After weeks of counting, we celebrate the holiday of Shavuot — it is a holiday with all-night study and blintzes and cheesecake. It is also the time for confirmations and conversions. Why? Shavuot is the experience of receiving the Torah (some say the Ten Commandments) from G-d at Sinai. It is a time for us to learn and grow. Those being confirmed (at 16 in some synagogues) and those converting (on Shavuot we read the Book of Ruth, described as the first convert as she left her home and people and became part of her new family) commit and accept the Torah on this holiday.
“Na’aseh v’nishma” — “We will do and we will understand.” This is what the Israelites said at that moment to Moses and G-d. What an interesting and amazing response. They said they would accept and commit to the laws and expectations, following them before understanding. (Of course, there is that Midrash that says from the text “they stood beneath the mountain” that meant that G-d lifted the mountain over their heads and asked if they would accept the law and they, of course, agreed, saying, “Just put the mountain down!”)
What did our ancestors know about the necessity of doing something even before understanding it? They knew that to really understand, you need to “do” — you need to act, behave, create and participate actively in the learning and understanding. For greater understanding, they knew they must be actively involved in this partnership with G-d and each other.
Fast-forward a few thousand years; the great educational thinker, John Dewey, professed that children learn best through doing. He taught that it is through action and doing that we create meaning and understanding. It is how we make connections, solve problems and see new possibilities.
Fast-forward again to today. Brain research again validates what our ancestors knew, and what educators like John Dewey knew as well. When you are actively engaged and creating, you learn best. Children (and adults) learn best by being actively engaged in learning that is authentic, relevant and interesting.
A lot has changed since the Israelites stood at Mount Sinai, and some things never change. To remain committed to our values and traditions, we need to be active participants. The more we do, the more we will understand our purpose and value in our lives today. The rabbis say that we all stood at Sinai — together we do, accept, learn and understand every day anew. Na’aseh v’nishma!
Laura Seymour is Camp director emeritus and Jewish Experiential Learning director at the Aaron Family JCC.