It's the Climb
Inspired by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg
All too often, we think about connection with the sacred — with the holy, with God — as being about warm, fuzzy feelings. Those profound moments in prayer and meditation when something feels like it’s opening up, even just a little. And yet. Parashat Mishpatim makes it clear that even the most powerful theophany isn’t, in the scheme of things, all that important.
The work of covenant, this portion shows us, is sometimes daily and plodding — involving a lot less feeling and a lot more action. It’s not a coincidence that Mishpatim also includes the commandments neither to mistreat the stranger nor oppress the widow or the orphan. It also demands that we not charge interest in money lending, not follow the masses in doing evil, not spread false rumors, not subvert the rights of the needy and that we rest on Shabbat.
In Mishpatim, God invites Moses to “ascend to God” (Exodus 24:1) with his brother Aaron, Aaron’s sons Nadav and Abihu, and the 70 elders of Israel. They do so and, the Torah tells us:
וַיִּרְא֕וּ אֵ֖ת אֱלֹהֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וְתַ֣חַת רַגְלָ֗יו כְּמַעֲשֵׂה֙ לִבְנַ֣ת הַסַּפִּ֔יר וּכְעֶ֥צֶם הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם לָטֹֽהַר׃
...וַֽיֶּחֱזוּ֙ אֶת־הָ֣אֱלֹהִ֔ים וַיֹּאכְל֖וּ וַיִּשְׁתּֽוּ׃
They “saw the God of Israel; under God’s feet there was the very likeness of sapphire brickwork, like the very sky for purity… they beheld God, and they ate and drank” (Exodus 24:10-11).
It’s an amazing thing, really — they saw God! They noshed with God! They saw the Divine in a heavenly vision of brilliant sapphire blue! This is the peak religious experience. It just doesn't get any better than this!
But the story doesn't end there. After the communal vision of God, Moses continued up the mountain. He stayed there for 40 days and 40 nights, and he neither ate nor drank. Moses’ entourage had come with him, but only part way up the mountain. Moses himself ascended higher. He went up into a place not about visions, but about commandments, into a place not about experiences, but about covenant. It is here that he accepts his and Israel’s half of the responsibility for a relationship with the Divine. The peak of the mountain and the peak experience isn't about a moment of glorious splendor but rather, about agreeing to bring something back from that experience that is lasting and binding. It’s about getting a lot of rules to follow. All the “do this, don’t do that” of the Torah, while perhaps more inconvenient to the seeker of ecstasy, is, in this case, on a higher level.
We come into our sanctuaries on Shabbat, during the week and on holidays and some expect spiritual enlightenment to jump out from these pages. We hope that in this sacred space that we might meet God.
We might. Like Moses, Aaron, Nadav, Avihu and the 70 elders we might just have a deep moment of connection in these prayerful moments. But parshat Mishpatim comes to teach us that this is just a moment - and it isn’t the peak of the holy mountain.
We may feel God’s Presence for a fleeting moment in the sanctuary but to have an ongoing relationship with the Divine we have to get out of our temples and sanctuaries and live Jewishly every day, in every moment.
Synagogues have a bad habit of demanding the utmost respect and dignified behavior on the bimah but ignoring how people treat each other in the boardroom. The real test of whether our relationship with God is one that will nourish us as we wander through our wilderness is not what happens on the way up the mountain, but what we bring down with us after we have reached the peak.
Prayerful moments are meant to inspire us - to keep climbing! To reach the summit, receive God’s laws and then bring them down and live them everyday.
Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest ancient rabbinic sages, once said that the greatest principle of the whole entire Torah is “V’ahavta l’re’echa k’mocha”: You should love your neighbor as yourself. Holiness is in what we do in this world, in this plane. We serve God most — we are at the highest point on the mountain — not when we feel good and inspired, but when that inspiration pushes us to keep climbing and to follow God’s laws to repair our world - no matter how hard that work seems.