'We Will Do:' Sinai and Creative Judaism

06/09/2016 03:04 pm ET Updated Jun 09, 2017

On June 11th and 12th, Jews will celebrate Shavuot, a holiday that commemorates the receiving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. This is the moment when we truly became Jews as a people after escaping slavery in Egypt. The act of escape itself isn't enough to make us free. There's a 49-day journey in the desert before we arrive at the foot of that mountain where we learn who we are, and discover who we might become, a journey from liberation to revelation. Even when we do arrive at the foot of the mountain, God gives Moses specific instructions to share with the Israelites so that we can prepare to receive the Ten Commandments.

I've been thinking about this journey, commemorated now by the counting of the omer, the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot, and I've been reflecting on that moment when our anxious ancestors waited at Sinai to receive the Torah. I've been considering the journeys we have taken since then as a people, through countless personal and political deserts. Every time we escape another mitzrayim, another narrow space, we find ourselves again at Sinai with an opportunity to discover a new way to be Jewish. What is faith after a pogrom? What is Judaism after the Holocaust?

I returned to the text of Exodus with this in mind, thinking that perhaps the most crucial difference between that first Exodus and every journey that followed it, is that as Jews, we no longer wait to to receive the Torah. Receiving is a passive interaction. In the years that have passed since that first revelation, we have learned to create Judaism instead. However, reading the story again, I was reminded that we have been creating Judaism all along, and that this initial moment of revelation was no different.

When Moses shares Torah with the Israelites, their response is na'aseh v'nishma, "We will do and we will listen" (Ex. 24:7). There is a lot of debate about this statement. Is it wise to try anything before we have heard the reasons why? Jews are generally not interested in blindly following anyone before we've had a nice long debate about why and how we should or should not take action.

In Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Yishmael says "the one who studies in order to teach will be enabled to study and teach. The one who studies in order to practice will be able to study and teach, to observe and practice" (4:5). Rabbi Yishmael reminds us of the importance of deeds and actions in our tradition, and provides a helpful lens for the statement na'aseh v'nishma, "we will do, and we will listen."

Every year at Passover, we "do" in order to understand. Rather than reading the story of our freedom from Egypt, we are asked to live the experience ourselves - to taste the bitterness of slavery with the maror (horseradish), to celebrate our redemption with song. We practice, and then we learn. We do, and we listen. The Haggadah is probably the earliest example of Jewish experiential education curriculum. In re-enacting, in doing, we learn what it means to be free before we begin our own journeys toward revelation.

Na'aseh v'nishma means that sometimes, if we want to learn, we have to "do" first. Sometimes we have to experiment and take risks. Sometimes we have to throw things at the wall to see what sticks. We attempt different kinds of Jewish programs, like Pop-Up Shabbats, without knowing if anyone will show up to celebrate with us, simply because we believe in the vision. We study not only to teach, but to practice, and the practice itself has lessons to offer.

What does this mean for the Jews who were standing at Sinai, and for every moment of revelation that followed? It means that as Jews, we didn't just "receive Torah." We don't now, and na'aseh v'nishma taught me that we never have. We enact Torah. We live Torah. We do, and we understand. We practice, and we learn. We are the co-creators of our religion, we are both revealers and participants in revelation, and we are on this journey together, not waiting to receive Judaism, but participating it making it ours.