In the summer of 2000, I made a radical decision to chaperone a group of 16-year-olds on a hiking trip in southern Utah under the auspices of OSRUI. My family was not very happy, to say the least. We had no cell phones, no way to call for help, and were led by two 23-year-old Outward Bound trained guides and me. What was I thinking? When the 40lb pack was put on my back, I literally was forced to bend forward due to the weight. The temperatures at the bottom of the canyon were the highest in recorded history, and we were told by the rangers, “this is not a good time to hike.” Unfortunately, down we climbed to the bottom of a never-ending canyon where we would ‘wander,’ unable to find water for hours, dealt with blistered feet and dehydration, and yet, after 2 weeks, we climbed 1,300 feet out of the canyon like Rocky running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Although I look back on my experience of Mosh West with a thankfulness that I lived to tell about it, I also remember moments that were so spiritual, so strong, and so unbelievable. The canyons of Utah are magnificent; to experience such weariness and yet be amazed that your body can do more than you ever imagined is pretty powerful; to be in the desert all that time and see not one other human being except your small group of campers – it’s all pretty extraordinary. It was our Sinai. And then it was time for me to leave. I went from something so unique, an experience that is difficult to describe, to hassles in the Utah airport and then all the emails, voicemails, shopping, housework back home in Northbrook. I was stunned at how quickly the high faded away and life got back to normal.
That’s what this week’s Torah portion is about. Last week we were at Mount Sinai—a spiritual trip so powerful that every one of us had an out-of-body experience where we saw the thunder and heard the lightning. Last week we each had an experience of God, hearing God speak to us. Tradition differs as to what exactly was transmitted, but whatever we heard, it was powerful enough to change our lives and the life of our community, forever.
And yet, look at where we are now. Mishpatim is one of the longest portions in Torah, with over fifty different mitzvot, including laws related to murder, kidnapping, personal injury, property damage, returning lost property, helping the poor, and alleviating the suffering of animals. After the spiritual high of Mount Sinai, all the details of daily life intervene. It seems as though these two parashiyot and the experiences they record belong to two different universes.
But Jewish tradition teaches us that it is in fact the same universe. We need the spiritual high of Mount Sinai, but we need to remember that revelation exists to enable us to live more fully in the real world.
Jewish spirituality is not only in the canyons of Utah or watching a sunset on the coast overlooking an ocean, but also (and more important) in grappling in the real world of offices, kitchens, stores—the real world where people interact with each other.
Our Torah portion begins: V’eileh hamishpatim asher tasim lifneihem, “And these are the rules that you shall set before them”. These are the laws that are linked to the Ten Commandments, all coming from God at Mount Sinai.
Commentators have asked: What does “before them” mean? Some have said that it means that these mundane laws of how people should treat each other, of how to organize a civil society, about behavior between one person and another, are so important that you set them before the laws governing your relationship with God.
This is the world of Jewish spirituality. This is what Mount Sinai is about: creating a world where people are responsible for each other, taking responsibility for our actions, being careful about what we say about each other. Jewish spirituality is about empathy and about creating a society based on a vision of justice and caring.
At the conclusion of the recitation of law, the people declare to Moses that they will do all that God has commanded them, but then they reiterate the promise with a powerful phrase: “ ‘All that the Eternal has spoken we will faithfully do!’ ”—naaseh v’nishma, literally, “we will do and we will hear” or perhaps, we will do and we will pay attention.
By doing mitzvot, by working to mend our broken world, and, of course, by engaging in meaningful ritual, we are better able to pay attention to the many moments of our lives. These actions themselves are like road signs, helping us to slow down and be on the lookout for something important.
When we kindle the Shabbat candles, we pay attention to the power of silence and the need to bring light and blessing to the world. When we give tz’dakah, we pay attention to our community and notice those in need. Naaseh v’nishma. We will do by living Jewish lives, and in so doing we will pay attention to that which matters most.
At the very end of the portion, after all the details, all the laws, God calls Moses: “Come up to Me on the mountain and be there.” “and I will give you the stone tablets with the teachings and commandments which I have inscribed to instruct them” .
Menachem Mendl of Kotzk raised a question about this verse: “This seems redundant. If Moses went up to the mountain, of course, he would be there”. So why does Torah add: “And be there?”
It is there to remind us what we already learned at Mount Sinai: whatever we do, in the sublime and in the mundane dimensions of our life, we need to be there, to bring our whole self into the experience, to be present, and to pay attention. It’s making the extraordinary out of the ordinary, being there 100%. I experience this when leading a service for the children or a shiva service, or when I squat down to be at the eye level of a child who wants to tell me something, or when teaching parents something basic, yet they feel is a ah-ha moment, truly I-thou moments in my life at the temple. So when our plates are so full, when life feels oh so challenging, we take a breath, and we be there, really present with all of you, our congregational family; pay attention, give it your all, with kindness and devotion, and purpose. This is Jewish spirituality. Naaseh v nishmah…we will do and we will pay attention with a full heart.