Standing with Moses on the Mountaintop

Mishpatim Shabbat Shekalim By :  Arnold M. Eisen Chancellor Emeritus; Professor of Jewish Thought Posted On Feb 18, 2012 / 5772 | Torah Commentary

Readers of Mishpatim cannot fail to be struck by the contrast between the main body of the parashah and its conclusion. The former consists for the most part of rather dry case law, covering such things as goring oxen, robbery by day and by night, and release from indentured servitude. The end of the parashah could not be more different in subject and tone. Moses, Aaron, Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu, and 70 of the elders of Israel ascend Mount Sinai for a covenant ceremony during which, we are told, they “saw the God of Israel.” Scholars and commentators long asked why chapters devoted to the nuts and bolts of social order in the world as we know it are followed by an account of mystical encounter with the God Whom we can never fully know, the God Who transcends every order. How do the extraordinary events at the top of the mountain relate to what is meant to happen routinely down below? I’d like to suggest one meaning that this juxtaposition may hold for Jews today.

It’s useful to approach the matter of what follows the giving of the Ten Commandments and their elaboration in Parashat Mishpatim by looking at what preceded this “covenant code”: the Exodus from Egypt. One could say, very straightforwardly, that the Exodus precedes Sinai because that is the way it happened. The Israelites had to leave Egypt before they could stand at Sinai. We know, however, that the Torah does not abide strictly by chronology. Something else must be at stake in the ordering of its narrative. It has often been noted, for example, that God “earned” the right to give the Children of Israel laws by liberating them from slavery. The people move from being avadim (slaves) of Pharaoh to being ovdim (worshippers) of God. Servitude gives way to service. The most powerful lord of the earth is defeated by the Lord of Heaven and Earth. Slaves would not do for God’s purposes. God needs the partnership in covenant of a free people who are capable of initiative and agency. For this reason, too, there simply could have been no Sinai without the Exodus.

There seems to me much truth in this interpretation, and I’d like to add one further consideration. The Exodus narrative instructs readers of Torah, even before we come to the reception of God’s law, about the purpose of that law. The Israelites freed from slavery by God are to help others attain freedom. The people victimized for hundreds of years by injustice will participate in a covenant designed to increase justice and compassion in the world. The law has a purpose beyond itself. That is, perhaps, why we read so often in the Torah that we should treat strangers justly—”because you were slaves in the Land of Egypt”—and why so much of what we do as Jews, including rituals that don’t seem especially connected to the theme of liberation, is said to be a “reminder of the Exodus from Egypt.” We reenact liberation whenever we act to liberate others. The reminder of Egypt is not merely a thought passing through our consciousness but an intention imprinted on our actions. We go free anew every time we help others to go free.

The mitzvot laid out in Parashat Mishpatim and elsewhere are the instruments of that liberation. The Children of Israel—then and now—are meant to model for the world a vision of what human society could be like if everyone acted in accordance with God’s purposes and commandments. As Deuteronomy puts it (4:8): “What great nation is there that has laws and statutes as just as all this Torah which I set before you today?” Jews are meant to teach justice not by preaching it but by practicing it. Mishpatim is the law code that first sets this course.

But there is more: Deuteronomy asks, equally rhetorically (4:7), “What great nation is there that has gods close to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call upon God?” This points to another guiding purpose of the commandments received at Sinai. The reward of participation in God’s Covenant, aside from the virtue of mitzvah itself, is proximity to, and periodic encounter with, the Source of Covenant. A life devoted to performance of the commandments may confer the conviction that we are as near as ordinary mortals can be to the Source of Life.

This is no mere abstraction, I believe. It is not a dogma demanding assent but a promise confirmed by centuries of experience with Torah. Most of us, most of the time, do not get to stand where Moses and the elders did, at the very top of the mountain. We may or may not have a vision of God like the one the Torah describes: “Under His Feet they saw the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity” (24:10). The Torah cannot tell us exactly what Moses and his company “saw.” It falls back, as it must, on metaphor. It was like this, and like that: white, luminous, pure. The experience of God defies language, transcends speech, confounds ordinary knowledge.

You cannot “know” God in this way, the Torah says at many points, but you can know what God wants of you. Follow the mishpatim (laws) and other mitzvot, lead a life marked by justice and compassion, work to construct a society marked by these virtues, and you will, at the very least, know you are spending your days wisely, doing God’s will. You may even encounter God at various points along this Way of Torah, as Moses and the elders encountered God at the outset of the Way.

I write this commentary in Jerusalem—where a final connection between the mundane realm of legal statutes and the supra-mundane realm of encounter with the Ultimate is visible on every street corner. Here the ordinary is palpably extra-ordinary and the routine is miraculous. Ancient Israelites who wandered (and died in) the wilderness never got to taste the wonder of actually inhabiting a Promised Land where God’s commandments were in force. Jews living a century ago in Diaspora or even in Palestine could not begin to imagine the sound and sight of construction sites in Zion. The “Jerusalem Above” has not yet come to realization in the “Jerusalem Below”—such a claim would be presumptuous in the extreme. But it would be foolish to miss the connection between “above” and “below” here, the amazement of everyday achievement, the delicious reality of shopping malls and movie theaters in the sovereign State of Israel.

Readers of Torah get to stand right up there with Moses on the mountaintop, thanks to the dramatic account at the conclusion of Mishpatim. And we can be with him right down here too, as we follow the Torah’s directions to justice.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Torah Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.