(Avot 6:6) There are 48 ways to acquire Torah, including...mi'ut sicha, minimizing conversation*...
(Exodus 24:7) ...kol asher diber adonai na'aseh v'nishma. [After Moses recited the record of the covenant to the people, they responded,] "All that God has spoken, we will do and we will understand."
Of all the prescriptions for acquiring Torah, this one seems to be among the most obvious. As one of my elementary school teachers used to say to us, "Listen with your ears, not with your mouth!" The less I talk, the more I hear.
But our tradition is well known for a pedagogic standard that is remarkably contemporary – the dialectic approach. Two (or more) individuals engage in a conversation about a text, and from the back- and-forth of this exchange comes a deeper understanding of Torah. Interactive learning is demonstrably more effective than passive listening. Granted, this suggestion of restraint is only one among forty-eight, but it is nonetheless surprising that it is included at all!
Perhaps a closer look at the word sicha (conversation) can clarify what I think is the intent of this maxim. In the Torah, the word is first used to describe Isaac – in Genesis 24:63, he goes out in the late afternoon lasu'ach basadeh, "to meditate in the field." (In fact, he is thus credited with the initiation of the mincha service.) This sort of conversation is a contemplative, speculative sort of exchange. It is philosophical in nature and less focused on the intent and application of Torah. In fact, it may not have to do with Torah at all – it may be the kind of "enlightened conversation" you would expect to find in a Roman-style salon.
In that context, it is a little easier to understand the resistance of the teaching to sicha. In our day and age, we have reconciled Torah study and general intellectualism. In earlier times, they represented the difference between faithfulness and apostasy, between being a God-fearer and an Epicurean (Apikoros). The type of conversation represented by sicha is secular (in spite of the origins of the term), delving into the self rather than the will of God.
The contrast is offered by the verse from this week's portion. A conversation of sorts has taken place among God, Moses and the Israelites. God offered instruction, Moses communicated it to the Israelites, and the Israelites responded, in one case "with a single voice." The response they offered was one Hebrew word – na'aseh, "we will do." Finally, at the end of the series of moral guidelines, the Israelites add a word – v'nishma, "and we will understand."
Torah seems to offer the perspective that true understanding comes not from endless processing, but from putting the instruction of Torah into action. Even our vaunted tradition of study is only deemed worthwhile if it leads to action.
In an earlier column, I wrote about rote repetition and how it helps the individual integrate actions into an almost organic repertoire. Na'aseh v'nishma is not just about integration; it is also about internalization. Doing something so that it leads to understanding connects the physical with the intellectual, the sensory with the spiritual. Stripped of action, conversation is mere self- indulgence. It is a means of gratification that does not bear real fruit. (If you sense a sexual metaphor, you are correct.)
In some Jewish circles, it is considered praiseworthy to devote oneself to the academic life. Whether the discipline is Talmud or one of the many graduate schools populated by the great minds of our people, the aforementioned danger is the same. Even the study of God's word, if limited to sicha, is an obstacle to acquiring Torah. Even the highest-level academic pursuits, if unaccompanied by some measure of practical application, will lead to knowledge, but not wisdom.
Of course, the advice is that we minimize conversation, not eliminate it. Human interaction is not inherently bad or evil. Like all matters of personal enjoyment, speculative (or even frivolous) talk has its benefits in moderation. Like all matters of personal enjoyment, speculative talk can supplant Torah and even God if not moderated.
But Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb of the Conservative Yeshivah in Jerusalem, makes a wonderful observation about this verse. Noting that "the key to accepting the covenant at Sinai is to understand that Judaism is not something that you do just at synagogue or on holidays," he offers his own version of a "bible code." The chapter and verse citation in Exodus for na'aseh v'nishma is 24:7. We invented the notion and the sacred application of 24/7. As Elvis Presley sang, "a little less conversation, a little more action, please!"
How can you practice mi'ut sicha? This week's Torah portion offers a great opportunity (though virtually every portion can put this value into play). Choose one of the many instructions given to the Israelites and act on it today. Don't spend a lot of time thinking about it – just do it. (Of course, you do not have slaves to free nor will you find a sorceress to put to death! But you can act against slavery elsewhere in the world and do something constructive to overcome superstition and falsehood, for example.) Then act on the same teaching tomorrow and the next day and the day after that. Only after a series of actions should you then sit down to reflect on or discuss with a companion what you learned.
*Six values in a row include the word mi'ut, meaning, "minimizing." It is worth a moment to speak of asceticism and its place in our lives.
We live in a consumer society. While many people have become expert in exercising self-control over larger or smaller parts of their lives, our restraint is reactive rather than proactive. A dieter responds to excess weight; a person quits smoking in spite of a nicotine dependency; a family reduces expenses because the household budget must be reduced. While the conspicuous consumption of American society may be good reason to examine our self-indulgence, these six values reflect a stream of thought inherent in Judaism that is more Eastern than Western in orientation: acquisitiveness is the enemy of inquisitiveness. An emphasis on things and pleasure interferes with matters of the spirit and enlightenment.
That message is unpopular among the economically comfortable American population. And it is not my goal to upend the benefits of relative affluence by suggesting that your gym membership or subscription to HBO stands between you Torah. (I have both.) But mi'ut is not a limited tactic; it is a way of thinking and a way of living. In kabbalistic terms, I might compare it to tzimtzum, conscious self- contraction, the way in which God made room in this world for something other than God's own Self. The process is global, not local.
Please consider this context in reflecting on this reading.