I Accept! – Parshat Mishpatim 5771

With all of the electronic purchasing of music, books, and software, we are now accustomed to scrolling down a long page of tiny letters stating all of the legal ramifications and (lack of) liabilities that we are asked to read carefully before clicking the green “I accept” button or the red “I do not agree” button.  I wonder how many of us actually read all of the fine print each and every time we buy a song on iTunes or join a new mailing list.  How many of us read through an entire instruction manual before playing with a new toy or electronic device? 
If you read through the entire fine print or instruction manual it’s usually for one of two reasons.  Either you couldn’t figure out how to turn the piece of equipment on, or you were having trouble falling asleep.  As they say when adjusting to any new device, job or life project, there is a learning curve, and the best way to learn is through action. 
Our parshah, this week, parshat Mishpatim, falls at a momentous crossroads for the Israelites.  They have left Egypt, are on their journey, and have just received a full list of instructions on the basic ways in which they will live their lives.  Especially significant in leaving Egypt is the experience of freedom and choice, concepts which are completely new to them.   The Israelites, like children trying something for the first time, are impatient, eager to learn, and – to borrow a concept from childhood – eager to “wear their new shoes out of the store.”  They respond to all of God’s rules and requests by saying “Na’aseh V’nishma.”  We will do, and then we will understand. 
We find at the heart of this statement a long debate amongst educators over the benefits of learning and then doing or doing and then learning.  In the Mishneh Torah, Rambam writes: “Everywhere we find that learning precedes action, for learning brings about action, action does not bring about learning.”  Rambam holds that the statement should read “Nishma V’na’aseh,” we will first listen, learn, understand, and then put it into action.  John Dewey, in his masterpiece “Experience and Education,” wrote:  “Just as no man lives or dies to himself, so too no experience lives or dies to itself.  Wholly independently of desire or intent, every experience lives on in further experiences.  Hence the central problem of education based on experience is to select the kind of present experiences that live fruitfully and creatively in subsequent experiences.”  Dewey argues that “Na’aseh V’nishma” leads to more actions and deeper understanding.  In both cases, the scholars argue that experiences must be grounded in a strong foundation to bring forth meaning and understanding in our world.
The Israelites are experiential learners; they know that the only way they can grow and develop their society is by living in it, by engaging with the world, by doing.  They want to press every button on the cell phone to see how it works in order to understand how to use it.  We will do, and we will understand.  These two come side by side; we are constantly being asked to listen, to hear what is going on around us, and to experience the moment.
This section of text falls in the book of Shemot (Exodus) chapter 24, verse 7.  It is teaching us that 24 hours a day, 7 days a week we are obligated to explore our world and try new adventures, but we also must take the time to reflect, think back, and try to intuit reasoning and understanding of what is going on in the world around us. 
The work we are asked to do is to dive in and experience the world, to click (when appropriate) the green “I accept” button and move through the world with a keen sense of awareness every day that we will be able to act with goodness and with heart and to understand our world by listening to one another.
Family Discussion Questions: 
  1. Our “ethical covenant” emphasizes Shmiat HaOzen, being an attentive listener.  It is often difficult to stop “doing” and start “listening”.  How do you as a family maintain the balance of understanding one another and working together?
  2. When is it better to listen and then act?  What have you learned only through experiencing?

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