Study and Practice
To be a fully engaged Jew, one must study the Torah and practice its commandments. Torah study enables us to explore G-d’s mind, as it were. This draws us closer to Him, nourishes our souls and informs our spiritual mindset. Practicing the Torah’s commandments marries theory to reality by grounding our learning in real life.
 
The question is, which should come first. Should we study first, fine-tune our spiritual sensibilities and ride the wave of that inspiration into religious practice or should we discipline ourselves to practice the commandments even if we aren’t inspired and then follow through with learning to endow our practice with spirituality? In other words, should creed precede deed or does deed come first?
 
The answer is that both are correct. For some people, study comes first and for others practice comes first. If you are of a spiritual bend, you will naturally pursue the path of inspiration and ride that wave into religious practice. If you aren’t spiritually minded, you will likely need to discipline yourself to practice and thereby develop your spiritual interest.
 
There are two sections in the Shema that we chant every day. Both reference study and practice, but the order is different. In the first section, study comes first. In the second section, practice comes first. This demonstrates that both approaches are valid and we each choose the approach that is right for us.
 
Which is Better?
The idea that all approaches are essentially correct appeals to our sense of equality and fair play, but it shirks the real question. Is either way better?
 
We might glean an answer from the order of the sections in Shema. The fact that the first section presents learning first and the second presents practice first implies that the optimum way is to study and develop our spiritual personality first.[1] Failing that, we fall back to the practice first approach.
 
When we review the pattern of Jewish history we find the ‘study first’ approach dominant early on whereas the ‘practice first’ approach is more dominant today.
 
During the first two millennia of our history, the focus was on study and spiritual development. There were many more Torah scholars and they were more erudite than contemporary scholars. For much of that period there was direct communication between G-d and the people through prophecy. There were also fewer customs and rituals in those days.
 
It would appear that we have transitioned from a ‘study first’ approach, to a ‘practice first ‘approach. This is consistent with our contention that ‘study first’ is the better choice and we only opt for ‘practice first,’ when necessary. In other words, creed leads to deed more efficiently than deed leads to creed.
 
Objective
This makes sense. Observing G-d’s commandment from a spiritual place of love is more meaningful than doing it out of obligation. The ‘study first’ approach is more rewarding because we understand what we are doing and why. We want to do it and can’t wait to do more. It has much more depth than the ‘practice first’ approach, where we don’t want any of it and must force ourselves to do it.
 
Yet, we wonder what G-d was thinking. If our predecessors were better than us, history is a downhill spiral. Why would G-d plan it this way? We understand that much of it is due to Free Choice, but G-d influences events. Had He populated the early generations with materially minded people like us and our generation with spiritually inclined people, history might have had an upward trend. We might have been a success rather than the failure we appear to be.
 
This tells us that G-d had something more in mind. The ‘practice first’ approach is not entirely bad. In one way, it’s even better than the ‘study first’ approach, which is why G-d stacked this generation with so many ‘practice first’ type personalities.
This is because the ‘practice first’ is G-d’s objective. It is less rewarding to us, less meaningful and less spiritual, but it fulfills G-d’s objective. Ultimately, the ‘practice first’ approach was G-d’s reason for creation.
 
Astronauts
Let’s borrow an analogy from the astronaut. When astronauts complete their training, they are at their peak. By the time they board the spacecraft, they are stronger and have more endurance than ever. As they go through their voyage they lose muscle tone and grow weak. By the time they return to earth they can barely stand upright.
 
Ask yourself, when the astronauts are really at their peak, is it when they board the spacecraft or when they deplane? From their standpoint, they are strongest at the time of takeoff. From the mission’s standpoint they are strongest upon return. At this point they have fulfilled their mission successfully. However, without the rigorous training up front, they would never have succeeded at the end. Fine tuning their strength on earth, enables them to succeed in space.
 
The same holds true for Judaism. G-d stacked our people with highly spiritual souls in the early generations to give us a collective deposit of Torah knowledge and a national memory of spiritual strength. By the time we reached the end of the prophetic and Talmudic eras, our spiritual abilities were at their peak. But the objective all along was the mission and the mission is what we fulfill today.
 
The mission is to make the world holy. Bringing holiness to holy people is easy, it’s like giving candy to children. The challenge is to make unholy people, holy. The old joke about a fellow looking for his glasses in the yard though he lost them in the house is pertinent here. When asked why he was searching in the yard, he answered that he couldn’t see in the dark house so he came out to the light.
 
It is ridiculous to search for your glasses where you know you won’t find them. It might be difficult to see in the dark, but that is where your glasses are. The same applies here. It is ridiculously easy to bring Torah and spirituality to people that are highly spiritual. It might be easy to do, but it’s not the objective. The objective is to bring holiness to people who are not otherwise inclined to it, people like us. It is more challenging, but it is the mission G-d wants.
 
The early generations paved the way for us to succeed in our current state. Just like the astronauts’ training enabled them to succeed in their mission, so do the teachings and collective spiritual power of the early generations guide us to success in our current mission. The trajectory of history was not a mistake. It is going exactly according to plan. Our progress might be slow, but we are right on mission.[2]


[1] This is especially poignant when you consider that they are drawn from the book of Deuteronomy. The first is from chapter six and the second is from chapter eleven. Their order is thus set in the Torah.
[2] This essay is based on Toras Menachem v. 23 pp. 250-256.


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