Do, and Then Understand

This morning during a Bible study we were discussing the word shema, which is Hebrew for hear or listen. It also means much more than that, including to heed, respond, understand and even to obey. In fact the phrase to “listen to the voice of” is an idiom that means “to obey.”

There’s a fascinating rabbinic idea that is associated with the multiple meanings of the word shema. In Exodus 24:7, when Moses reads Israel the covenant, they respond by saying, “All the Lord has spoken we will do (asah) and we will hear (shema.) I think the literal understanding is that the two verbs are supposed to be synonymous – both meaning to obey.

But the rabbis loved to play with the language, and see what more they can learn from the Bible from reading the text from every angle. So they meditated a lot on this odd phrase “we will do and we will hear,” which is well known: “na’aseh v’nishmah.” They pointed out that the order seems backward – wouldn’t you first listen to commands and then do them, rather than doing them before you listen? They came up with the story that God went to all the nations of the world and offered to make a covenant with them, but they all wanted to listen to his commands first. When they did, they all turned God down, saying that all those laws were just too restraining. Only Israel impulsively said, we’ll do it! Now tell us want us to do! It was because of their faith that they pledged to be obedient even before knowing what they were getting into.

But as is typical with the rabbis there is a completely different interpretation that exists right along with this one. The word “shema” can also mean to understand. So, another spin on the phrase na’aseh v’nishmah is the idea that first you do what God asks without fully knowing why, and only later do you understand why.

I’m sure I’m the last person in the world to do things that don’t make sense just because someone told me to. But actually, now I’m seeing how this is really true. About a week ago I blogged about a discovery that I made when I took part in a Passover Seder at my church, how I got really sleepy afterward, just like the disciples. And how this actually was important for understanding who was behind Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion!

Another time was back when I was in college. Being a typical girl, I gossiped about everyone, using the classic rationalization that I should deal with my frustrations by seeking the counsel of friends. I remember feeling the Lord convicting me. Of course I still struggle and am not perfect, but after a while of being intentional about not gossiping, I discovered some things. One was that I became calmer, because I didn’t have to worry that someone had heard something or that my email got forwarded on to the wrong person. Another that my friends were closer to each other, because my constant complants about one to the other was driving them apart as friends. I’m hardly done learning this lesson, but many of the things I’ve learned only after experienceing the effects of my own obedience.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised at how often God teaches me when I’m humble enough to do something that he asks. God loves to teach experientially – through your hands and feet, not just through your head. So every year he tells people to live in a hut outside for seven days in order to feel what it was like to follow him in tents in the wilderness. And he tells Abraham to sacrifice his son, knowing that it would be two thousand years before God would use this to help people understand how he gave his own son as a sacrifice for our sins.

What else would he teach me, if I would only humble myself to obey him a little more?

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Published in: on April 14, 2007 at 8:21 pm  Comments Off on Do, and Then Understand  
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