Rabbi Ranon Teller
I learned a spiritual metaphor this week that has already helped me in number of ways, and I’d like to share it with you. It sounds a bit light-hearted at first, but I’ll try to connect the term with some deeper, practical wisdom. The term is “a spiritual trampoline.”
Wikipedia reports that the first trampoline was built by George Nissen and Larry Griswold in 1936 at the University of Iowa. They were both collegiate athletes. Nissen was a gymnastics and diving competitor and Griswold was a tumbler on the gymnastics team. Griswold and Nissen invented and trademarked the term “trampoline” – the generic term was “rebound tumbler.” As it turns out, in addition to recreation, the trampoline has had many uses over the years. During World War II, the US Navy Flight School used the trampoline to train pilots and navigators. The trampoline offered them concentrated practice in spatial orientation in a way that wasn’t possible before the invention of the trampoline. After the war, the trampoline was used in the space flight program. It helped train both American and Soviet astronauts, giving them the experience of variable body positions in flight. Let’s set the trampoline aside for a moment.
In our parasha this morning, Mishpatim, the Israelites receive more laws than in any other weekly Torah portion. When asked if they will observe God’s laws, they answer, “we will do and we will understand – na’aseh v’nishma”. On the surface, that phrase is understood to mean blind obedience – unconditional acceptance. They were committing to God’s law with full trust and without question. God, You say, ‘Jump!’ and we’ll say, ‘How high?’ Then, after we obey the law, we’ll try to understand the rationale. According to the Talmud, this blind obedience is a strategy that the holy angels use: “First they perform, and then they listen.” And so, in uttering these words, na’aseh v’nishma, the Israelites tapped into a powerful angelic, heavenly obedience.
The Talmud views this comparison as positive, but it’s also somewhat problematic. If saying na’aseh v’nishma is angelic, it might also be unattainable for ordinary human beings. Things that are angelic are often not great for us.
The most popular justification of this glorification of blind obedience is the behaviorist, experiential model, which I believe has some validity. For much of Jewish ritual life, you have to develop a comfort – cultivate a routine and associate positive reward – before it becomes meaningful. You have to experience Shabbat before you commit to keeping it. Although I believe it’s true, it is still a difficult strategy and a largely ineffective model for Jewish engagement.
In our post-modern, post-post-Enlightenment, contemporary mindset, blind faith really isn’t a good thing. In our day, we seek meaning. We demand reason. We want justification, guarantees, before we commit. And more often than not, there are plenty of good reasons to keep the mitzvot!
Luckily, there is another way to frame the concept of na’aseh v’nishma that can add to our traditional understanding of that phrase. It’s taught by Dena Weiss, a teacher at Mechon Hadar in New York. In her model, “we will do and we will understand” is not used for blind faith; it’s used as a spiritual model to reframe the effects of failure. Sometimes when we fail, we become depressed and paralyzed, unable to move forward and begin again. And when we do pick ourselves up, we’re often wounded and anxious. The idea of “we will do and we will understand” can help us rebound from failure – like a spiritual trampoline, the rebound tumbler. Allow me to explain.
Here’s the idea from R. Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl, the Me’or Einayim. Our spiritual lives are always in flux – constantly in motion on a continuum of distance from God. Constant motion is the reality of the universe. When we succeed, we’re close with God. When we fail, we’re far from God. Our rabbis call it ratzo vashov – to and fro. When we we’re far, that’s na’aseh, “we will do”: we’re doing, we’re going through the motions without feeing the meaning and the import, we’re grinding it out. When we’re near, that’s nishma, “we will understand”: when we understand that what we’re doing has spiritual meaning.
This message of ups and downs can be used in a theological model in the heavens and also for ourselves in our world. As humans, we succeed and we fail. A genuine, authentic, Jewish spiritual path is littered with setbacks. This teaching can help us reframe our own sense of failure. We all fail. We all have setbacks. We can occasionally be insensitive to our family members. We can occasionally mess up at work. We can make a bad decision. These are some of the bruises and scars of being human and fallible. When we fail, we sometimes get depressed and paralyzed and stuck – and we tumble through life, just going through the motions. Use the spiritual trampoline. Rebound with the rebound tumbler.
When we fail, the spiritual trampoline can help propel us upward and grow. Newton’s third law of physics states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The same amount of force that pulls you down is going to propel you upward again. And if you’re a good trampolinist, you can overcome the pull of gravity by adding your own burst of energy into it, at the very bottom, at just the right moment. And if you do it right, you can go even higher than you where you started. Failure plays an essential role in the growth. But it’s up to us to shape our failures into growth opportunities with our sheer force of will. It doesn’t happen on its own. If we continue to experience our failures without the rebound, we’re going to jump lower and lower and eventually just lay down flat on the trampoline. We want to rebound and use the energy of our failure to propel us higher and higher.
How do we contextualize failure in a healthy way?
- Through learning: Acknowledge and integrate the failure. Do everything in our power to avoid repeating the same mistake. Modify our response to the stimulus. Strengthen our systems. Do whatever it takes to modify and expand and adjust.
- Through humility: Understand that we can’t control all the factors and variables around us. There are factors at play in the world, in our emotional world, in the our complex relationships, and in our subconscious that are beyond our control. We strive for excellence every day and, although we can win often, sometimes we fail. Let’s see ourselves as part of an interconnected whole. You matter because of the way your actions impact everyone else. You are not alone in your embarrassment.
- Through self-compassion: Just as we are compassionate to others, just as God is compassionate to us, let’s be compassionate to ourselves. Everyone struggles. This is what it means to be human. Practice accountability, not self-blame. Practice self-correction, not self-criticism.
Ribono Shel Olam, Source of Healing, thank you for your gift of healing and repair. Help us to use our failures to learn and change and modify and grow. And in that way, may we experience authentic Jewish journey with constant motion – toward You and away from You and back again. And together we say: Amen.