Parashat Mishpatim

February 18, 2023 | Ivry

Have you ever wondered why God made Moses climb up a mountain to get the Torah?  Wouldn’t it have been just as meaningful to find a beautiful, inspiring location along the shore of an ocean or in a lush green valley? Somewhere that didn’t involve so much physical exertion, so much schlepping?

In her book, God in the Wilderness, Rabbi Jamie Korngold,  aka “The Adventure Rabbi”, tells how she asked a group of rabbinical students that same question while leading them on a grueling hike up Green Mountain whose peak would give them a sweeping view of Boulder, Colorado. One of her students, Evon, sweating and struggling up the trail, suggested, “Because God figured Moses would be so out of breath from the climb that he wouldn’t be able to say ‘No, thanks’, and refuse the Commandments.” 

Rabbi Korngold was looking for an answer about how when you put effort into something it becomes more valuable to you, but Evon’s words rang true as well.

She writes, “The physical exertion of the desert climb, coupled with the stark desert beauty, helped Moses to arrive spiritually and emotionally in a place beyond internal chatter, a place beyond rationalization or explanation.” He reached the top in a state often called ‘awe’, when you open your mouth to describe what is happening and the only thing you can say is ‘Wow’.” That’s because the peak of a mountain can provide not just spectacular views, but can captivate you, minimize distractions, and focus your thoughts. 

Maybe this explains the unusual wording in the command to Moses to climb up the mountain and receive the tablets. In this week’s parashah, Mishpatim, we read “וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהֹוָ֜ה אֶל־משֶׁ֗ה עֲלֵ֥ה אֵלַ֛י הָהָ֖רָה וֶֽהְיֵה־שָׁ֑ם/God said to Moses, ‘Come up to me on the mountain and be there” 

Of course he’d be on the mountain-top once he climbed up! Where else would Moses be?  Well, his body would certainly be there. But would his mind, his heart and soul also be there?  “Being there” isn’t only about arriving somewhere geographically; it’s about being attuned emotionally and spiritually to where you are.

The Kotzker Rebbe was also intrigued by God’s invitation עֲלֵ֥ה אֵלַ֛י הָהָ֖רָה וֶֽהְיֵה־שָׁ֑ם/Come up to me on the mountain and be there.  “The goal”, he taught, “is not merely to ascend, but also to be there, to be actually present there, and nowhere else – and not to be going up and down at the same time.”

I thought about that line a lot: “not to be going up and down at the same time”. I think he meant that we shouldn’t be in one place with our bodies but in another with our minds. In life’s most sacred and precious moments, we should be all in - fully aware, attentive, and engaged.

But the phrase “not to be going up and down at the same time” raises another image – the slippery slope. Here’s where I divert from the Kotzker Rebbe to choose a different trail that I believe will get me to the same summit.

When I think about why the Torah was given on the top of a mountain, it’s because climbing a mountain is hard work. As an experienced hiker, I know that first hand. An incline, a surface slick from rain or gravel, an unstable rock – if you’re going to hike up a mountain you need to be prepared for some risky terrain, even some setbacks here or there. You need to expect that you may lose your footing for a second or you may lose the trail for a little while. You need courage and confidence that you can make it to the top, that you can endure moments of doubt or uncertainty that are part of the challenge to aim and reach high.

That’s a powerful metaphor for Torah. Living a life of deep Jewish commitment means carefully but courageously exploring what our Jewish beliefs and values want of us in a particular scenario, a particular relationship, or a particular generation. It means negotiating the sometimes competing demands of an ancient tradition and a fast-changing world. It means doing the hard work of balancing our desire for freedom with our yearning to belong, of tempering our instinct to judge with our capacity to love. It means recognizing that the path isn’t always clear; that there are both risks and rewards in our choices which need to be carefully calibrated; that sometimes moving forward might require taking a step back.

It’s not a walk in the park. It’s a grueling hike up a mountain. For this reason Moses was summoned to scale Mount Sinai: to model for us how to meet the challenge of encountering the Divine and living a life of holiness. Moses teaches us that the slippery slope is nothing to fear; it’s the best - and the only - way up.

Having made the difficult trek, we might have expected that Moses’ reward would have been some mystical, magical, mysterious interaction with God. Instead, as our parasha recounts, he hears this:

“Do not take bribes, for bribes blind the clear-sighted and undermine the pleas of those who are in the right.”

