Sunday, January 16, 2011

Leap Before You Look (portion Yitro)

While reading this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, I recalled a recent article by Rush Limbaugh entitled, “The Answer is Conservatism.” The entire piece is, as one would expect, highly critical of President Obama and congressional Democrats, but it was one small detail in his attack on the president’s health care legislation that struck me in light of the parashah. Mr. Limbaugh mocks former Speaker Nancy Pelosi for saying, last March, “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it.” For Rush Limbaugh, this is the height of absurdity.

But is it, really? The notion that we can make important decisions without fully understanding their ramifications is deeply rooted in the Torah; indeed, it is at the heart of our tradition. In Yitro, we reach the climactic moment in our people’s history: the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. As Moses prepares the Israelites for that historic event, he asks them if they are read to commit to following God’s teaching. In an exceptional instance of supreme faith, the people respond in unison: “Na’aseh v’nishmah—We will do it and then we will understand it.” As all of the classic commentators note, the doing comes first. We freely take on the obligations of Torah before we can really comprehend what those obligations entail. We sign the contract without reading the fine print. We pass the bill so that we can find out what is in it.

I suspect that while this modus operandi may, at first, strike us as unusual and even problematic, upon reflection we find that in our own lives, this is how it works with nearly every major decision that we make. Selecting a college, getting married (or not), having (or not having) children, taking (or leaving) a job, moving to a new house or city, choosing to have (or to forego) a major medical procedure—in each of these cases, and in countless others, we make crucial life choices without really grasping their long term consequences. No matter how much we plan, or how much research we do before we act, we simply cannot know what we are really getting ourselves into. Our course at Sinai, Na’aseh v’nishmah—to act, and only afterwards, gradually, come to understand the full implications of our actions—remains the only way to move forward in our personal, professional, and communal lives. In the end, there is no path that does not demand significant leaps of faith.

Our portion, Yitro, reminds us that most of the time, when we proceed with integrity, our leaps will land us on solid ground. While we may wish that this reminder might relieve us of all of our fear at critical junctions, this is, alas, simply not the case. Sometimes, our challenge is to find a way to make the leap despite the fear. But one thing is certain: the only alternative to that frightful leap is a life of utter paralysis. If we cannot muster the courage to act on faith, we end up failing to act at all. To trust in God, in compassionate community, in family and friends, and in ourselves is the only way to grow.

I conclude with two modern takes on Na’aseh v’nishmah. First, an excerpt from W. H. Auden’s magnificent poem, “Leap Before You Look”:

The sense of danger must not disappear:
The way is certainly both short and steep,
However gradual it looks from here;
Look if you like, but you will have to leap.

A solitude ten thousand fathoms deep
Sustains the bed on which we lie, my dear;
Although I love you, you will have to leap;
Our dream of safety has to disappear.

And for an inspiring rock and roll slant from one of my favorite teachers, Bruce Springsteen:

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