This was my D'var Torah on Shabbat morning, Saturday, January 29, on Parashat Mishpatim.
When I was trying to decide whether to apply to rabbinical school, as a senior in college, I gave myself an ultimatum: I would not apply until I was putting on tefillin every day. Tefilllin are basically mezuzas but for the body -- leather boxes with small scrolls of Torah text inside, attached to straps, that we place and wrap around one arm and the forehead in the morning when it’s not Shabbat.
Tefillin is a practice that is distinctively Jewish, and distinct even among Jewish practices. If mezuzas are uniquely Jewish, tefillin is even beyond that. It’s unusual and not a lot of Jews do it outside of Orthodox environments. It just felt weird to me, and I was having trouble making it a regular personal practice. Even after a full year in Israel at the Seminary, going to minyan regularly in the morning for the first time in my life, putting on tefillin there -- still, doing it on my own, I couldn’t get there.
And I had made that my test for myself about my identity as a Jew obligated to halacha, to traditional Jewish law as a duty. I was already quite strict about Shabbat; for some reason that was no problem. But tefillin became for me a litmus test of my self-image and my right to present myself as a future Conservative rabbi. I wonder what your thing is, the Jewish practice or ritual or words that seems like you’re supposed to buy but it’s hard for you?
It’s not that I didn’t appreciate tefillin and the symbolism and ideas behind it -- still it remained at arm’s length, hard to wrap on my actual arm. But I really wanted to go to JTS (well, I really wanted to be finished going to JTS), so it was quite the cognitive and spiritual dissonance. I called the dean’s office to schedule my preliminary interview with one of the team, and something about just that interaction spooked me. I found some excuse to cancel so I could reschedule with the dean himself, Rabbi Gordon Tucker, whom I had met a few times. I thought if I talked to him and told him where I was, he’d respond in the right way, whatever that would be.
There is a phrase in the parasha this morning that comes to mind about this, and it’s a favorite when it comes to questions of Jewish observance. We quote: na’aseh v’nishma. We will do and we will hear. It’s usually explained as first you commit to a mitzvah, then you learn more about what you’re doing. You might think the other way makes more sense, study something before you commit to it -- but no, na’aseh v’nishma. Take a leap of faith first. The midrash praises B’nai Yisrael for taking that leap of faith at Mt. Sinai, saying na’aseh v’nishma knowing that compared to everything else they knew before, Torah would be weird to them a lot of the time. It would be like tefillin everywhere.
With a lot of other things in my Jewish path, like Shabbat and kashrut, I did a lot of na’aseh v’nishma that way. But it didn’t work for me with tefillin. I’ll pick up the tefillin story in Rabbi Tucker’s office -- but first we need to reexamine na’aseh v’nishma.
Here’s the context for the phrase. Before the Ten Commandments, Moshe brings God’s offer of a covenant in a general sense, and all the people say: What God has said so far about that, we will do. Na’aseh. Then they hear the Ten Commandments directly from God, and Moshe gets all of the mishpatim, the first big set of very detailed laws, and he tells them the law out loud, and the people say: All the words that Adonai has spoken we will do. Na’aseh.
Then after that Moshe sets up a big sacrificial meal and a ritual with blood, and Moshe reads the laws again to them out of the Book of the Covenant, as though to say: Do you really mean it? And they say: Everything that Adonai has spoken, we will do and we will hear -- na’aseh v’nishma. Then Moshe sprinkles blood over all of them, just to make sure, and says: All right, this is really a covenant now.
That’s where na’aseh v’nishma is in the Torah. So, a couple of things. First, tefillin seems a little less weird in comparison to sprinkling blood on absolutely everyone. Second, it’s clear that na’aseh v’nishma was not a right-off-the-bat leap of faith, like sure we’ll do this and we can talk about it more as we go along. It took three tries just to get to na’aseh v’nishma. A lot of repeating of the people’s commitment, and of course forty days later it didn’t matter anyway, because -- Golden Calf.
So I want to offer a slightly different way of looking at na’aseh v’nishma, we will do and then we will listen. I want to look at this through a lens from a modern rav named Tina Fey, master teacher of comedy improvisation. Na’aseh v’nishma: Meet the Rule of Yes-And.
In improv, you’ve got two or more people creating a scene together, and one person starts. Maybe that person -- call them Moshe if you want -- makes up a premise in their head or maybe it comes from the audience.
Tina Fey writes [in her book Bossypants]: The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES... This means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. So if we’re improvising and I say, “Freeze, I have a gun,” and you say, “That’s not a gun. It’s your finger. You’re pointing your finger at me,” our improvised scene has ground to a halt. But if I say, “Freeze, I have a gun!” and you say, “The gun I gave you for Christmas! You [insert word I can’t say in shul]!” then we have started a scene because we have AGREED that my finger is in fact a Christmas gun.
Rabbi Jon’s commentary: This first back-and-forth agreement, preliminary and not completely formed, is Na’aseh. We’re going to be in this scene together and create from here together.
