In Mishpatim, Torah God is giving a set of laws, known to us as the Covenant Code, via Moses to the people. They range from how to treat a slave to how to welcome a stranger to what happens when fighting men injure a pregnant woman by accident to how to punish a thief to much more. The last third of the parsha is about Moses preparing Aaron and his sons to meet God, then Moses and Aaron and his sons and 70 elders apparently meet God on a sapphire floor and have dinner with God, it’s a very exclusive catered affair, then Moses leaves and leaves Aaron in charge, and he goes up into a cloud for a week, then Torah God calls Moses up even higher up the mountain and begins the process of giving Torah, while to the people below it looks like the top of the mountain is on fire.
The Covenant Code is well known to have its origin in the laws codes of other cultures and peoples from that area. It is not unique to Torah, except in one regard and that is inthe people’s relationship to God. These laws come from God, who takes a personal interest in whether the people do wrong or right. So this parsha is both an practical example of a chaotic culture taking on a covenant amongst themselves to civilize and regularize themselves by living by the rule of law, and it is also an epic mythological story starring Torah God and his creation of a people using Torah law. This dialectic, between the law as law and law as a sacred act, is for me, the most absolute expression of being Jewish, that is, the sanctification of law and the legalization of divinity.
Even as our propensities for greed and violence are acknowledged, we are given a divine order to treat each other with a certain basic respect. B Basically Torah God says, be a mensch! That is no small thing. Is this the source of what we think of as Jewish guilt? (I don’t know but I feel bad about it.) We are called on to be decent human beings, not by the king or the government, but by God. I mean, no pressure. But we have to pay attention because we know, and we know because God told us, that there is a right and there is a wrong and that we are obligated to do what is good, what is God. And we remind ourselves of it at every opportunity, it is sanctified in our siddur at every service, in Torah, in Talmud and in all those mitzvot and halakhic rules observant Jews follow, and in our popular culture: Jerry and George on Seinfeld argue over the correct or incorrect way to approach or act on the most unimportant detail, over nothing. They are compelled to argue until they get the right answer, no matter how trivial or tiny. So Talmudic.
But how does that translate for those of us who are Jewishly engaged, religious but non-halakhic Jews? We made the choice or had it made for us, not to follow the strict rules of observant Orthodox Jews. But do we spend enough time trying to understand what we are missing?
What, other than tradition or upbringing, is the reason someone is halachic? Perhaps for some because it creates cohesive community, for others it may be because they believe God really cares about each mitzvah done or not done, some because it keeps them in a constant state of God-mindfulness, some because the Torah and the rabbis say so and it doesn’t matter if the commands make sense. There is a very rich and full life in this halakha, in the rule of law, in this community of the observant for many people and though it’s not for me, I have come to really respect it, not just for the enormous effort and discipline necessary to maintain these choices, but because of the high level of mindfulness and satisfaction it can give. Forget for a moment how ridiculous the hair-splitting can get, how restrictive, especially to women, it can be. What a pleasure, to stop time for a minute when say a blessing before every meal, to say a blessing when going to bed and rising up, to say a blessing in gratitude for your ability to go to the bathroom, to make the simple act of cooking and eating something you must scruplously monitor and think about as an act of God-ness, that’s all pretty amazing.
I don’t do this, in part because I didn’t grow up this way, but also because I can’t decide to take on something so overwhelming without belief. The law upon which halacha is based is not, for me, divine. I don’t think God wrote the Torah (though I think God is in the writing of the Torah, God being a gerund) and I don’t think God is a being who cares about how I follow those rules or any other rules. God, for me, is about ineffable and creative and universal connection. God is not separate from me or you or this room or the air we breathe. God is not punitive, God does not reward, and therefore, how could God care if I have a ham sandwich? For me, God transcends these human concerns. But if our sense of right and wrong doesn’t come from God, where does it come from? And are we obligated to follow the laws, whether ethical or civil? Well, that’s another drash, but I will say, I think that if God is creative and connective and all around as I feel God is, not Torah God only but Yah and Shechinah and Elohim and Torah God also, then God is in all these human concerns, God is specific to each of us. We know the difference between right and wrong and God is in that difference and God is in the knowing. God cares about that ham sandwich if I do. God cares about all ham sandwiches if the community does.
This Jewish covenant, this dialectic between human law and the divine, it is very interesting to me. I suspect that obligation does not have to constrict, that it can free. And I want to confront it, and i want to confront it as a Jew, not some generic spiritual seeker. So, I have begun to take on some Jewish mindfulness obligations, which I mostly forget to do or do superficially but I do them when I can or when I remember, trying to learn to do them mindfully but automatically so they sort of function as ritual. I’m finding that each time I add them to my Jewish mindfulness arsenal, each time I get more specific, I get also get more transcendent in my connection not with Jews but with everyone and especially with God. The more Jewish I get the more universal I feel.
So. When I wear a kippah or a tallit, I wrap myself in holiness and I am connected in my separateness.
When I lie in bed and say the night time Shema and ask for forgiveness and give forgiveness before I go to sleep, I kind of feel that if, God forbid, I died in my sleep, I would die clean and kadosh.
When i wake up and say the Modeh Ani and give thanks that I will experience another day, I do not let myself slide into my life, but I take it on with awareness, and I have to be a better person to myself and others when I do that.
When I reember to say a brucha before each meal, or a blessing after I’ve eaten, I am connected, just like Rabbi Lippmann says, to those who worked so that I might eat, and I am connected to the divine source of the food and I stop time, for that moment, and know how dependent I am on everyone else.
I spent the last week of December at a silent meditation week, and it was an amazing and powerful experience, but truly, i wonder if I actually get more meaning and lasting effect if, before I go to sleep, I remember to say the Shema. Because when I do I am in covenant with the law, and at the same time, I am going up that mountain with Moses to talk to God. I invite you to consider that for yourself. Or perhaps we can consider it together.
A halakhic community is able to live that way precisely because they observe together. Perhaps, it is time for us to find ways to explore these personal Jewish sanctifications and rituals in a communal way. Perhaps we can all commit to one small mindful decsion and report back to each other. Email me if this interests you. Shabbat Shalom.