The weekly Torah portion – Parashat Mishpatim – opens with a long list of laws governing daily life. On the face of it, there is no hint of the previous portion’s numinous encounter between the People of Israel and the Divine at Mount Sinai. The dark cloud and the thunderous voices are gone, and instead we find Israel saddled with a tedious inventory of colorless rules.
And yet, as this portion unfolds, we learn of more intimate divine/human encounters – described now with a kind of holy pathos. The people respond, to each of the divine injunctions, na’aseh ve-nishma’ – “We will do, and we will hear!” Moses and Aaron, with the latter’s two sons and also seventy elders representing the people, have an intimate dialogue with the Divine in the Tent of Meeting. Then, at the end of the portion, Moses ascends the mountain for an encounter of forty days and forty nights, alone with the Divine, and receives the Ten Commandments. Whoever is familiar with the Torah narrative is aware that each of these sacred encounters entails some form of human tragedy, which the compiler of our passage seems inclined to conceal from us, the readers. It falls to the sages of the Midrash to insistently direct our gaze to these tragic consequences of sustained unearthly mystical discourse.
Moses, then, ascends heavenward for a private audience with the Eternal. According to the Talmud, Moses also receives gifts from the angels, and transcends the laws of nature by fasting for the entire time. The Torah, however, also intimates a problematic aspect of this encounter. The Divine is so entirely absorbed in intimate conversation with Moses, that the temptation of their shared affection prompts the Eternal to neglect speaking with the People of Israel during those entire forty days and nights. The people, for their part, experience a terrifying attack of existential loneliness. Coming on the heels of the collective trauma of four hundred years of slavery in Egypt, this terror drives the people to put an end to what they perceive as a failed relationship with an uncaring divinity. From here, the path to the making of the golden calf is a short one.
It is not only the people as a whole who feel abandoned. The Talmud informs us also that Zipporah, Moses’ wife, pays a heavy price for the intimate affection rapidly binding her husband to the Eternal. Moses, it transpires, has decided – on his own account and without any dialogue or agreement with his wife – to devote all of his senses wholly to the Divine. Zipporah soon internalizes the realization, from Moses’ cold demeanor and lack of human touch, that her husband has made up his mind never again to have sexual relations with her. Moses of course rationalizes his behavior with theological explanations, but for Zipporah the emotional cost of this loss of intimacy is a heavy one.
This incident might seem, in the vast scope of Jewish history, an insignificant footnote. But in my view, the beauty of Jewish hermeneutic here lies in its refusal to allow readers of Torah to deflect their gaze from Zipporah. In fact, the interpretive thrust is toward requiring readers to soberly consider the tragedy that Zipporah experiences, as she regards the sacred process of intimacy between her husband and the Divine.
The convocation including the elders, Moses, Aaron, and the latter’s sons Nadab and Abihu, appears at first to be a convivial “retreat” of Hebrew leaders, but soon this too takes a tragic turn when Nadab and Abihu are struck dead. Going further, the sages of the Midrash report a conversation between Zipporah, still suffering from lack of intimacy with her husband, and Miriam, the sister of Moses. This touching womanly discourse is set, as it were, in the women’s section of the synagogue, where Zipporah and Miriam are sitting, while, in the men’s enclave, they can see the seventy elders of Israel immersed in a mystical theophany, together with Moses and Aaron. At this point, Zipporah, revealing her own intense heartbreak, tells Miriam that when she observes the seventy elders, blithely engaged in their theological seminar with the Eternal, all she can see, as an abandoned wife, are these men’s seventy wives, very soon to find themselves utterly alone in life, deprived of all intimacy by their husbands’ enforced sexual abstinence.
Finally, in the long inventory of tragedies, we find that the cry of “We will do and we will listen!” on the lips of the People of Israel, will very soon auger a series of catastrophes, as the same people set about breaking that solemn promise, over and over, throughout the entire Torah narrative.
The weekly Torah portion, as a whole, invites us to re-examine those spaces and occasions where many of us seek meaningful and consciousness-changing experiences in our lives. This might be through sitting meditation in a Buddhist monastery, or choosing to devote ourselves to a Hassidic teacher, or to a yoga or mindfulness mentor, or a workshop in tantra or sacred sex, or a spiritual journey with ayahuasca or psychedelic mushrooms.
The Torah considers the fact that many of us will choose, often courageously, to encounter the “Divine” during the course of our life, in particular energy-spaces – analogous to the Tent of Meeting or the dark cloud of Sinai. Such brave choices can lead to transformations in our experience of human life. And yet, the Torah simultaneously demands an awareness that such choices, often described positively in our society – with images of quiet cross-legged meditation accompanied by the pleasant fragrance of incense and a group hug – may have invisible negative consequences. These may impact people close to us who, while we are busy altering our consciousness, are forced to internalize the emotional price they must pay.
It is one of the great strengths of the Jewish tradition, that it refuses to dictate unequivocally how – or even if – we should desire holiness or reach intimacy with the Divine. Here, there is no “correct” or “incorrect” decision, as there generally is in matters of Jewish halakha. Rather, our approach to holiness is a dance between conflicting inclinations, together with a demand for awareness of the consequences of every choice we make.
This Torah portion teaches us one further lesson. Our choice to touch the sacred, in whatever form it may appear to us, enables us to experience the reality of life in a new way. However, this same mystical experience will inevitably dissipate with time. And it is our duty to welcome this impermanence, not trying to grasp the ephemeral too tightly. The power of mystical experience may derive from some source outside ourselves, or from some inner source unknown to our consciousness – but it is up to us to consciously translate those ineffable moments into the flow of daily life in the material world.
Let us take another look at Parashat Mishpatim. Each one of us deserves a Mount Sinai moment in our personal lives; it is commendable for us to seek ways to transform our familiar drab realities into something different. We seek, as we should, the experience of moments of sanctity. But the Torah warns us, that these mountaintop experiences cannot last. Encounters with the numinous are invitations to begin a long climb, slow and difficult and profoundly transformative, up the mountain of life. Rabbi Nahman of Breslov, with characteristic sensitivity, explains that the cry of “We will do and we will listen!” goes beyond the apparent meaning, that we will obey the divine commands even if we do not understand them. For Rabbi Nahman, “we will do” means that we take the divine utterances upon ourselves. But such a choice is not in itself sufficient. It is a declaration that Israel makes at a moment of sanctity and intense intimacy with the Divine, at the climactic moment, as it were, in the first Jewish ayahuasca retreat. The People of Israel must now also learn “we will listen” – that is, we take upon themselves the ongoing study of these commands, in order to create anchors of meaning for the community, even when the radiance of mystical encounter has faded away.
This then is the organic movement of life: we yearn for and expect moments of revelation, moments when familiar reality dissolves into a mystical oneness. But the Jewish journey continues, also and especially through those moments that lie between these extraordinary events. Life is a daily choice, again and again, to look carefully into the laws we are given. It is a choice to give compassionate attention to our human companions, and, precisely in what seems most familiar, precisely in those with whom we share our daily and ordinary lives, to perceive the spark of mystery.