Back to Tina: The second rule of improvisation is YES, AND. You are supposed to agree and then add something of your own. If I start a scene with “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you just say, “Yeah...” we’re kind of at a standstill. But if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “Yes, this can’t be good for the wax figures”, or “I told you we shouldn’t have crawled into this dog’s mouth,” now we’re getting somewhere.
[Still Tina:] To me YES, AND means don’t be afraid to contribute. It’s your responsibility to contribute... [and] MAKE STATEMENTS; Don’t ask questions all the time. ...Whatever the problem, be part of the solution. Don’t just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles. THERE ARE NO MISTAKES, only opportunities. If I start a scene as what I think is very clearly a cop riding a bicycle, but you think I am a hamster in a hamster wheel, guess what? Now I’m a hamster in a hamster wheel. I’m not going to stop everything to explain that it was really supposed to be a bike. Who knows? Maybe I’ll end up being a police hamster who’s been put on “hamster wheel” duty because I’m “too much of a loose cannon” in the field. In improv there are no mistakes, only beautiful happy accidents...I mean, look at the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup...
Thanks Tina. I say that the ideas of YES-AND, and THERE ARE NO MISTAKES ONLY OPPORTUNITIES, that’s v’nishma. I’ll agree to what you start with, and then we will agree on a next thing, and we will each keep listening, accepting what the other person brings and then building on that.
The “Yes-and” dynamic is a covenant. It begins and deepens a bond between two people that generates and solidifies the obligations between them around something specific they both are invested in up to a point. Both parties are the do-er, the listener, the responder -- and hopefully the scene keeps going.
So let’s apply this back to me and my tefillin, and then to Beth Abraham.
I flew down to New York for my preliminary interview and told Rabbi Tucker the truth about me and tefillin. He didn’t say no, you can’t be a rabbi. He didn’t even do the first kind of na’aseh v’nishma -- Well, Jon, what about just putting on tefillin for a few weeks, seeing how it affects you, and call me back after that? Instead he did this other version of na’aseh v’nishma. Yes-and. He accepted where I was. He didn’t argue with me. I remember him saying: What about thinking about it this way. Have you thought about it that way. How about it’s not an external commandment. It’s not for God, it’s for you, because it helps you think about your day ahead or the actions from your arm or your head. He made a number of suggestions, and then he left the ball in my court, to continue to apply if I wanted to.
Obviously I did. My final interview was kind of improv-y in a crazy way; that’s a whole other story. But tefillin became part of a much longer and wider yes-and for me about prayer and spirituality, and part of a process of finding a theology very different from the one I thought I needed. I gave up the idea of God and me divided by certain laws standing on two sides of an unbridgeable river. I became a rabbi who wasn’t putting on tefillin regularly, and maybe five years ago or so, only then, did I begin putting on tefillin nearly every day. Though it might well not have turned out that way. Part of that same story is that I’ve become part of Laura’s meditation groups, and believe me that was even more unlikely for me than putting on tefillin. Now I’m working on b’rachot over the food I eat; that’s a next part of this particular scene.
I’m grateful for Rabbi Tucker, who had no idea what our first yes-and would set in motion between the two of us and also beyond the Seminary. My own practice of laying tefillin is very much this other na’aseh v’nishma -- the way of yes-and, patient agreement, moving from deficiency in my own eyes to spiritual opportunity.
And that is every bit a covenant. And I think for many, many things, Beth Abraham should strive for covenant among ourselves in that kind of na’aseh v’nishma spirit, the yes-and-spirit.
People might come to us with a Jewish statement – a desire, an idea, an act. A way to approach a ritual or Shabbat or a Bat or Bar Mitzvah that might strike us as out of left field at first. Because of not knowing Hebrew, or not accepting traditional God-language, or feeling out of place in a traditional service, or being steeped in something exciting and spiritual from the outside. Our job would be to respond “Yes, and…” Acceptance -- but not just yes-full-stop, and the scene ends awkwardly. Out of yes comes yes-and. Out of acceptance and curiosity we would contribute the next idea, another step, an offer to explore together. I, we, the traditions we have, are part of the scene. Not whatever you say we can do, but let’s see what we can say together. Something to interpret, ask questions about, and respond to. We build a covenant, and then we enrich it and deepen it.
Sometimes the traditional na’aseh v’nishma is the right approach-- try this and see where it leads. But for me, this new frame of na’aseh-v’nishma-meets-yes-and helps show the Jewish world here as a place full of opportunities, not a place of Jewish deficiency. I want to flesh this out with you and all our leadership as a fundamental approach and an attitude of positivity and curiosity toward everyone in our community.
No is a powerful thing to say. Yes can be surprisingly powerful, and welcoming. But yes-and is even more powerful -- it’s acceptance and trust, and curiosity. It’s eagerness to go into the unknown and create something Jewish together. That is the leap of faith we need these days. Not just one person’s leap toward something the shul has defined previously, but a leap together. A leap toward each other, and together toward something purposeful and joyful. Na’aseh v’nishma, let’s leap together to do something Jewish, and keep listening for what we can do together next.