Today was the 8th of Elul, which is four days before I officially become a Jew.
So today’s theme was “hearing.”
When the Israelites received the Torah at Sinai, it is said that their response was “na’aseh v’nishma,” or “We will do and we will hear.” (Sorry, I can’t find the proper Hebrew spelling, so you’ll have to deal with transliteration. I trust this is not a problem.) Anyway. We will do and we will hear? Wha?
That’s really odd. Shouldn’t you hear the orders before you try to carry them out? This confused me when I first encountered it, and it still confuses me now. I mean, in Judaism the goal is what you do, not what you believe, and I suppose what you believe would come to you by way of what you hear, but…
Fortunately, I’m not the only one who was confused by this. According to one midrash, Moses said to the Israelites after this astounding, seemingly out-of-sequence declaration, “Is doing possible without understanding?” To which they replied, “We will do and we will understand.”
Some traditions translate this as, “doing and understanding will happen simultaneously,” rather than “by doing, we will THEN understand.” But there’s still that whole “hearing” thing to deal with up above. It seems to me that they just let it go without an explanation. Doing is more important than hearing. We’ll get to hearing later. Right now there’s stuff we gotta do, nu?
So what can we hear while we’re doing? What do we actually need to hear while we’re doing? Or is it that the process of doing leads us to hearing that “still, small voice” inside us? Perhaps – stay with me, here – we have to do in order to be silent enough to hear. Perhaps the process of keeping your body working and moving and doing is necessary in order to quiet the mind enough that it can hear. (I know this sounds very Zen, but there’s a fair overlap in the mystical traditions of Judaism and Buddhism, so I’m not going to worry about it.)
Sitting and trying to listen while doing nothing – trying to hear while your mind is noisy and anxious – is probably counterproductive. And doctor after doctor has advised people with panic, depression, and anxiety to exercise – to DO something. And it’s well known that people who have these conditions but make themselves move – or do – have fewer problems and a slightly less bad time of it overall.
It can’t just be the endorphins.
Maybe that’s part of why we had to do first, and then hear.
Of course, this also assumes that the Hebrew was meant linearly – that it meant something to say na’aseh before they said v’nishma. There could easily be other reasons why the words were in that order, including accident. My rabbi told us that the first words of Genesis, Bereshit, when you translate the Hebrew in literal order, come out “In the beginning created God, the heavens, and the earth.” And that’s normal Hebrew grammar – the word order is usually object verb subject. But! The Kabbalists have said “What if “In the beginning” was referring to Something BEYOND God, and grammar isn’t the reason for the word order, and the word order actually matters to the meaning? What if Something created God, and the heavens and the Earth? What then?”
I seem to be taking the flip side of that argument here: what if the word order didn’t mean anything, and it was just easier to say “na’aseh v’nishma” instead of “nishma v’na’aseh“? Haven’t you ever had that happen with names, for example? Charlene and Rick, but not Rick and Charlene. Joanna and Todd, but not Todd and Joanna. It is perfectly possible that they said it that way because to say it the other way was just clunky.
But we won’t know if there’s meaning unless we can calm down the interior voices enough to listen to the interior Voice of the Eternal, either. So I’m going to leave this conundrum as an exercise for my faithful readers.
One response to “Countdown -4: The 8th of Elul and Hearing”
The opening sentence of Genesis isn’t really ambiguous. The word et occurs before the word for the heavens and again before the word for the earth. It does not occur before the word for God. Et is a case marker with no meaning of its own, and it indicates that the following noun is a direct object of the preceding verb. Therefore the sentence means what it’s usually understood to mean.
Still, the question is interesting, and it becomes even more interesting when we cut out the need to consider a pre-existing physical reality and contemplate just the relationship between God and the laws of mathematics.