The Sinai formula: how it can impact our everyday lives

The transformative power of Torah lies not in ideas alone but in its unique synthesis of ideas and action, as crystallized in the iconic response of the Jewish people in accepting the Torah.

‘SHAVUOT (PENTECOST),’ by German painter Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, 1880 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘SHAVUOT (PENTECOST),’ by German painter Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, 1880
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Intellectuals is the title of a book authored by Paul Johnson, the celebrated modern-day historian. The book is a vivid portrayal of the lives of the most influential public intellectuals in Western culture: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, among many others.
But it is no hagiography.
In the book he contrasts the intellectual brilliance of their work with their often dramatic personal failings, their dysfunctional relationships, their unhappy lives, and most especially their lack of basic ethics. Russell made telling contributions to the field of moral philosophy yet was a serial womanizer known for his betrayal of all his three wives. Sartre, whose humanism made him an icon, was nevertheless a silent bystander during the Nazi occupation of France and a well-known apologist for the atrocities of Stalinism. Marx, whose writings championed the emancipation of the working class, employed the caricatures and canards of the worst antisemites. His ideas would later be used to justify cruel, oppressive regimes and even mass murder.
The point Johnson makes is that philosophy and ideas do not necessarily translate into good character or even into creating a better world.
How can ideas make us into ethical and refined people? How do we ensure great teachings make society more compassionate and moral?
The answer can be found in a simple formula expressed by our ancestors exactly 3,333 years ago at the foot of Mount Sinai, when God offered them His Torah: Naaseh v’nishma – “We will do and we will understand.”
We are on the eve of Shavuot, which celebrates the anniversary of this moment, when God unveiled a system of ideas that forever changed the world. In his monumental A History of the Jews, Paul Johnson himself writes how the Torah birthed a series of revolutionary concepts into existence: “The idea of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person; of the individual conscience and so of personal redemption; of the collective conscience and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice, and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind.”
But Johnson only encapsulates one half of the formula. Of course, it all begins with powerful ideas rooted in truth and morality, which we are privileged to have access to through Divine revelation, and which Johnson’s intellectuals did not.
But, the transformative power of Torah lies not in ideas alone but in its unique synthesis of ideas and action, as crystallized in the iconic response of the Jewish people in accepting the Torah: “We will do and we will understand.”
Torah is about doing and understanding. It is living wisdom; the intersection between philosophy and practice. When God gave us the Torah, He did not only give us ideas, He translated those ideas into a program of action that we call the mitzvot. Each mitzvah is the product of a powerful idea expressed as a practical action.
This practical action is granular, distilled to the finest detail. The mitzvot are derived from the written Torah, elucidated in the oral Torah, in the form of the Talmud, and then devolve into a program of action that we call the Halacha – a system designed to give practical expression to the Divine ideals that are the kernel of each mitzvah.
THUS, THE Divine ideal of compassion is not just a theory – it is translated into detailed practical directives on comforting mourners, visiting the sick, burying the dead, and other ways of alleviating human suffering. The Divine value of generosity is translated into the practical mitzvah of tzedakah, charity, including detailed laws on how much we give, the manner in which we give, and who we give to. The Divine ideal of renewal is translated into the mitzvah of Shabbat, including detailed directives on what it means to “rest,” and on the various practices that enhance the tranquility and spiritual connection of the day.
Similarly, the ethereal experience of prayer is given shape and practical expression through various halachic specifications around when and how we pray, and through the halachically prescribed words of the siddur, or prayer book. And even the seemingly abstract concept of historical memory is translated into the Passover Seder, with all its stipulations on what we eat and what we do and what we say to evoke the story of the Exodus.
By translating these grand ideas into practical, tangible, real-world actions, God has given us the means to transform ourselves and the world in which we live. “We will do and we will understand” is the formula. Abstract ideas can be intellectually stimulating but have no impact or practical significance. For ideas to affect real change, they need to be translated into action and need to be embraced personally in our lives and character. It is about personal transformation, which comes from the way we speak and act.
Really, it’s a matter of integrity. The Talmud defines a person of integrity as someone whose “inside is like their outside.” Having integrity means being the person we portray ourselves to be, ensuring what we do is a reflection of who we are, living in accordance with our beliefs. Johnson’s intellectuals espoused lofty ideals but failed to live up to those ideals. They lacked the program of action, and the force of commitment, to transport their ideas from the realm of the mind to their heart and soul, and from there, to their speech and actions.
After all, we are composite beings; intellectual and emotional, physical and spiritual. A person whose life is dominated by their intellect, without a program of action to bring their ideas to fruition, drifts in the abstract realm, their ideas unrealized. On the other hand, actions that aren’t animated by ideas and intellect are lifeless and empty, without spiritual meaning. It is only in the combination of body and soul, intellect and emotion, that we realize our true greatness. It is only through this synthesis of action and ideal that we change the world.
The Torah is an integrated Divine program of thought and action, of character development and personal ethics and integrity that speaks to all the various facets of our makeup. This holistic approach to human development is captured in the historic declaration of our ancestors: “We will do and we will understand.”
Doing and understanding is the essence of life – a Divine system for putting ideas into action, for translating philosophy into practice, for changing the world and ourselves in real, tangible ways.
The writer is chief rabbi of South Africa.