And this: “When someone starts a fire and it spreads to their neighbor’s field burning their grain, the one who started the fire must make restitution.

And this: “an eye for an eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.”

Moses climbs and sweats and stumbles to the top of Mount Sinai to meet God, reaching the ultimate spiritual heights, and the great revelation awaiting him is not the secrets of the universe or the meaning of life but rather instructions on how to be a mensch and live peacefully with other people.

“When you encounter your enemy’s animal wandering and lost, you must take it back to them.” Could this be the message that Alex Honnold heard from the universe when he scaled El Capitan in Yosemite? 

Yet this is precisely the distinctiveness of Judaism’s sacred teachings: observing religious rituals like Shabbat, prayer, festivals and kashrut are one approach to encountering the Divine. And observing the Torah’s rules about treating each other with respect, compassion and humility is another equally holy and equally demanding approach to spirituality.

There was a time when this message was more keenly felt among our communities. In the generations prior to the emancipation of European Jews in the late 18th century, before we were integrated into the larger social, judicial and political systems in which we lived, interpersonal disputes such as someone’s animal goring another’s or someone losing or damaging an item they were asked to guard for someone else were resolved by the rabbinical courts and halakhic experts in any given town. Their wisdom and authority extended to every aspect of life, reinforcing this message that holiness is to be discovered and sustained even in our most mundane experiences and concerns.

In the wake of Jewish emancipation, as more and more of our daily activities and interests were woven into the fabric of the general society around us, the scope of rabbinic authority became more and more limited to religious matters. When we compare the contents of responsa literature from the centuries prior to emancipation to those following, the shift in focus is dramatic. Whereas before, rabbis would answer queries about all kinds of issues including those relating to neighborly and business disputes, after emancipation the halakhic questions for the most part addressed matters of ritual and family law.

It’s true that for many decades now the Jewish call to “tikkun olam”, to repair the world, has motivated many of us to do more to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless and even recycle and compost to help preserve our imperiled planet. But few of us consider the halakhic and spiritual implications of the ways in which we shop, pay our employees or even listen to music.

This reframing of our spiritual consciousness is the gift of parshat Mishpatim, reminding us to seek God or holiness or meaning not only by looking above or within us, but also by looking directly at one another and taking responsibility for one another’s well being.

It’s here too that the slippery slope beckons. The work of finding our way to the most ethical expressions of our commitments to each other, to a world of justice and healing, is arduous. We know well that life is not always clear cut; that the road to morality isn’t always a straight shot but can often be winding and confusing. We often have to contend with competing needs and limited resources; with long term goals and immediate crises. 

The most revered rabbinic leaders in our tradition were, and are, those who don't fear the slippery slope but who embrace it; those who understand that the road to authenticity is sometimes paved with uneven and uncertain stones which we have no choice but to cross if we wish to be on this journey; those who recognize that authenticity isn’t only about the precise image in your viewfinder when you’re standing on the peak, but that it is also about the sincerity and intention with which you made the effort to get there.

Every single day the call “עֲלֵ֥ה אֵלַ֛י הָהָ֖רָה וֶֽהְיֵה־שָׁ֑ם/Come up to me on the mountain and be there” goes out to us, no matter where, or who, we are.  Every day we are challenged to invest our efforts to live purposeful lives and to build meaningful relationships - human and Divine - with a deep sense of awareness of the love, beauty, struggle, pain, and above all, gratitude, that make us human.  

Sometimes no matter how hard we work at it, no matter how high and incredible the view we achieve, we may feel we’ve arrived on the outside but that we’re not quite there on the inside, we’re not truly present.  Other times we may realize that we have yet to scale the heights we set for ourselves but are nonetheless deeply present to the scenery around us -- the people and communities, art and music, spirit and nature that surround us.  And they inspire us to take one more step.

As Alex Honnold said in Free Solo: “"There's a constant tension in climbing, and really all exploration, between pushing yourself into the unknown but trying not to push too far. The best any of us can do is to tread that line carefully."

Well said. The best any of us can do - the best any of us can help each other do - in our search for the unknowable holy One that lives within and between us, is to, like Moses himself, climb the slippery slope.

Shabbat Shalom