Taking Time to Be There

Mishpatim By :  Lisa Gelber Posted On Feb 6, 2013 / 5773 | Torah Commentary

On Rosh Hodesh Adar, my daughter will give up her pacifier. The date is not completely arbitrary. Wanting to prevent sadness on her birthday, I chose another date with deep meaning, the anniversary of her immersion in the mikveh. On her 33rd day of life (equivalent to the new month of Adar), I dropped my daughter in a “pool” of water, letting go of her completely, and scooped her back up into my arms as she emerged (as her conversion certificate reads) “a true and full member of the Jewish faith and Jewish People.” Having guided countless families through conversion, one might assume the process would have been pro forma. I understood all the logistics. Even so, the thought of letting go of the child for whom I had searched for years, even for a millisecond, was almost unbearable.

New York State requires a 30-day waiting period for irrevocable consent of the birth mother for extrajudicial surrender to an agency. Every day that I fed, changed, and bathed my daughter, took her for walks, sang her songs, and prayed with her during the opening month of her life marked another step toward our life together. Immersing myself in her needs, I focused on the miraculous gift of her presence. Each day brought new surprises and a little less anxiety about our future. When I received an email from our social worker stating, “Yes, the Birthmother’s legally allowable revocation period is over,” I immediately sent an email to friends and family announcing our trip to the mikveh (I’d already made the arrangements) with the subject line, “We’re Free.” As much as I hated the wait (and weight) of those 30 days, they offered the framework to notice, cherish, and plan, even within the uncertainty. The faith cultivated in those days gave me the courage to let go of my child so that she could become the fullest self I imagined for her.

Moses faces a similar task in this week’s parashah, Mishpatim. Having received a multiplicity of rules and regulations designed to guide societal relationships and interactions with God, Moses conveys that information to the People and receives affirmation, Kol ha’d’varim asher diber Adonai, na’aseh” (All the things that Adonai has commanded, we will do! Exod. 24:3). Then, Moses is told, Aleh aylai ha’harah, ve’h’yeh sham” (Come up to me on the mountain, and be there. Exod. 24:12). God invites Moses to stay there, in God’s presence. Rashi understands this portion of the verse to read, “and be there for 40 days.” Moses needs time to immerse himself in the law and his relationship with God. He needs to experience what it meant to climb this mountain, literally and figuratively. If he didn’t yet know that, God did.

What was it like for Moses to experience God’s glory, to enter into that cloud? I imagine he wondered how it was that he got there, and questioned how he might convey the power of his experience to the people; after all, despite his role as God’s messenger and transmitter of guidelines and information, he remains an individual in relationship with humans and with the divine.

Psalm 24:3 offers, “Who may ascend Adonai’s mountain? Who may stand in God’s holy place?” First we climb and then we establish ourselves, planting our feet as securely on the ground (or mountaintop) as possible. Lest we think that God’s availability depends on an ascent to the highest and seemingly most inaccessible of mountains, the Talmud reminds us that one should always learn from the mind of his Creator. The Holy One of Blessing ignored all the mountains and heights and caused the Shekhinah to rest on Mount Sinai (not the highest of mountains), and ignored all the beautiful trees and caused the Shekhinah to rest in a bush (Sotah 5a).

Once we “arrive,” the task remains to remain, engaged, noticing without holding on for dear life. The Kotzker Rebbe suggests that’s why the Torah adds “and be there”: “Even though someone may stand on the very peak (of the mountain), his head may be somewhere else.” The invitation to “be there” instructs Moses in the ways of mindful living. We can get to the high peaks of our lives, we can reach in to God only with patience and the willingness to step into the unknown and embrace the fear of what might be. Taking the journey designed for us, with all of its twists and turns, bumps and bruises can make us free.

Last week, at the opening of Reading the Visual/Visualizing the Text, the inaugural exhibition of the JTS Arts Advisory Board, Chancellor Arnold Eisen commented, “Inside restrictions, creativity flowers.” While rules, regulations, and boundaries confine the edges of our lives, they need not dampen the potential of our experiences. Before running to greet people in their seats, before starting to play, before enjoying any snacks at shul on Shabbat, my daughter and I wrap ourselves in my tallit and recite the berakhah, thanking God for honoring us with the commitment to wrap ourselves in the tzitzit. Not long ago—the colorful silk peaked over our heads and flowing over our bodies, the potential for synagogue fun just inches away—my daughter leaned in close to me and said, “It’s like a mountain, mama.”

Perhaps it’s that sense of strength and wonder, the ability to appreciate the potential of an interaction that informed my daughter’s plan for her pacifier. On Rosh Hodesh Adar, when we are instructed to increase joy, we will place the pacifier in a box and, according to my daughter’s instructions, either give it to Baby L, a sweet child at her day care, or put it aside for when my daughter is a mother and can share it with her baby. Wherever it ends up, whatever ritual I design to commemorate this release, my daughter’s deep understanding of ve’h’yeh sham (what it means to be in the moment) will enrich our experience.

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