May 21, 2024
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Malcolm Gladwell writes in his New York Times bestseller, “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking,” about the way we make decisions in life. Gladwell describes what he calls “thin slicing,” namely, our ability to gauge what is truly important from a very narrow period of experience. He argues that spontaneous decisions are often as good as, or even better than, carefully planned and considered ones. He is in favor of snap judgments and trusting your gut to make decisions. Gladwell draws on examples from science, advertising, sales, medicine and popular music to reinforce his ideas. “The key,” he says, “is to rely on our ‘adaptive unconscious’ —a 24/7 mechanism that we all possess which provides us with instant and sophisticated information to warn us of danger, read a stranger or react to a new idea.”

From the perspective of the Torah, is this the best way to make an important life decision? Shouldn’t we be more careful in thinking things out?

To answer this question, I’ll raise another: At Har Sinai, the Jewish people famously declared: “Na’aseh v’nishma —we will do and we will hear,” a phrase demonstrating the Jewish people’s commitment to the Torah and for which they continue to be praised: When Bnei Yisrael gave precedence of na’aseh (we will do) over nishma (we will hear), a heavenly Voice responded: “Who divulged to My children this secret which only the angels employ?” (Shabbat 88a)

Rabbi Soloveitchik asked two questions: First, what motivated the Jews to be so undiscriminating, so accepting? We were never known to be an easily persuaded, gullible people. The Torah refers to the Jewish people as a “stiff-necked people” So, what motivated our ancestors to be so accepting?

Second, why were the Jewish people praised for saying “naaseh v’nishma?” Yes, this response shows admirable obedience, but are we not supposed to use our minds to analyze things rationally, instead of blindly accepting? Man is considered unique in the sense that he was created “in God’s image,” which according to the Rambam refers to our capacity to think, our ability to acquire wisdom and knowledge. So, why are the Jewish people praised for committing to the Torah in this manner?

The Rav, zt”l, answered by quoting the masters of Kabbalah (“Reflections of the Rav: Lessons in Jewish Thought,” adapted from lectures of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Rabbi Abraham R. Besdin, editor, pages 89-97) who taught that the unique endowment of man, and what ultimately distinguishes the Jewish people from others is not their rationality, but rather what he calls “ratzon elyon, higher will.” The higher will is above the intellect and makes its own decisions without consulting the intellect. This constitutes man’s real identity. What we call our intellect is just our brain weighing the pros and cons on any matter or decision; the ratzon tachton, which is subordinated to the ratzon elyon. Major life decisions are made spontaneously in response to a command from within, what we generally understand as intuition. Our biggest life decisions of faith, marriage and choice of profession are made through intuition. The intellect or the ratzon tachton, the lower will “is (then afterwards) called upon to justify the decision, to remove any inconsistencies and to plan implementation. The ratzon tachton balances credits and debits, weighs alternatives and measures consequences, but the ratzon elyon is aggressive and passionate. It bursts forth with fervor and emotional intensity. Its insights and higher affirmations are inspired with the breath of Divinity with which every man is endowed.” The ratzon tachton is practical and is guided by cold facts, whereas the ratzon elyon is not concerned with world success, with profits and the like and therefore makes decisions based on true vision and not simply on the practical reality.

When God offered the Torah to the Jewish people, the safe thing to do would have been to say, “Wait, let’s check it out. How about a30-day trial run? Let us have our lawyers look it over first!” That is precisely what the other nations did. The midrash famously teaches that each of the other nations first asked what was contained within the Torah and began evaluating whether they liked what it had to say.

“Na’aseh v’nishma” means the Jews answered with the ratzon elyon—not simply their intellect, but with their gut, their intuition—what they naturally perceived was right and true. That is why the angels praised them because when you make a decision in life based on your higher will, on your intuition and not simply the intellect, then according to Kabbalah, we are tapping into the Divine image within us and making the best decision.

But how can we make our biggest decisions based on intuition—on what simply feels right? We can and we should, if our intuition is properly developed. If what feels right in our heart is in line with the ultimate reality as expressed in Torah. However, if what we feel in our heart is simply based on what we see around us, on what our society teaches may be right or wrong, our heart will lead us astray and our life’s decisions will suffer. Thus, making the right decisions, in whatever capacity of life, boils down to having the right influences so our intuition can be developed in the right direction. This is why Judaism focuses us on Torah study and having the right friends, colleagues and teachers. And it’s why we spend so much time praying. Prayer forces us to look inward and check our values to ensure the decisions we make in life are the right ones.

A woman, who has been a regular at MJE, recently approached me and said she needs to “do something different.” Although she does not have much of a Jewish background, she felt that she must go to seminary in Israel to learn. Unfortunately, that decision didn’t jive with her job or her social situation but there was something within her telling her to go. I’d like to believe that feeling was an expression of her ratzon elyon, since she had spent enough time attending classes, shiurim and hanging around rabbis to feel in her gut that she needed to go to Israel and study Torah. Her intellect, she said, was telling her not to go. It wasn’t the right time for work and other things going on with her life and so her ratzon tachton, her practical intellect, was telling her to stay. However, her ratzon elyon, her higher will, was telling her to go.

Thankfully, she paid more attention to the latter, as the Jewish people did over 3000 years ago by accepting the Torah without knowing every detail. They had enough encounters with God to know that if the Almighty was offering them something, they should go with their intuition and accept it into their lives. By involving ourselves in Torah study and prayer, as well as surrounding ourselves with the right people; may we all develop our intuition in such a way as to reflect the Divine will and, in doing so, find greater happiness and fulfillment.

Shabbat Shalom!


Rabbi Mark N. Wildes is the founder/director of Manhattan Jewish Experience.

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