Meaning through action

וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֗ם אֶת־דִּבְרֵי֙ הַבְּרִ֣ית הַזֹּ֔את וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָ֑ם לְמַ֣עַן תַּשְׂכִּ֔ילוּ אֵ֖ת כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֥ר תַּעֲשֽׂוּן׃

And you shall observe the words of this covenant and do them so that you’ll understand all that you’ll do.

Deuteronomy 29:8

The final verse of this week’s Parsha, Ki Tavo, revisits a fundamental tenet of Judaism; it is one that sets Judaism apart from some other religions: the idea that actions, rituals, and behaviors are the pathway to knowledge, and in fact it is only through the actions that one reaches understanding. The root of the verb meaning “understanding” in this verse is S.K.L, which is only used one other time in the entire Torah – it is the same “understanding” that is the result of Adam and Eve eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

This idea, that one only reaches understanding through enacting the rituals and practices of the religion, flies in the face of modernity. Modern american Jews often opt out of Jewish rituals because they don’t find them meaningful, without understanding that it is only through the regular observance of Jewish practice that meaning is ever going to become possible.

We face this challenge daily in Jewish Day Schools, and nowhere more strikingly then in Tefillah (prayer). Jewish prayer practices are filled with the opportunity for meaning and understanding, but because accessing them is challenging, very few children or adults ever reach the point of finding that meaning. Instead, filled with the expectation of instant gratification so valued by our culture, we try it once or twice, are bored or unfulfilled, and leave this potential treasure behind us.

What to do? More ink has been spilled in Jewish educational circles on how to “fix” Jewish Tefillah than anyone wants to read. Make it more like camp. Mix it up with yoga, music, conversations, art, and meditation. Speed it up. Slow it down.

Like any complex issue, there is no single solution. One thing we can count on, however, is that the verse above is absolutely right – if you don’t practice, and continue to practice, then you will find less meaning, not more. This, ultimately, is the essence of faith – you have to believe, at least a little bit, that if you engage in a deep and committed way, you will find fulfillment. If you can’t buy into that possibility, then you enter the ritual without ever truly giving it a chance to flourish.

This week I encourage you to think about what single Jewish practice you could imagine potentially holding some meaning for you, even if it doesn’t right now. Try it for a little while (say for a week), and open yourself to the possibility that through doing you can grow towards understanding.

Shabbat Shalom,