A boy walks down the street, hands in his pockets. He’s confused. I mean, of course he doesn’t show that to anybody. He’s ‘mad cool.’ He’s Jewish. He knows that. Not much more. He knows there’s something big about that, about being Jewish, but doesn’t have a clue what it is.

I had a chat with this boy over Shavuos in TheZone last year. I have spoken to this boy many times over the past ten years. Sometimes his/her name is Steve, or Jack, or Yaakov, or Beth, or Heather, or Devorah. The name keeps changing but that face pretty much stays the same. I know it well. Sometimes it’s a chassidic or ‘frum’ name. Confusion doesn’t discriminate much anymore. It used to, but not anymore.

It was the first night of Shavuos, maybe like 2:30 a.m. or so. This kid was so thirsty. We learned, but he was still thirsty. I asked him, “What hurts you the most? What’s hurting you the most?” He thought, and said, “Nothing. What do you mean?”

When I didn’t respond- just left the silence to communicate between us, his voice changed and he said, “Not knowing.”

I said, “I know. I wanted to make sure that you knew that too.” He said, “Do you know?” I said, “I know a bit.” He said, “Can you give me that bit? I mean, like, share it?”

I said, “Well, there’s a lot in that bit actually. I mean, it ain’t nothin’ compared to my father’s bit, but I mean, it’s a lot for one night and besides, it’s only digestible a bit at a time anyway. So I’ll give you at least a bit of the bit. K?

Here’s the deal. We communicate in words. Me, and you, and your mother, and everybody else, and yeah, the Torah is fashioned out of words too. But Hashem doesn’t ever talk to any of us directly in words. Oh, He communicates, but not in words. Words are for us only. Because as talented and articulate as a person can be, words are still, by definition, limiting. You can only communicate as much insight or emotion or whatever as the words can hold. So Hashem communicates through a different currency, a currency that’s not limited. He communicates through/with experiences.

If somebody is talking, but you’re not listening, well he’s still talking, but you aren’t hearing anything, right? K, so, if you wanna hear what He’s saying to you… and by the way, very important to remember, when He’s communicating to you it’s for you only.

On Rosh Hashana we say the quote many times, “And a great shofar will blast and you will hear a small, still sound/voice.” Sounds contradictory, right? If there’s a great, powerful shofar blast, then I’m gonna be hearing a great big shofar blast, not a ‘small, still sound/voice,’ right? No, wrong. See, the whole purpose of that great shofar blast is to stir you so that you can hear that little voice– inside you. That’s Him talking. That’s Hashem talking. He doesn’t have to scream. You’ll hear him really, really clearly when you listen. From now on- this can be lesson one- with every experience, stop and ask yourself, “What did He just say?”

He said, “Wow.” I said, “Yeah, it’s like mad wow” and we went to get sushi.

Perhaps the most popular Shavuos thought is this one: Counterintuitively, when offered the Torah, the then-‘almost Jews’ declared “we will do and (then) we will hear,” instead of the more intuitive “we will hear (understand and consider) and then perhaps do.”

There are two currencies of communication with life, with the causality, the unifying thread, of life. The secondary one, as essentially important as it is, is the one we are both using right now as I write and you read this. It’s the currency of words. We think in words, we communicate in words. Words let us define and measure and contain things. Words make all of the advances of science possible. Words are, exclusively, what divides us from all other living things- not noises and grunts of communication like dolphins or elephants, but words.

And yet, they are still secondary. You can’t get satisfaction ultimately from words alone. Words were only created in the first place to support and enable you to access the primary currency, which is your personal internal level of awareness, which comes to you exclusively through experiences, personal experiences. Experiences are but the packaging in which Hashem is able to communicate big awareness to you, awareness of what life’s about and how it works. Hence, good judgment usually comes from experiences. Experiences that usually came from bad judgment.

Everybody reading this can relate to the change that has happened to you internally, different attitudes about different aspects of life, which came probably not due to any preaching or book but from your personal, private experiences. No?

And here’s the amazing thing. The awareness is ineffable. You either get it or you don’t.

In this past week’s Torah portion of Naso, the exact same injunction of ritual service to Hashem in the way of offerings is repeated, verbatim, over and over again for each one of the twelve tribes. Now, when the Torah was written, the written word was very taxing and expensive to create, in the way of time and effort and resources. So why, pray tell, would you not simply write “and here is the ritual offering for all twelve tribes…”? I mean, like, pray tell. Right?

But therein lies the whole point we’re getting at here. The ritual should be uniform. What holds us together, in part, is a unified dogma of services. We’ve seen all too clearly, over the last 150ish years, how the experiment of ‘creative,’ ‘evolving,’ ‘adjusting, ‘modernizing,’ change has worked out for us. It didn’t. It ‘created’ ‘evolved’ ‘adjusted’ and ‘modernized’ most of us, the Jewish people, into non-Jews, genetically but if not at least in practice. But INSIDE of that service, inside of each person’s prayer, Shabbos, bringing up of children, learning of Torah, sitting at the Pesach seder, doing charity and being a source for others around you… inside of all of that should be YOUR OWN personal EXPERIENTIAL connectivity. How are YOU evolving PERSONALLY in the details of YOUR life?? So to not present the ritualistic services of offerings (i.e., of offering some of what you have/were given ‘back’ to The Source) individually, for each tribe, would present the wrong notion that the rituals of connectivity to Hashem, of Judaism, were meant to be one size fits all. Hence, it’s presented again and again, separately, for each one of the twelve different facets of the Jewish people.

The universe is infinite, but each one of our lives is very non-infinite, and every thing inside of it, and every thought, needs to be contained within the currency of boundaries and words. It’s all we’ve got. So Hashem gave us the Torah in our currency, in words. But embedded inside, what those words hold and convey are experiences. That’s His currency. And so on Shavuos we say naaseh v’nishmah, we’ll experience and hence hear. And what you hear is ineffable. Either you hear it and get it, or you don’t.

Yehuda Schwab

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  • Yoel Silverberg

    Reb Yochana was an exceptionally handsome man. One day he was swimming in the Jordan River and he saw a man of obvious athletic build jump from one side of the Jordan to the other. The Jordan is not an especially wide river but this was an exceptional feat of physical prowess. He called to him and said if you would use your amazing strength to study Torah you would be a great scholar. Why are you wasting your time? The other fellow answered with those looks of yours you would have all the girls you wanted. Why are YOU wasting your time. So Reb Yochanan answered, I see where your coming from. I have a sister that is far more beautiful than I am handsome. If you commit yourself to studying Torah with the same drive that led to your physical abilities you can have her as a wife. The other fellow looked at Reb Yochanan and saw that he really meant it, his sincerity touched his heart and he agreed, with his whole heart, to study and marry Reb Yochanan’s sister, sight unseen. At that moment the person we know as Resh Lakish entered world of Naaseh v’nishma. The Maharsha says that his commitment was so great that when he tried to jump back to the first side of the river he couldn’t. He lost that absolute focus that every athlete needs to make those crucial few inches to go for the gold. He was now focused totally on the Torah which he had not, as of yet, even studied. He is immortalized in our laws and culture as a paradigm of Na’aseh v’nishma and quoted thousands of times and sometimes his statements are misconstrued for he was not talking about the depth of perception and capacity to see truth that is inherent in the Jewish soul which far surpasses the due diligence required in the realm of the mundane. See Baba Metzia 84 and Maharsha.

  • Robert Marcus

    Resh Lkeish taught to do “due diligence”, ergo naaso v’nishma wouldn’t pass muster in his–or my-school!

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