topics in the first two areas which are worthy of discussion, after reading several commentaries I was intrigued by the area that details our people’s assent to the covenant. In particular our response after the Book of the Convenant has been read: na’aseh venishma, literally, “we will do, and we will hear” (Ex. 24:7). At first glance the phrase seems backwards, shouldn’t one listen before doing? However, once you think through the implications – it is only in the doing that we ‘hear’ what we are being told - that the phrase makes sense. I was especially struck by the modern interpretation of this phrase as explained by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks:
On this view na’aseh venishma means, “We will do, and we will understand.” From this they derive the conclusion that we can only understand Judaism by doing it, by performing the commands and living a Jewish life. In the beginning is the deed. Only then comes the grasp, the insight, the comprehension.
There is much in life that one does not begin to comprehend until it is attempted. From taking on new roles in life to learning new skills, it is only in the act of preforming each that the understanding comes. In this light it makes sense that we as a people responded na’aseh venishma, ‘we will do, and we will understand’; we need to have the experience of living by these rules (or a modern interpretation of these rules) to understand the moral and ethical underpinnings that we are being asked to adhere to.
But I would also suggest we look at two other aspects of learning to help us further grasp why doing must come before understanding. The first is that verbal and written descriptions cannot truly convey an experience. I am teaching my youngest to drive, and needless to say, the experience of driving is far different than any description anyone could come up with. And driving is a physical skill; trying to explain how you internalize moral and ethical actions such as doing tzedakah or advocating for others is almost impossible.
Which brings me to the second aspect we need to consider: the way each person experiences something is unique. Even if I were able to describe an experience in such a way that you felt as if ‘you were there’, the reality is that if you had been there you would have had a different, unique to you experience. Which also means that what you learned, what you understood, what you ‘heard’ from doing is different than what I understood/heard. In this case hearing before doing is almost nonsensical, what you would hear would be my experience not yours. What you would understand would be filtered by my inherent bias and viewpoint. The only way to truly hear/understand the effect of doing moral and ethical actions is to experience it yourself.
That isn’t to say that we aren’t learning similar things from doing. We can all go and clean up a littered park and come away feeling good about what we did. But what else we take away – I helped create a safe place for children, I helped my community become greener, I learned two hours out of my day can make a big difference in someone’s life – and the weight we put on each of these is unique to each of us.
This is so very true of what happens when I attend a WRJ event or conference. I can attempt to tell you what I experienced, but it will not convey what I understood, what changes happened to me from being there. And my understanding will be different than every other woman’s there. The only way to understand what you gain out of being involved in WRJ is to experience it yourself. If you truly want to comprehend who and what WRJ is, I encourage you to attend a WRJ event and discover for yourself what so many other women have come to realize is a powerful space. The support and encouragement you find there can change who you are and how you view your role in the world.
Na’aseh venishma, we will do and we will understand.
We will act and we will learn.
We will go and we will comprehend.
We will engage and we will realize.
May this day be holy, and may you find peace for yourself and all you love. Amen.
Alison Auerbach is a WRJ Board member, the 1st VP of WRJ Central District and a proud member of Women of Rockdale in Cincinnati, OH. She encourages women to embrace their voice and pursue their passions.