Weekly Davar: Shavuos

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Davar Thought

We are told that when the Jewish people were offered the Torah by God, they said, ‘we will do then we will hear’. It’s a little strange because how can you do something before you have heard what it is? However, the word, ‘hear’ in Hebrew also has an aspect of it that indicates understanding. In other words, the Jewish people said that they would do and then they would understand why.

Any time in our lives when something important is at stake in an area we know little about, we will trust a professional. I don’t need to know what is in a pill; if the doctor tells me to take it, that’s good enough. If my accountant tells me to sign the tax papers he has prepared, I’m happy to do so without a closer look. And if I’m late for a flight and the taxi driver tells me he knows a shortcut to the airport, I’m willing to assume that he knows what he’s doing. So too with the spiritual world. The Jewish People were willing to do what God told them even if it did not immediately make sense to them. In other words, they had no more sense of how pig’s meat might damage their souls than I do how white bitter pills might take away my headache.

However, the Jewish commitment goes a step further. I have been taking white pills for decades – and never bothered to find out what’s in them. It doesn’t really matter; the pain in my head disappears and that’s good enough for me. However, the commitment at Mt Sinai was for more than this. The Jewish People said, ‘we will do AND we will understand’. Yes, doing precedes understanding. But it’s not enough just to do blindly. Judaism is not, and never has been, about blind faith; doing what an All-Wise God says to do because he knows better than little old me. That’s only a starting point. The end point is much more sophisticated and mature. It’s an end point of becoming spiritual connoisseurs; of understanding the science of the spiritual world and learning to live it not simply because God said so but because it makes eminent and obvious sense.

Whilst most of the Jewish world has forgotten, or lapsed, in both parts of this commitment, the Orthodox world remains steadfast at least in the former. But it is very rare to find a person who stays committed to both. It seems like the choice is between not doing – or doing but not understanding. I do get the temptation to follow a set of rules blindly – because to have to think for ourselves brings with it greater responsibility – as well as the possibility of making mistakes, but surely, surely……. surely we appreciate that the potential for human development is so severely limited without understanding? Surely, we know that wisdom is power – the power to change ourselves and the world around us? That’s why the commitment at Mt Sinai was two-fold. Because to want to understand before you do is a lack of trust. But to be satisfied with blindly doing and have no desire to understand is a denial of our own humanity.

Shabbat Shalom and Good Yom Tov

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