“This understanding of Judaism as a religion of action is encapsulated by the biblical verse in which the Jews standing at Mount Sinai signal their acceptance of the with the words ‘na’aseh v’nishma‘–’We will do and we will hear/understand.'” —from “Do First, Understand Later” by Rabbi Jill Jacobs
Last winter, I scraped up against this phrase, “na’aseh v’nishma;” I’m not sure where. I haven’t had ancient Hebrew yet — that’s slated for this fall’s term — but it caught my attention enough that I wrote it on my mirror…
…no doubt because it flips my instinctual move: understand thoroughly, then do.
Rabbi Jacob’s discussion and midrash center around God’s delivery of Law to the People, which intrigues me enough that I’ll likely come back to explore that some myself—
but right now I’m exploring me. And my faith tradition.
As an education-oriented person*, understanding is normally where I begin. I’ve been known to phrase it thus: “I’m a big-picture person. I don’t like to begin until I know how it all fits together.” Particularly in my tech career, my preference has served me well: I tend(ed) to develop courses of action that require relatively little re-work or re-scoping. Do it once is my motto. (I get bored easily.) When you “begin with the end in mind” (thank you, Dr. Stephen Covey), it’s straightforward to arrive with little wasted motion.
And understanding is celebrated in the Presbyterian tradition. Heck, in the U.S. every Presbyterian congregation worth its salt has/had a library; could one truly be Presbyterian and not be studying? So if I want to dig in my heels until I understand something, everyone around me will nod their heads approvingly. Don’t rush into things headlong. Consider carefully. Assess the rewards and risks.
At the start of the second half of my life, I am seeing that my default approach is not as fully effective as I would prefer.
And my lived experiences have shown me just how much I need to operate in my opposite direction. There’s been more than one season in my life when “fake it ’till you make it” was a wise and reasonable path to health. At those times, I had to do first, because we were all so far from understanding.
Too, as a parent I saw how doing was something I could observe, measure, and therefore require. Understanding, or internalization, happened completely within the child and was not under my control. Besides, I didn’t actually care. Certainly not when it came to middle-schoolers. The physical family ritual of gathering together at dinner was (is!) important. A Snow White-caliber delight in it, while it might have been pleasant, was not necessary. Time would either weave our dinner-time’s wisdom into their psyches… or it wouldn’t. And I can appreciate the savor of rebellion. My father once observed, “If you set your boundaries well, they’ll have something to rebel against that’s still not that big a problem. They’re likely to rebel regardless!” So the bodies could could slouch as long as they were at the table—do first, understand later.
These days (years-!), my future has been more foggy to me than clear. In the fog, there’s not enough visibility to fully understand, or even see more than a few steps ahead. Which I’ve been diligently practicing! I like having the reminder in front of me that while I’m doing I still may yet understand.
Besides, there may be something extra in that hear/understand split translation. Absorb? Or perhaps it’s that we cannot fully hear until we are in the middle of doing, the way some tasks of adulthood crack open before us—”OH! Is that what they were talking about?! Now I get it!
I’ll keep doing. I’ll let you know when I understand.
*and an Enneagram 5, who are ALL about “understand first,” and frequently “do never”-!