Why We Do What We Do

In these days of staying at home and keeping a distance from people, I am feeling rather powerless. Rosh Hashana is on the horizon, and Teshuva seems […]

In these days of staying at home and keeping a distance from people, I am feeling rather powerless. Rosh Hashana is on the horizon, and Teshuva seems far away. I feel a bit like one of the Jews standing “under” Mount Sinai, waiting to receive the Torah (Ex. 19:17). In Talmud Avodah Zarah 2b we listen in on the debate as to why the Jews accepted Torah. One view was that, “The Holy One, blessed be He, overturned the mountain (i.e. Mount Sinai) above the Jews like a basin, and He said to them, ‘If you accept the Torah, excellent, and if not, there, under the mountain will be your burial.’” The image brings out the urgency and intensity of the decision to make the covenant with God as a people. I am grateful that they accepted, on my behalf.

When Moshe spoke to us of God’s words, in response we said: “Na’aseh v’nishmah,” (Ex. 24:7) or, “We will do and we will hear/understand,” also translated as “All the Lord has has spoken, we will faithfully do.” The path of mitzvot observance brought them, and us, into a relationship with God. They agreed to observe the laws, and afterward to come to understand them, through study. Over centuries, our tradition of study has helped us grapple with the magnitude of what we accepted. Because I trust guidance of the epidemiologists, medical professionals and scientists I maintain a social distance, I wear a mask in public, I wash my hands. I read as much as I can, but though I cannot hope to understand COVID19 on my own, I am keeping up the practices.

Study increases knowledge, can provide comfort. Learning leads to a sense of belonging, and draws us deeper into our tradition, so that we understand why we do what we do. Study also takes us to uncomfortable places where our beliefs are challenged, and being willing to sit in discomfort, as we try to open our minds despite the urge to resist the new ideas and information, is an ability I am trying to cultivate. As we move into the introspection of the Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe, I pray that we can face things that make us uncomfortable, to continue to learn about ourselves, and the world. I hope to be able to let go of the times when I’ve missed the mark, and say “Al Cheyt” with clarity and presence.

L’Shana Tova