Mishpatim: After Revelation
Every revelation is a metamorphosis. When a child’s face is born into the world, their parent is forever changed. When you pour your life out in front of another and ask them to spend their life with you, partners are forever changed. Alternatively, when partners agree to divorce, there is a change. When a son or daughter hears that his or her mother has been diagnosed with a terminal disease – all are forever changed. When we hear the words “I love you” for the first time, we are changed. These are moments of revelation- when something is disclosed from the outside, directing our thoughts and dawning a new era in our lives. Everything is the same, and yet nothing is. The question remains, what do we do with revelation, once it happens.
As we get deeper into the journey of the Israelites in the weekly Torah reading, mishpatim, we find the Community of Jacob in the shadow of Mt. Sinai. The encampment has just experienced the revelation of the Ten Commandments. Now, all of a sudden, God’s voice goes silent. For the next forty days, Moses is on the mountaintop with God and the people are down below.
It must be a terrifying to experience to behold the Sacred Presence at the level of Mt. Sinai and then to be left in silence. Many of live in this moment of silence, when God’s poetic voice skips a beat. We have lived with one version of another of that silence for thousands of years.
The silence, though, is necessary. The utter uniqueness, the aura, of an experience or a work of art cannot be held forever in the quaking presence of the moment. It must recede into silence in order for us to have the distance and space we need to perceive and internalize what just happened. As the philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote: We define aura…as the unique phenomenon of distance, however close it may be.” The silence is the first step.
We must all take another step, after revelation and after silence. We cannot flourish in silence, one must act within this new reality. We must do something. We must move forward. This is where the Torah truly begins. From this moment forward, the majority of the Torah is a book of law governing interpersonal relationships, morality, hygiene, governance, and diet. The Torah knows that we cannot maintain poetic revelation for very long, we must brin poetry into the prose of our lives. The very beginning of this week’s Torah reading focuses our attention, “These are the rules.” (Ex. 21:1). The poetry of life fades into shadow. What remains is the grind of everyday living. Revelation is behind us, and now the Israelites must move forward.
This is why the Torah is the Torah and not ‘just’ another work of literature. It cares about how we take our epic moments – moments that change us – and make them part of our everyday lives. As Jews we do that through Mitzvot, actions that glimmer the fire from the mountaintop. Everytime we take care of another person, are mindful of how we eat, dedicate a certain time for prayer, or act for justice we take piece of the mountain with us. We show that we still desire transformation even after revelation. The midrash teaches:
Said R. Yochanan: Anyone who makes true meaning of Torah, it is as though they made themselves, – as it is staid, “God commanded me at that time into teach you that statues and to do them.” (Deut. 4:14) It does not say la’soth otham – (to do them), but la’asotchem athem, (to make yourselves) – From here we learn that it is as bought each person creates themselves. (Tabchuma Ki Tavo)
After revelation, every activity that makes meaning in its shadow is an act of self-creation. The act of living out the Torah in mundanity is the purpose of revelation. The poetic impulse within us that finds partnership in the Presence of God, is returned to us again and again as we allow ourselves to be transformed in everyday moments where the sacred is found. The purpose of revelation is the creation of a human being. The purpose of living is to flourish knowing that Mt. Sinai is under our feet at all times.