Do Then Listen

This Shabbat we will read about 53 rules and regulations delivered from G-d to the People of Israel at Mount Sinai. Mishpatim (the name of the Parsha) means laws or rules (or judgements/sentences, in a darker connotation), and there is a great deal written about the unusual response the newly birthed nation gives after listening to all their new guidelines: “Na’aseh V’Nishmah”. Often translated as “we will do and we will understand/listen,” the natural question we ask is about the order – don’t you have to listen first, and then do?

Our sages explain that Judaism is a little different, and their reflection offers deep insight into human psychology. In fact, they say, sometimes it is only through doing the action that true listening and understanding can occur. This, ultimately, creates the only context in which acts of faith can be made! Sometimes we recite words we don’t really understand or connect with in our daily prayers, and it is only faith that someday we may connect with them more deeply that moves us to recite them. Sometimes we try out seemingly bizarre ritual actions, like shaking a palm frond in every direction, without having any idea what it could mean, or why we should do it, and only faith can explain our movements.

Modern scientific research backs up the flipped order described above. We used to think that emotional facial displays were purely the result of internal emotions: I feel sad, so I look sad. It turns out to be more complicated, as now we know that the act of smiling actually has a positive impact on mood – it is the act impacting the brain, not the other way around. So it seems science is actually backing up spiritual wisdom in this case, by offering explanations of the ways in which simply doing the action can have a profound impact on cognition, mood, and understanding.

Children intuitively know what it is like to have to do things that don’t make sense to them – in fact, they do this all the time. We regularly direct children without explaining the rationales behind their actions. This week, ask your kids what it feels like to be directed to do things without understanding them first.

Shabbat Shalom,