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Shavuot: Flying a Plane Without Instructions

Updated: May 27, 2020

Would you ever agree to fly a plane without knowing what to do?

I would hope not. (If yes, please let me know when so I can make sure to avoid that flight).

Well, that is exactly what we, Bnei Yisrael, agreed to do when we received the Torah on Har Sinai... or so it seems. 

When Hashem asked us if we will commit to keeping the Torah - Bnei Yisrael famously answered Na’aseh Ve’nishma! “We will do, and we will listen!” (If you want a good trick to remember where this phrase appears, it is in chapter 24, verse 7 of Sefer Shemot - as in 24/7). This response was apparently so impressive, that Hashem asked “Who has revealed to them the secrets that the angels know?” 

On the simplest level, this whole exchange seems to make no sense.

What is so impressive about agreeing to do something before you listen to what it is?

Sure, it definitely conveys a sense of loyalty, like a soldier shouting “Sir, yes sir!” when his commander calls his name. But is that really what Hashem wants from us? To follow the Torah blindly without even hearing what it says? Would you want to partner with someone who commits to others so rashly and haphazardly? How does one even fulfill a command without knowing what it is?

First of all, we need to redefine our terms; Although “nishma” can technically mean “listen” - a more accurate translation might be “understand”. Meaning, Bnei Yisrael were saying that they will follow the Torah, even before they fully understand it. Furthermore, it is not just a question of what comes first, but rather, what is given more priority. Of course it is important to understand the Torah, but the secret of the angels is that doing something actually helps you understand it better! 

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, expressed this concept so eloquently as follows: 

[We] derive the conclusion that we can only understand Judaism by 

doing it, by performing the commands and living a Jewish life. In the beginning is the deed; only afterward comes the grasp, the insight, the comprehension. - Covenant and Conversation: Mishpatim 5776

Rabbi Sacks explains that Judaism cannot be confined to the laboratory.

It is not an ancient artifact or piece of literature to be studied in a museum or classroom.

In order to fully appreciate the mitzvah of Shabbat, for instance, one must actually experience it. They must immerse them-self in it. Have a Shabbat meal, attend services, refrain from work for 25 hours. Reading about Shabbat in a book will only peak curiosity at best, and create feelings of anxiety at worst. 

This concept is true in the world of mental health as well. Many people go to therapy to learn new skills. It could be techniques to conquer anxiety, overcome depression, or manage a child’s disruptive behavior. But just learning about effective strategies in a therapy session is unlikely to generalize to the person’s life outside of the therapist’s office. A more effective way to generate change is to rehearse and role-play the skills in realistic scenarios. 

An incredibly effective treatment for children with disruptive behaviors known as Parent Child Interactive Therapy (PCIT), is based on this core principle. In PCIT, parents spend one session with a therapist learning better parenting strategies for managing their child’s behavior. However, the remainder of treatment is focused on live coaching the parent while he/she is interacting with their child. The therapist observes behind a one-way mirror and uses a bluetooth device to communicate and coach the parent in real time. This method has been proven to be much better at improving the parent-child relationship than discussing the problems alone. 

In sum, the message of Shavuot, and the secret to spiritual and psychological growth, is through in-vivo learning and educational experiences.

May Hashem continue to provide us with learning opportunities to better understand the Torah and the world around us. 

Wishing everyone a Chag Sameach!

Rabbi Saul Haimoff, PsyD

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