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Doing or Understanding – Which Comes First?

Doing or Understanding – Which Comes First?

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This book attempts to address the questions that explore the core of Judaism. Yet another question is even more fundamental: should one place one’s understanding before one’s doing? Should a Jew ever make his understanding of the commandments or of G–d’s ways conditional on their observance?

When we received the Torah and mitzvot at Sinai, the Torah states clearly that we accepted them on the basis of Naaseh – “we will do” – first, and then, V’Nishma, – “we will hear and understand”. In other words, on the basis of unconditional obedience and readiness to fulfil G–d’s mitzvot, regardless of our understanding them rationally. While we must learn and try to understand as much as possible, prior knowledge and understanding must never be a condition to living up to the guidelines which G–d has given us in regard to our conduct and our actual way of life.

First it is necessary to start observing the mitzvot and eventually we will almost certainly come to a better appreciation of their significance and truth. To approach this matter from the opposite direction; that is, to understand first and only then to do, is wrong on two scores. First, the loss involved in not performing mitzvot cannot be retrieved. Secondly, the very observance of the mitzvot, which creates an immediate bond with G–d, develops additional powers, the sooner to understand and appreciate them. Take, for instance, a person who is ill and for whom medicine has been prescribed by a specialist. Would it not be foolish to say that he should not take them until he knew how the medicine could restore him to good health? In the meantime, he would remain weak and ill and probably get even worse. It is senseless because the knowledge of how the medicine does its work is not necessary in order to benefit from it. Moreover, while taking it he will get a clearer head and better understanding to learn how the prescription helps him.

To expand on this theme, the world is a well co-ordinated system created by G–d in which there is nothing superfluous or lacking. There is one reservation, however: for reasons best known to the Creator He has given man free will, whereby man can co-operate with this system, building and contributing to it, or do the reverse and cause destruction even of things already in existence. From this premise it follows that a man’s term of life on this earth is just long enough for him to fulfil his purpose; neither a day too short nor a day too long. Hence, if a person should permit a single day, or week, let alone months, to pass by without his fulfilling his purpose, it is an irretrievable loss for him and for the universal system at large.

The physical world as a whole, as can be seen clearly from man’s physical body in particular, is not something independent and separate from the spiritual world and soul. In other words, we have not here two separate spheres of influence as the pagans used to think, rather we are now conscious of a unifying force which controls the universal system which we call monotheism. For this reason it is possible to understand many things about the soul from parallels with the physical body.

The physical body requires a daily intake of certain elements in certain quantities obtained through breathing and consuming food. No amount of thinking, speaking and studying about these elements can substitute for the actual intake of air and food. All this knowledge will not add one iota of health to the body unless it is given its required physical sustenance; on the contrary, the denial of the actual intake of the required elements will weaken the mental forces of thought and concentration. Thus it is obvious that the proper approach to ensure the health of the body is not by way of study first and practice afterwards but the reverse, to eat and drink and breathe which, in turn, will strengthen the mental powers.

Similarly, the soul and the elements which it requires daily for its sustenance are known best to its Creator. A healthy soul is first and foremost attained by the performance of mitzvot, and understanding of them may come later.

The conclusion from all the above is clear enough. For a Jew, every day that passes without living according to the Torah involves an irretrievable loss for him and for all our people, inasmuch as we all form a single unity and are mutually responsible for one another. It also has an effect on the universal order and any theories attempting to justify it cannot alter this in the least.

Believers, sons of believers

The Torah declares that Jews are “Believers, the sons of believers”, meaning that in addition to one’s own belief in G–d, one has the cumulative heritage of the faith of countless generations, beginning with our Father Abraham, the first believer, that the source of blessing is G–d, the Creator and Master of the universe. If a human being who introduces a certain system must give guidelines as to how the system works, how much more so is it to be expected that G–d would provide guidelines as to how a human being, and especially a Jew, must live. These guidelines were revealed at Sinai with the giving of the Torah and mitzvot, which were transmitted from generation to generation, not only in content but also in their exact terms. Thus the Torah provides the guidelines as to how Jews must conduct their lives, especially their family lives.

Since the Torah and mitzvot and the Jewish way of life comes from G–d and His infinite wisdom they are not subject to man’s approval and selection. Human reason is necessarily limited and imperfect. Its deficiencies are obvious since with time and study it improves and gains knowledge and personal opinions may change.

In our long history we have had the greatest human minds possible who nevertheless realised their limitations when it came to the knowledge of G–d and His laws and precepts. We have had great thinkers and philosophers who not only fully accepted the Torah and mitzvot but have been our guiding lights to this day, while dissident groups and individuals either disappeared completely or, worse still, continued as painful thorns in the flesh of our people and humanity at large. Anyone who is familiar with our history requires no illustrations or proofs of this.

Accepting our sacred tradition unconditionally and without questions does not mean that there is no room for any intellectual understanding. Within our limitations there is a great deal which we can understand and with which we can further enrich ourselves provided the approach is right. For G–d in His infinite grace has given us insight into various aspects of His commandments, an insight which grows deeper as we practise them in our daily life and make them our daily experience. In this way the Jew attains true peace of mind and a harmonious and happy life, not only spiritually but also physically, and fully realises how happy he is to be son or daughter of this great and holy nation, the Jewish people.

Coping with doubt

For a human being to question G–d’s reasons for His mitzvot is actually contradictory to common sense. If one accepts them as Divine commandments it would be presumptuous, indeed ridiculous, to equate human intellect with G–d’s, which would mean limiting G–d’s intellect to that of a human being. By way of a simple illustration, one would not expect an infant to understand the importance of nutrition as set forth by a professor who has dedicated his life to this subject, even though the difference between the infant and the professor is only relative in terms of age and education. There can be no such comparison between a created human being and the Creator, where the difference is absolute.

