This past Shabbat, Dr. Erica Brown inspired our community as she delivered three fascinating presentations on Jewish identity and faith. In her final presentation, she introduced a theory by Herbert Simon called “satisficing.” Satisficing is a combination of two words: “satisfy” and “suffice.” The concept of satisficing takes the cost of collecting additional information into account as a decision maker searches for a solution to a problem. Rather than attempting to understand and evaluate all possible choices available at a given point in time and assigning them utilities and probabilities, the satisficing theory recommends that you set parameters for a particular solution to a problem and then search for the first solution that satisfies these parameters. The result may or may not be the most optimal solution, but it is surely a solution that is good enough.
I believe that this approach can have great value when it comes to our religious practices. Those of us who want to immerse ourselves in a meaningful Jewish life are often faced with competing opportunities to do so. Should I join this shiur, or that one? Give tzedakah to this worthy organization, or to another? While it is admirable to seek out opportunities that will maximize our spiritual experience, insisting on participating in only the very best experience is a surefire way to settle on none at all. There might always be a better Torah study opportunity elsewhere, or an even greater way to do chessed. How many of us unwittingly say, “I want to be inspired every time I pick up the sefer and if I’m not, then it’s not for me! “ Or, “I have a vision of the perfect chesed opportunity - one that does not unduly burden me but where I feel amazing afterwards and, of course, the people who are doing the chesed with me must be my best friends!” We sometimes wait for the perfect spiritual opportunity, rejecting others along the way. But the guaranteed mitzvah is the one that is in front of us at any given time – so pick that one, and commit to performing it in the best way you can.
Perhaps at Mount Sinai, the Bnei Yisrael understood the concept of satisficing long before Herbert Simon. In response to God’s question about accepting the Torah, the Bnei Yisrael replied with an affirmation of “Naaseh v’nishma,” or “we will do and we will listen.” May commentators have asked how the Bnei Yisrael could have felt so certain that they would do the commandments, without first “listening” and fully understanding them. Perhaps the answer is that the Bnei Yisrael understood that while “nishma,” or fully understanding the reasons and meaning behind each mitzvah, is of great value, it must not come at the expense of “naaseh,” of behaviorally experiencing the mitzvah. We are the People of the Book, we are thinkers and we are “nishma” Jews. As such, it’s great to analyze and evaluate religious practices and where we can do better as religious individuals, as long as the analysis doesn’t paralyze us from “naaseh,” from doing more and more in the service of God.