When God gave us the Torah at Sinai -- so says our tradition -- we responded with na'aseh v'nishmah, "We will do and we will hear." Sounds kind of backwards, doesn't it? How can we follow instructions if we don't hear them first?
But Torah isn't just about following instructions. The receiving of Torah at Sinai was an experience of covenant, of connection. In this story, the tradition teaches us that sometimes we have to do something in order to really understand it. That in relationship, you have to commit to the other party even before you know everything it's possible to know about them. You make the commitment; you enter into the covenant; you do what that relationship requires. And over time, you come to understand your partner in deeper ways. You become able to "hear" things you couldn't have heard when you first started out.
Ideally, this is how the practice of mitzvot works. Lighting Shabbat candles, for instance: when I took on the practice of trying to light every week, regardless of whether or not I was "in the mood," regardless of what else might be going on for me as Friday evening begins, I didn't know what it would feel like to light every week. I didn't know how the practice might come to shape my life, or how it might impact my spirituality. Now that I've been doing it for some time, I can tell you that it speaks to me in ways I hadn't anticipated.
Because of my roots in Reform Judaism, I'm always exploring the interplay of tradition and informed choice. But perhaps because of my understanding of na'aseh v'nishmah, I'm also always probing to discern: if there's a mitzvah I don't want to perform, is that an expression of my informed choice, or a mulish refusal to accept the possibility that if I do the mitzvah with regularity it might speak to me in ways I can't imagine beforehand?
Maybe that discernment work is part of what it means for me to "do Jewish." My struggle to continually achieve the right balance between received tradition, renewed practice, and new choices about my Jewish life is itself a Jewish act. This is how I participate in covenantal community.
As Elul unfolds, in some ways there's not a lot we're supposed to "do." There's a tradition of hearing the shofar every day during Elul, and hearkening to its call: sleepers, awake! And of course there's the work of teshuvah, of repentance and return. Most of what we do during Elul is invisible. It's work of the heart, work of the soul. No one can see whether or not you're doing it -- except in the ways that doing this inner work can shape and change the outer face you present to the world.
Worth reading: Rabbi Jill Jacobs' essay Do First, Understand Later: The Jews accepted the Torah with the statement naaseh v'nishma--we will do and we will hear.
Also: thanks to the URJ for crossposting this to the Reform Judaism blog: To Do is to Understand.