As we enter a new year, Jews have begun reading the book of Exodus, which tells our story of liberation from slavery, wandering through the wilderness and ending at Mt. Sinai. It is an amazing saga full of drama, with the climax of God passing the Torah to Moses, giving the Israelites the ethical rules by which they must live. The people responded to Moses in an unusual way, saying, na’aseh v’nishma, we will do and we will hear. The message is that the doing will come first, then the hearing and understanding.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out the importance of the people’s words upon accepting the Torah: “Two words we read towards the end of our parsha — na’aseh v’nishma, “We will do and we will hear” — are among the most famous in Judaism. They are what our ancestors said when they accepted the covenant at Sinai” (Covenant and Conversations).
Why is this response so important?
The people had no time to digest the words of the Torah, but they immediately said they would follow them and only then would they come to understand their meaning. This reveals the principle that Jews see action as more important than what one understands or believes, and that our faith and beliefs will become manifest through our actions.
Sometimes we have a tendency to overthink before we act. We want to understand everything first. We often analyze every person’s motive who asks for help instead of just giving. Maybe the person standing on the corner asking for money with a sign saying, “Anything helps” will take the money and use it for drugs or alcohol, or maybe they are just scam artists. Judaism says “We will do” and then we will analyze. We never know if our decision to help will be the one thing that enables that person to realize they aren’t alone and that someone cares.
Our tradition teaches that the arrival of the world to come will be hastened by our actions, and that the prophet Elijah often comes in disguise as a poor beggar to see how we respond. I often think about that story when I see someone poor and homeless asking for help. Might that person actually be Elijah, and by me helping, will it bring us closer to the repairing of our world?
The problem of over analyzing before acting can also be seen in the continued refusal of so many to be vaccinated for COVID-19. Instead of taking action for their health and the health of their community, indeed the world, they endlessly analyze every tidbit on social media, sure that they can understand it better than the doctors and medical researchers. Just as the Israelites trusted Moses, willing to follow what he told them, so should we trust those who have dedicated their entire lives to medical research. Hundreds of millions of people worldwide have been vaccinated and untold lives saved.
It’s time to remember the Israelites’ words, “We will do.”
Our hospitals are again becoming overwhelmed, and though there have been more breakthrough cases of the vaccinated with the omicron variant, they have only mild or no symptoms. The patients in those hospital beds, seriously ill and dying, are the unvaccinated. Not only are they putting others who need hospitalization at risk, but they are giving the virus more opportunity to mutate to an even more dangerous variant. Thus the virus can continue to spread, bringing sickness and even death to the most vulnerable around us — those too young to be vaccinated, the immunocompromised, and those with serious illnesses. It’s time to act to protect our community.
All faith traditions stress that rather than thinking only of ourselves, our actions must reflect caring for others. The Talmud teaches, “The world stands on acts of loving-kindness.”
We must never forget that we live in a community, and our actions impact the health and safety of those around us.
Rabbi Karen Kedar teaches, “Careful, not everything you do is in the name of self. The Hebrew word mazpoon means conscience, north and compass all in one. Listen to your conscience. It is your compass, your North Star. It will guide you when the night is dark. It will point you to safety. It will keep you true to yourself. It will ask you to extend a hand …The self can not truly be full without tending to the needs of others. We live in relationship, not in isolation. Our quest for kindness and love must extend beyond the walls of self to the hearts and minds of others. Give and you get in the most fundamental way” (God Whispers).
I pray that all our actions show concern for how they will affect others and, like our ancestors, our first response will be to act with love and caring to those around us.
Kein yehi ratzon … may it be God’s will. Shalom.
Issues of Faith is a rotating column by religious leaders on the North Olympic Peninsula. Suzanne DeBey is a lay leader of the Port Angeles Jewish community. Her email is [email protected]