Mishpatim: The Moment After

Every revelation is a metamorphosis.  When a child is born into the world, their parents are forever changed.  When you take the risk and ask another to spend their life with you, it is a revelation of love so deep that individuals become partners and are forever changed.  When a child learns that their mother carries a terminal diagnosis, relationships change. When an addict admits to themselves that they can’t get through this on their own, a change occurs in the soul.  And on a windy night, when you hear the words “I love you” whispered timidly for the first time, you are changed. When something is disclosed to us where everything is the same, and yet nothing is, these moments are revelations, and with them comes metamorphosis. 

I remember the morning my eldest child was born. I remember walking into the sunshine after a night of labor feeling full of joy and wonder.  As mother and daughter were resting comfortably, I sat on a bench for a moment taking in the fresh air. The world was different because I was different.  No longer could I see myself as a son or grandson, I’m a father. That means something, but I couldn’t be sure what.  

Revelation captures a single moment in time, a single experience never to be repeated exactly the same way again. With this new knowledge comes new realities.  

But the question remains, what do we do after revelation? 

There is silence. We take a breath.  And then another. And another. 

In this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, an answer is found to the question of how to live in revelation’s wake.  We find the community of Israel standing in the shadow of Mt. Sinai having just experienced the revelation of the Ten Commandments.  Now, all of a sudden, God’s voice goes silent. For the next forty days (and nights), Moses remains on the mountaintop with God and the people are down below.  

It must have been terrifying to experience to behold the sacred presence at the level of Mt. Sinai and then to be left in silence.  At this moment, the moment after everything changed, when we are changed, what is to be done?

It is here, into this moment of silence, where the Torah truly begins. From this moment forward, the majority of the Torah is a book of laws governing our interpersonal relationships, morality, hygiene, governance, and diet.  In the moment after, the Torah clearly knows that we cannot maintain poetic revelation for very long. From sublimity to reality. From poetry to prose. The Torah portion begins by saying, “These are the rules.” (Ex. 21:1). These are rules for everyday life.  

What do we do after revelation? 

I remember trying to get a newspaper from the morning I became a father. I went to the kiosk and bought a paper thinking how cool would this be to show my daughter when she grew up.  Less than a couple of hours in, I thought I had this fatherhood thing licked. Except when I read the paper, I found myself feeling off. Why did the world not stop, as my world had done?  Or, at the very least, why did the world not skip a beat? At least one — for my girl, for the sake of life, and birth? The world went on as if nothing happened. I was changed, but the world at least, seemed to have not changed. 

This is why the rabbis teach that the Torah does not begin here, after Sinai.  Afterall, if we only care about the rules, why go through fifty chapters of Genesis and twenty chapters of Exodus? It’s because revelation is never without context, it emerges from a world and dissipates back into the world.  It is a moment in time, something that we cannot hold onto forever, but take with us back into the everyday.  

The Torah is 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. Every time we take care of another person, are mindful of how we eat, dedicate a certain time for prayer, or act with justice we take a piece of the mountain with us. Revelation changes us, and we need to take that change back into the world.  To care for those who are broken, and lift up those that have fallen. We are created in the image of God, and by going from the prophetic to prosaic, one step at a time, we ourselves partner with God in act of creation. As the Midrash teaches “Anyone who makes true meaning of Torah, it is as though they created themselves.”  (Tanchuma Ki Tavo)

Every revelation is a metamorphosis, and after revelation, every activity that makes meaning in its shadow is a further act of self-creation. The purpose of revelation, to know that you are different than you were before, is to change you.  What you do next is a creative act. How will your life be as a father or mother? How will you now take care of your ailing parent? How will you recreate yourself knowing your addiction? How do you respond to someone when they say “I love you” for the first time?  

The act of living out the Torah in real time is the purpose of revelation.  The impulse within us that finds partnership in the Presence of God, is returned to us again and again as we allow ourselves to transform everyday moments into extraordinary moments.  The purpose of revelation is not just a disclosure from somewhere else, it is the very creation of a human being.

In the moment after, there is silence, but then we speak. We act. We re-enter the very world we come from.  Changed to core. We cry. We laugh. We shriek. We live fully in the everyday. 

Shabbat Shalom.

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