The Ultimate Behavioral Experiment
by Miri Korbman
This week’s Parsha contains one of the most famous mantras of Judaism, second only perhaps to the Shema. After receiving the Dibros, the Jewish people prepare to receive the rest of the written Torah from Moshe, and when asked if they are ready to learn about the rest of the Mitzvos, they declare: “Kol Asher Dibeir Hashem, Naaseh V’Nishma,” everything Hashem tells us, we will do, and we will listen (24:7).
Interestingly, the phrase “Naaseh V’Nishma” is often associated with Matan Torah itself, as though the Jews make this declaration before receiving the Ten Commandments. A careful read of the Pesukim, however, indicates that in Parshas Yisro, when asked to prepare themselves for receiving the Torah, the Jewish people respond, “Kol Asher Dibeir Hashem, Naaseh,” everything G-d tells us, we will do. It is only in this week’s Parsha, after the fanfare of Matan Torah has subsided, as the people wait with bated breath to receive the rest of the Torah from Moshe, that the Jews utter the famous, “Naaseh V’Nishma.” It is only then that Moshe begins to present this treasure to the Jewish people, beginning with a series of seemingly mundane laws and statutes regarding business dealings between man and his fellow.
There is deep significance to this chronology of events, which reveals a fundamental path to learning and performing Torah and Mitzvos, and to all kinds of growth throughout our lives.
As is discussed by many Meforshim, the words Naaseh V’Nishma, literally translated as “we will and we will hear,” really means that the Jewish people were committing to doing the Mitzvos, before analyzing, learning deeper, and fully understanding them. Judaism is such a complex, detailed, all-encompassing religion – in fact, it is not really a religion at all, but a lifestyle, and an identity. In many other aspects of life, one might spend days, months, or years learning about a concept, idea, or task before actually engaging in the practice. For example, many of us have spent or will spend years on our education in order to be able to practice a specific profession. It would be quite concerning if, next you show up at the dentist, the guy with the drill and dentistry tools whispers conspiratorially as you settle in the dentists’ chair, “you know, this is totally new to me; I’m learning on the job!”
And yet, there are so many things in life we can learn endlessly about, analyze deeply, and still not fully internalize or appreciate until we actually behaviorally engage in the thing.
In modern psychology, this is best evidenced by the idea of a behavioral experiment. A behavioral experiment is used to help people have new experiences that foster new learning - and help them challenge pre-existing beliefs about themselves, others, or the world, which are getting in the way of living meaningful, functional lives. For example, if a person is afraid of flying because he believes he will have a panic attack on the plane and go crazy or die, one can spend months or years discussing the statistical probability of this occurring and weighing the pros and cons of avoiding flying for the rest of one’s life. Or one can get on – and off – a plane and live to tell the tale. If, as happened with a middle-school client of mine, you believe you’re unworthy of making friends and others will laugh at you if you try to initiate a conversation, you can certainly speak with a therapist about the likelihood of this happening, or make lists about your positive, lovable qualities to increase your self-esteem. Or, as my client did, you can actually approach a new group of classmates and strike up a conversation and see how many of them laugh at you.
Throwing oneself into a behavior creates the opportunity to learn either that one’s previously held beliefs are inaccurate, or that one can survive the situations they once feared, and perhaps live a more meaningful and fulfilling life as a result. Unfortunately, people often prefer to continue to talk about the same problem, fear, worry, or regret for week after week, month after month, even year after year, rather than take the leap required to have a new experience.
Many Jews across the spectrum of religious practice struggle with different Mitzvos or Torah concepts. When first learning about something like Kosher, Shabbos, or Tznius, it can be quite difficult to really appreciate the beauty and depth of these laws and rituals. In fact, at first glance, they can seem confining, daunting, or suffocating. Many of us have either experienced or heard from others about the struggle to begin dressing in a more modest fashion. We question, is three inches of material really going to make a difference? Why cover my knees – they’re so ugly anyway! Besides, my legs look hideous without my knees showing! We spend weeks, months, years hemming and hawing, asking the same questions to different rabbis, teachers, and mentors regarding Mitzvos that are difficult for us, hoping to find an answer or explanation that resonates deeply enough to inspire us to change. Naaseh V’Nishma, however, is a commitment to first engage in the Mitzvah, to try to do the thing, and to be thusly changed and impacted enough by the experience to continue doing it, even if it continues to be difficult and at times even the most meaningful explanations fall short.
Judaism is a practice-based enterprise. That is not to say that practicing Judaism is all there is to it; rather, sometimes, learning, thinking, analyzing, and questioning are not sufficient to really live a Torah life. In order to truly appreciate the beauty of Shabbos, one must experience a Shabbos. Learning about the significance of Shabbos, knowing the thirty nine Melachos, these are aspects of Shabbos, but without the experience, one does not fully understand or appreciate Shabbos, and one’s previously held notions about the difficulty of Shabbos cannot be dispelled. The same is true for the rest of Torah.
This is why Naaseh V’Nishma is juxtaposed specifically to what seem to be the driest, least Godly laws, those pertaining to slavery, respecting others’ property, the outlawing of mixing milk and meat, and the details of fair business dealings with other Jews. One can question, what do these detailed, nitty-gritty laws add to my life? Is it not sufficient to be spiritually connected? Yet, to live with a Naaseh V’Nishma perspective is to fully engage in Judaism, to throw oneself in completely to each Mitzvah, each tradition, and each ritual, and to appreciate Torah Judaism through the Jewish experience. This is, perhaps, one secret alluded to in the fact that Naaseh V’Nishma is found in Pasuk 24:7; it is in the daily, round-the-clock experiences of Judaism that Torah and Mitzvos truly become a part of who we are, and can slowly change us for the better.
This week, conduct your own behavioral experiment. Choose a Mitzvah you’re struggling with, and throw yourself into the “nitty-gritty” Jewish experience. Through this, allow the Mitzvos to truly begin to resonate with you in a more meaningful way.