Between the mundane and the miraculous
by Jhos Singer
Shabbat Shalom, Chaverim—
This weeks Torah portion, Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18) begins with a continuation of the commandments that were initiated with the famous ten last week. To review, Mount Sinai is smoking and rumbling, shofar blasts fill the air, the entire people have a direct experience of the Divine, and they don’t like it. Moses is appointed to take over, to listen to God’s directives and to deliver them to the folk in a more pleasant manner, because it turns out that the voice of unfiltered Spirit is not all sweetness and light. So, Moses takes the wheel, and that’s where we start this week.
We get to listen in on The One instructing Moses about the laws that will both establish and guide the Israelites into becoming a cohesive and unique social order. Limits and conditions are set regarding indebtedness, marriage, bondage, liability, property management, usury, damages, social welfare, judicial processes, and holidays. HaShem then sends an angel to protect and lead the Israelites “to the place which I have prepared” (Exodus 23:20). The riff closes with a troublesome pledge that an angel will rout out the locals so that the Israelites can establish themselves there. Odd that God would deliver a roster of laws—ostensibly to increase compassion, justice and personal responsibility amongst the Israelites—and immediately thereafter promise to “annihilate” the indigenous population on the Israelites’ behalf. (Exodus 23:23) However, the deal is dependent on the Israelites’ unwavering and exclusive spiritual commitment to YHVH.
Finally, the portion wraps up with an extraordinary and beautiful scene—Moses sets up an altar at the base of the mountain, where offerings are made including large bovine sacrifices—culminating with a vision shared by Moses and the leadership of the community:
“Moses, Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel ascended. They saw the God of Israel, and under Its feet was the likeness of sapphire brickwork, and it was like the essence of the heavens in purity. Against the great men of the Children of Israel, It did not stretch out Its hand—They gazed at God, yet they ate and drank.” (Exodus 24:9-11)
In some ways, this is the core of all spiritual life and practice. Contrary to popular belief, the hard work of living consciously, regulating our impulses, fears, and appetites through discipline, law, and control constitutes the bulk of a spiritual life. Maintaining a spiritual focus, without getting distracted my new or novel “gods” is difficult. Making the mundane sacred is a challenging and profound undertaking. Alas, our species is notorious for its bad behavior—let’s face it, we are by far and away the most vicious, dangerous, and destructive species on the planet. Other creatures appear to have no problem maintaining social order—their laws are simple, respected, and mostly noble. Not so for us. Our laws are complicated, hard to follow, often counter-intuitive, and constantly changing. As this parasha also suggests, one set of laws may or may not extend to all people, as both a natural bi-product of cultural diversity as well as cultural insularity. We divide even as we are trying to embrace the Oneness.
Laws are designed, implemented, and enforced to help us stay in right relationship. That said, laws are easily misused, abused, and manipulated. This might explain the punch line of this weeks reading. Spiritual endeavor is part discipline and part being in awe. Lawmakers who lose sight of the Mystery, who are divorced from Creation’s splendor, who are inured against Life’s wonders, easily become despots and power mongers. The Torah imagines God supported by both stone and sky, allowing Itself to be seen, pondered, and known by our ancient leaders. Their response? To engage in the grounding and elevating, nourishing and delightful, essential and elaborate act of eating and drinking.
May this Shabbat bring us the strength to channel our energy for the good, to gate our drives for health, and to find balance between the mundane and the miraculous.