It should therefore be a matter of common sense to understand what the Torah explains clearly, that whatever doubts and difficulties a Jew may have in matters of Torah and mitzvot are only tests of his faith in G–d, and that a person is equipped with the capacity to overcome such tests and distractions. It would be illogical to assume that G–d would impose obligations which are beyond the human capacity to fulfil. Indeed, if one has more difficult tests, it only proves that he has greater capacities to overcome them.

Having feelings and thoughts which are not in accord with the Torah should not be surprising inasmuch as Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi explains right at the beginning of the Tanya that every Jew also has an “animal soul” connected with the material body which is often the source of confusion and distraction, even to the point of blundering from the right path and robbing him of peace of mind. On the other hand, what makes it easier to deal with the situation is the fact that the Jew also posseses a Divine soul which is truly a part of G–dliness Above, and which is the essential and true aspect of the Jew. Hence it is not only possible to overcome these material distractions but, as our Sages declare, “One who is determined to purify himself receives aid from on High.”

Above all, it is necessary to cultivate sincere and wholehearted confidence in G–d – as it is written, “Thou shalt be wholehearted with G–d thy G–d” – and thus eliminate all sorts of worries, anxieties and confusions. It develops a sense of security in that there is a L–rd and Master Who takes care not only of the world as a whole but also of each individual with loving care.

Of course if a person has questions and even doubts he must not feel any shame in asking for clarification, and certainly one should not keep any doubts within oneself but one should seek answers. However, there is the one condition that, whatever the questions and doubts may be, this must not affect one’s simple faith in G–d and in His Torah and mitzvot, even if the answers have temporarily eluded one. This condition goes back to the day when the Torah was received at Sinai on the principle of Naaseh before Nishma, the guiding principle for all posterity. However, after Naaseh follows V’nishma for G–d, the Essence of Goodness, desires us to follow the path of Truth on the basis of faith, but then to follow it up with knowledge and understanding, for then the totality of the person is involved in serving G–d to the fullest capacity.

No hypocrisy

There can be no question of hypocrisy when a Jew learns Torah and conducts his life in accordance with the Torah and mitzvot even if some of his other actions or feelings do not always harmonise with his Torah study and observance. The incongruity lies not in acting according to the Torah and mitzvot but rather in acting contrary to the Torah and mitzvot.

This is clearly demonstrated by the statement of Maimonides that if a Jew is compelled by an external force to do a mitzvah he is not regarded as having done the mitzvah under coercion but as having fulfilled the mitzvah voluntarily. This is explained as follows. Inasmuch as every action has its roots in nature and natural disposition, the nature of a Jew is that he always desires to act in accordance with the Torah and mitzvot. However, sometimes there may be some circumstance which overshadows this desire or immobilises it, the Rambam calls this the Yetzer Hara (evil inclination), which always tries to find ways to prevent a Jew from behaving according to his real nature. Consequently, the physical force, or the threat thereof, used in order to compel the Jew to perform the mitzvah, is not a force that induces him to change his real attitude, rather it removes the circumstance preventing him from exercising his true will. Once the external constraint is removed the true innate will is free to reassert itself.

How to start

The Torah tells us that the conquest of the promised Holy Land was to take place by stages. The same applies, in a deeper sense, to the personal conquest of the self. In other words, when it comes to personal advancement in matters of Yiddishkeit the best method is sometimes in the way of a gradual conquest, step by step, and stage by stage, rather than by means of a drastic change. Of course there are certain situations and matters where a drastic change may be necessary but, by and large, steady progress is usually more effective than progress by fits and starts.

Rabbi Nissan D. Dubov is director of Chabad Lubavitch in Wimbledon, UK.
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Giordano London, UK January 22, 2012

For this reason it is said that bird is still kosher even if its wings are damaged or taken from it. Meaning, that we cannot always fly with the inspiration of the love and fear of G-d. So the performance of the mitzvah keeps us when we 'feel' we cannot keep the mitvah through either understanding its purpose or just when we are in descent.
On the path to conversion this is especially a great saving force when confronted by internal and external opposition...to have faith above reason. Reply

Chabad.org via mychabad.org April 29, 2007

Editor's Response: You are absolutely right that you have to try to understand all that you can understand of the Torah and its mitzvahs. Otherwise, how could you do those mitzvahs "with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might" if your brain is left out of the picture?

But on the other hand, you don't want to make observance of the mitzvahs contingent on your own understanding. If you did, you wouldn't be serving G_d--you would be serving no one bigger than your own little self.

I don't think the author was calling for lobotomy as a prerequisite to Torah observance. All he asks is a recognition that the mind can't possibly understand everything. On the contrary, true intellect should be ready to acknowledge its own deficiency. Reply

Anonymous Jerusalem, Israel April 26, 2007

Article on doing or understanding I thought your article was well written, marvellously explained and explicit.

However, I wanted to add a little note: G-d made us with a brain becuase he intended us to use it. We therefore have the capacity to both understand and obey his commandments and everything he orders has a motive - whether concern for us (like it has been proven non kosher animals are harmful etc). Any gap is due to our lack of knowledge - not G-d's autocratic and capriciousness. As Maimonedes stated, when religion and science differ it is because we do not know enough of one or the other!

Please exit the "leave your brains at the door" camp and fulfill the Shema - we are to love G-d will all our soul, heart and MIND! This includes understanding!!! Reply

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