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Down The Mountain And Going Back Up

Down The Mountain And Going Back Up

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 4:50 p.m.
Torah: Exodus 21:1-24:18
Haftarah: Jeremiah 34:8-22; 33:25-26
Havdalah: 5:52 p.m.

Mishpatim, coming on the heels of the revelation at Sinai [Exodus 20], is concerned with what it means to struggle with the ins and outs of daily life, without the ecstatic experience of revelation. Last week’s portion of Yitro was about the mountain high, the sound and light shows at Sinai, the experience that was to press meaning and observance on Jews for all time. This week is about getting the details right, and through that being able to ascend the mountain yet again.

There are different kinds of religious experiences — ecstatic, ritual, life changing, and life cycle. Mishpatim has all of them: laws about bringing first fruits [Exodus 23:19] and coming on pilgrimage [Ex 23:17]; lending to the poor without interest [Ex 22:24]; not working on the Sabbath [Ex 23:12]; not taking a bribe [Ex 23:8]; not cursing a judge or a leader [Ex 22:27]; and not boiling a kid in its mother’s milk [Ex. 23:19].

These are only a sliver of the 24 halachot enumerated in the parsha, their range and breadth teaching us about religious life in general. Nahum Sarna made the point in his commentary on Exodus that here, unlike the law codes that are their ancient Near Eastern parallels, legal material is embedded within a narrative context, making these laws an “inseparable part of the Exodus narratives.”

There are many well known and explicated verses in this parsha; I want to focus on one that has been subject of much discussion: As Moses reads the Covenant to them, the Israelites state, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do and obey” [Ex. 24: 7], a verse that functions as a ratification by the people of Israel.

The Talmud [Shabbat 88a] says that when the Israelites spoke these words, and put “doing” before “listening/obeying” an angelic secret was revealed. “R. Eleazar said: When the Israelites gave precedence to ‘we will do’ over ‘we will hearken,’ a Heavenly Voice went forth and exclaimed to them, ‘Who revealed to My children this secret, that the ministering angels use, as it is written ‘Bless the Lord His angels, heroic creatures who obey his word, and listen to the voice of his words [Psalms 103:20].”

At the moment, when affirming the necessity of doing and listening, being fully aware of the myriad details of attempting to lead a religious life, the Children of Israel were able to attain an angelic raz, a secret, to be on par with the celestial lives. Later on in this section of the Talmud, the Israelites’ confirmation of their willingness to uphold these laws causes God to call them, “my firstborn child, Israel” [Shabbat 89b]. This willingness of the Israelites to do and listen is validated by the Talmud as creating a mutuality with God; they have earned their title.

Once all has been ratified and the laws have been promulgated, there is yet another chance to ascend the mountain at the end of the parsha. Moses, Aaron, Nadav and Avihu and the Seventy Elders of Israel are invited to ascend the mountain. There they eat, drink and have an ecstatic vision that is like the “pavement of sapphire, like the essence of Heaven in purity” [Ex 24:10]. This is a vision that combines the rapturous beauty of the sapphire with the simple ritual of eating and drinking, the sublime and the sustaining.

The power of the sapphire, and seeing it as a metaphor for the parshat Mishpatim as a whole can teach us something about religious life. Rabbi Meir [Sotah 17a] teaches that the color of the sapphire is connected to blue tachelet color of the tzitzit, the ritual fringes. This blue, he believes, resembles the blue of the sea, the sea resembles Heaven, Heaven resembles God’s Throne of Glory, both here and in Ezekiel 1:26, “The likeness of a throne as the appearance of a sapphire.”

The sapphire and its imagery of sea, Heaven and Throne of Glory, encompass the many aspects of religious life. There is the doing and listening; making loans and making pilgrimages; making restitution for livestock or fire devouring the field of another; as well as the ascent up the mountain to eat and drink. The brilliance of Mishpatim is analogous to the sapphire with the spectrum of light it emanates, which the verse tells us is like the “essence of Heaven in purity” [Ex 24:10]. The power of religious life is in both the ascent and the descent as well as the intermediate details, as the sapphire’s spectrum of light powers our visions of sea, Heaven and divinity.

It isn’t just the large grand moments on mountaintops that sustain our collective “doing and listening” but the small moments in our daily lives as well. n

Beth Kissileff is editor of a forthcoming anthology of academic writing on Genesis. She has taught Jewish studies and Hebrew Bible at Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, Smith College and Mount Holyoke College.

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