A friend gave me a book of quotations when I graduated from college. Far from being Bartlett’s or some such classical collection of wisdom, it was the end result of two college roommates’ years of pasting onto index cards the unusual and inspirational phrases they found in literature, film, music and advertisements.
I reread the book every year or two because of its eclectic inclusions. Where else would we find President Eisenhower’s “Things are more like they are today than they ever were before.” H.P. Lovecraft contributed “The most merciful thing is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” And my personal favorite is Andre Breton’s “...context...”
Last week, I stumbled across another gem – an Old Chinese Proverb. It is a simple progression of ideas:
I hear and I forget.
I see and I remember.
I do and I understand.
And it occurred to me, in the midst of counting the days to Shavuot, that the Old Chinese Proverb seemed to have captured the essence of the Old Jewish Tradition. This notion of a progression of experience is deeply grounded in our tradition. We are commanded to repeat the words of Tora night and day, knowing that the sounds of teachings frequently evaporate into the ether of dreams. We are commanded to “behold” in any number of situations, so that the vision remains a part of memory.
And, of course, when we stood at the foot of Sinai on Shavuot and received the Tora, we responded as a group with the same words as the Chinese proverb: Na’aseh v’nishma, We will do and we will understand.
All too often we want the order reversed; before I do anything, I want to understand it. But both our Israelite forebears and the architects of Chinese culture identified the source of understanding: making the experience of the wisdom your own.
Sometimes it helps us to appreciate the veracity of our own experience if it is independently confirmed by others. I am grateful to Old Chinese Proverbs for making this teachable moment available. I offer the Jewish tradition to modern Chinese teachers in return!