Parshat Mishpatim: Anticipation

Anticipation is a dangerous feeling. Without it we lose our drive, become complacent in the here and now, forget to dream; too much of it and we paralyze ourselves waiting, and in the inevitability of a delay or a change of plans, we are crushed. Worse, if the long-awaited event underwhelms, the sadness outweighs any expected gain in the first place.

So, tread lightly on the balance beam of anticipation!

Corona has taught us all to be ready to adjust, cancel, pivot, or simply accept the age-old aphorism, ‘a mentch tracht un Got lacht’ (Man plans, God laughs)! Many approached January first of last year with so many plans and resolutions, only to quickly realize that what the year was really about was survival! The trauma of ‘our grand plans quashed’ seemed ridiculous when our neighbor, co-worker or loved one suddenly and unexpectantly was taken by the plague which took so many so quickly. As a result, we have shifted our expectation and re-imagined our near future. And that’s okay.

A similar experience happened at Mount Sinai. The children of Israel were told to wait for Sinai, revelation! They dreamed of that notion while still working as slaves in Egypt; they sacrificed and followed the directives of Moshe on Pesach night in anticipation of the ultimate goal; they even counted every day from Exodus to ‘Matan Torah’—the 49 days of elevation the rabbis compared to the wedding day.

And then the day arrived, Moshe charges them with the mission to become God’s role model nation and they readily accept (‘we will do it’). But then the anticipated event begins–the mountain shook, there was thunder and lightning, smoke filled the mountain, Moshe disappeared and as they heard the sights and sounds and the shofar blared, the voice of God began to reverberate throughout their souls…

At that point the people realized they could not handle it. It was too much, too overpowering, way more than they anticipated. They simply could not handle the reality of that which they had been dreaming of for so long. They fell back physically, turned to Moshe and said:

וַיֹּֽאמְרוּ֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה דַּבֵּר־אַתָּ֥ה עִמָּ֖נוּ וְנִשְׁמָ֑עָה וְאַל־יְדַבֵּ֥ר עִמָּ֛נוּ אֱלֹהִ֖ים פֶּן־נָמֽוּת׃

“You speak to us,” they said to Moses, “and we will obey; but let not God speak to us, lest we die.”

Parshat Yitro presents an incongruous equation of anticipation and manifestation. They expected, convinced themselves they could handle it, but ultimately came up short. One can imagine the entire experience to be a failure, but that is not the case; instead, the leaders of the nation turned to Moshe and said, ‘we need to pivot’, we need to readjust our sights to allow for a softer, more palatable revelation. It actually represents a healthy response to the anticipation/manifestation incongruity.

Parshat Mishpatim presents a different type of revelation, a measured one, one the people could digest and accept. First, it presents a series of interpersonal and civil laws, laws which made sense communally and morally, laws which ask of the people to take the lifestyle they are accustomed to and elevate it to a loftier, more sanctified existence: slavery, guardianship, damages, sexual laws, helping the poor, treating animals and people—all with the intent on helping the nation strive towards a more moral and responsible people.

The next section informs the nation of what the future will bring; God will send an angel to show them the way, to facilitate their travels and to aid in the conquest of the Promised Land. It will be a process but ultimately it will lead to security, prosperity and Godliness in their homeland.

Finally, this extension of the original revelation, which this time occurred at the foot of the mountain rather than at its peak. There will be a covenant ceremony, in which each of the tribes will be represented. It is right before this that the people, upon hearing all this respond in the most ideal way:

וַיָּבֹ֣א מֹשֶׁ֗ה וַיְסַפֵּ֤ר לָעָם֙ אֵ֚ת כָּל־דִּבְרֵ֣י יְהוָ֔ה וְאֵ֖ת כָּל־הַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֑ים וַיַּ֨עַן כָּל־הָעָ֜ם ק֤וֹל אֶחָד֙ וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ כָּל־הַדְּבָרִ֛ים אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה נַעֲשֶֽׂה׃

Moses went and repeated to the people all the commands of the LORD and all the rules; and all the people answered with one voice, saying, “All the things that the LORD has commanded we will do!”

Sometimes when we anticipate too much and are then disappointed, the best thing to do is to find a way to accept the new reality, then reassess our lofty goals and insert new ones commensurate with the situation which has presented itself. Only this way can we, like the children of Israel, regroup and continue the process towards redemption.

Shabbat shalom

About the Author
Rabbi Avi Baumol is serving the Jewish community of Krakow as it undergoes a revitalization as part of a resurgence of Jewish awareness in Poland. He graduated Yeshiva University and Bernard Revel Graduate School with an MA in Medieval JH. He is a musmach of RIETS and studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shevut. He served as a rabbi in Vancouver British Columbia for five years. Rabbi Baumol is the author of "The Poetry of Prayer" Gefen Publishing, 2010, and author of "Komentarz to Tory" (Polish), a Modern Orthodox Commentary on the Torah. He also co-authored a book on Torah with his daughter, Techelet called 'Torat Bitecha'. As well, he is the Editor of the book of Psalms for The Israel Bible-- In summer 2019 Rabbi Baumol published "In My Grandfather's Footsteps: A Rabbi's Notes from the Frontlines of Poland's Jewish Revival".
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