Ever-changing understanding

Ever-changing understanding

Mishpatim - Exodus 21:1-24:18

Twice this week, we encounter Israel’s famous acceptance of responsibility at Sinai. The people first say, “Whatever God says, we will do” (Exodus 24:3). A few lines later (24:7), they say, “Whatever God says, we will do and we will hear.”

Tradition has made much of these affirmations. They have been applied to two different moments: the first followed God’s demands that Israel prepare for revelation; the second refers to revelation itself.

The order of the verbs — first “we will do” and then, “we will hear” — has also attracted commentary. Most interpreters have deduced the lesson that proper comprehension of God’s will flows only from the prior performance of it, not the other way around.

But how could that be? “Something” had to have been heard to prompt the doing. The answer must be that, existentially speaking, what we hear at first is only a vague demand for action that must be tried out before we really understand it: “We will do” does come first; only out of doing can we revisit the original hearing and grasp it for all it entails.

Now we understand another difference — in the first promise, “Israel answered in a single voice,” that they would prepare for the covenant. But the second time there was no unanimity as to what that covenant entailed — they knew it would mean different things for each of them and that only after trying it would each person know what it might mean personally.

The idea that we try out what we think God wants runs counter to the usual understanding of religion, which, we assume, is black or white, clear and distinct from the outset. Nowhere else do we suffer from this childlike delusion.

Sure, we promise enduring love to the ones we marry — but the naivete of courting gives way to the experience of marriage, when we understand better what true love demands. Yes, we pledge allegiance to the flag — but we alter the kind of America we believe the flag must stand for: the “manifest destiny” of an earlier America is long gone; our inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness mean different things in different eras.

Why should this ever-changing landscape of understanding not apply to religion? Israel could speak with one voice only when the thing at stake was preparing to receive the covenant. The covenant’s exact terms, however, were another matter. Everyone agreed to commit to it, but they knew the “it” in question would change, as experience kept revising the understanding of what God had asked for.

Religion gets short shrift in America today because the idea of utter changelessness is blatantly childish. Until we treat religion as a fully adult thing, we can expect religious loyalty to falter. The only way forward is to reassert what Torah here implies: We Jews do agree to do what God wants, but not with a single voice, because we know our understanding must change with personal experience. We hear things differently as we age through life. And God, who made us, knows that very well.

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