October 2, 2023 -
This post is excerpted from the D’var Torah shared by Student Rabbi Scott Fox at Kabbalat Shabbat worship at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple on Friday, February 8, 2013. Scott Fox is a fifth-year student at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. We encourage you to share, comment, or respond to his teaching below.
The story goes that God first went to every single nation before coming to the Israelites with the Torah. One after the other the nations of God’s own world asked about the laws that were in the Torah and rejected it for this or that. The children of Esau couldn’t take on the Torah because it said that you can’t kill, the children of Ismael refused because of stealing. One after the other, like a disgruntled encyclopedia salesmen trying convince the Facebook generation of the merits of paper, God’s Torah was turned away.
Finally, God comes to the Israelites, and much to God’s surprise, we answer “Kol asher deber Adonai na’aseh v’nishmah, all that God has said in the Torah we will first do, and then we will understand.” 1 With this promise, and because of our acceptance, God gives us the Torah while every other nation remains without the great light of its teachings. Because the Israelites first committed to doing the things the Torah taught them to do, and then to understand their meaning we all merited the gift of our great text.
This has always been one of my favorite stories in the Midrash. I feel that it is so deeply important, because it teaches us that understanding is not everything. For such a thought centered people, this text shows us that there are some things that are more important than thought. This is not something we often talk about, we Jews are a heavily thinking people. It’s even a point of pride for us. For example, Over 20% of all Nobel laureates are Jewish while Jews make up less than .2% of the world’s population. Many of the great thinkers of the 19th and 20th centuries are counted among our tribe: Albert Einstein, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Franz Kafka… We are a people that loves to think.
There is a reason for that. We place a great emphasis on the joy of learning. Not only that, but out intellectualism keeps us critical and aware of the injustice in our world and the social issues that we so deeply care about. But by putting this great emphasis on thinking, we miss out on other ways to experience Judaism. Ways to experience things spiritually without the clutter of the mind.
While learning and thinking can deepen the relevance of our Jewish rituals, the same learning can keep us in our headspace and block us from experiencing the Jewish practice on a more emotional or spiritual level. I think we sometimes forget that not all religious experience needs to be explainable, not all spiritual experiences need to make sense to us as long as we get something from them. Our tradition and wise ancestors have given us permission to abandon our thoughts when the time is right: na’aseh v’nishmah, do it first, understanding will come later.
I had a music professor in college who used to say that analysis always comes after the music, never before. First it sounds good, he would say, then we figure out why. Turning off the mind is tough though. I know that whenever I sit down and try to clear my mind, that’s the exact moment that all kinds of thoughts come flying into my head. Rather than relaxing with an unloaded mind, I’m faced with a crowd of unresolved issues, forgotten challenges and pressing questions. And these thoughts keep me from feeling something deeper in the moment. I’m so busy trying to remember to buy more stamps or to think of a paper topic that all my energy is taken away from the moment. I default to the clutter in the mind.
The same is true with relaxing as it is with spiritual experience. These thoughts keep us from getting to something deeper. It takes practice to take things on with a clear mind. The first few minutes of any new experience will be shadowed by what came before it, but after staying with it for a bit we can get through those distractions. And I think it is worth it.
For some people this means coming to services and getting lost in the music, for others a long walk is a sure way to clear the mind. I encourage each one of us to find space in our day to experience time without the need to try and understand, but just to enjoy the moment. When thoughts come up at these times, I encourage you to let them be rather than trying to push them out, just sit with them and let them settle on their own. We can take the same approach for any Jewish ritual. Not every ritual can be explained, and even when they can, I encourage us to take them for what they are. Simply do. Enjoy the time without the need to think about it.
This past week I had spiritual direction at the Hebrew Union College where I go to school. Spiritual direction is an elective that consists of meeting with a specially trained rabbi to talk about how to further bring spirituality into your life. This week we met in a room on the third floor of the HUC library in New York. We stuffed ourselves into a back room that had no windows, and one of the three walls not covered by the door and an old filing cabinet was occupied by a three panel cork-board draped in burnt orange cloth. We talked about finding God in the day and the week and eventually reached a point in the conversation where we experienced something profound, a connection between a text I’d studied years ago and an experience I had earlier that day.
Rather than talking about the connection, I was surprised to hear the rabbi suggest that we sit with it for a moment. I welcomed the experience. While we sat I let the moment wash over me, there were no other words to explain our discovery, just the experience of reaching it and possibly feeling God’s work in it. No words were necessary.
I think we should celebrate this more often. On Shabbat when we come to services, sometimes teaching can bring new meaning from prayer, but there are times when even the words on the page never reach us, because we are experiencing a deeper offering. On Passover at the seder, we remember our history, but it can be enough just to enjoy our favorite matzah ball soup.
I encourage us to simply experience our Judaism, there is a time for thought and discussion, but there is also a time to just experience it, we don’t have to have words for everything.
Over the ages rabbis have hotly debated what was revealed at Mount Sinai. Some argue that the entire Torah was given, word for word, to Moses at that great moment. Others insist that it was only the 10 commandments that were given on that day. That those 10 laws provide the basis and the inspiration for the rest of the writing of the Torah, which came about after the 10 were given. Still others say that only one word was revealed at Sinai, yud hay vav hay, the true name of God that was recited by the high priest on Yom Kippur at the Temple. A word so powerful we never speak it today out of respect for itssacredness.
Not to be outdone, there are those that insist that a single letter was uttered at that thunderous mountain peak. What letter was spoken? The Alef, a silent letter, which at just the right moment, is exactly letter we need.