Ever been so inspired that you are ready to change the way you live your life, only to then get lost in the details? About this week’s parasha (Torah portion) Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1 – 24:18, my colleague Rabbi H. Rafael Goldstein writes: This week we see how we can go from the most significant event in our lives to living every day – by taking care of the details. We see that there’s a message here in moving from the BIG issues to the almost mundane ideas of how we are supposed to behave towards one another. We elevate the mundane into something sacred. Read on:
Last week we read the Ten Commandments. Everything in the Torah led to this incredible moment – our people standing at the foot of Mount Sinai, feeling the ground tremble beneath the Presence of the Holy One. Our people stood and freaked out as they heard the words of G!d not in the thunder, or in the blaring of the shofarot (rams horns) or in the pounding of their own heartbeats. They heard G!d’s voice telling them the Ten Commandments in a whisper, directly into each and every person’s own ears. G!d’s voice was the sound of almost hearing, as personal as a whisper. What an incredible moment!
That personal whisper into each person’s ears is the closest, most intimate, extreme, spiritual, and climactic moment of the Torah. How do you follow that most amazing of experiences? Although the words of the Ten Commandments are repeated, the experience was exclusive, once and only once. And it begs the question, “now what?” Where do we go from here? The rabbis didn’t want the Ten Commandments to be holier or more significant than all of our other mitzvot, to be the only rules people might observe. All of the Torah is holy, and all of the mitzvot are important.
We can find the rationale for this approach in this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, which seems to be a completely different experience. We have a compendium of about 50 laws. We have the judicial rules for how to handle and free our slaves and our enemies, manslaughter, kidnapping, insults, goring oxen, damage to livestock and to crops, arson, loans. We have rules for sorcery and for idolatry, and proper care for the needy, widowed and orphaned. This list is far from exhaustive. So, this week we go from our most holy moment at Sinai to what seems like a random list of rules.
But it’s more than just a list. It’s the details. This week we see how we can go from the most significant event in our lives to living every day – by taking care of the details. We see that there’s a message here in moving from the BIG issues to the almost mundane ideas of how we are supposed to behave towards one another. We elevate the mundane into something sacred. That’s not foreign to us at all as Jews. We’re used to taking the simplest acts – eating, drinking, seeing beautiful or ugly things, even going to the bathroom – as opportunities for praising, acknowledging or blessing G!d, ways to see the holy in our daily lives. We have blessings to help us see how holy the ordinary can be.
Sometimes we forget the importance and significance of the small stuff, the simple acts that might make real differences to others. Sometimes we miss the holiness in our own lives. We get so caught up in our routines that we forget that our time is holy, our acts can be holy, our lives can be filled with the spirit of G!d. The minutiae of this week’s Torah portion is a reminder that after the miracle of Sinai we have to pick up our stuff in the morning and go back to our daily lives, and what we do now is even more important, after Sinai, even if it doesn’t feel that way at first.
According to Rabbi Shraga Simmons, Maimonides explains this metaphorically as follows: “Imagine you’re lost at night, trudging knee-deep in mud through dark and vicious rainstorm. Suddenly a single flash of lightning appears, illuminating the road ahead. It is the only light you may see for miles. This single flash must guide you on through the night. So too, says Maimonides, one burst of inspiration may have to last for years.”
We fill our minds with Sinai, with the miraculous moment, as a light to guide us through the rest of our experiences. The peak moments are supposed to do that for us, to enable us to go on through the proverbial mud we find ourselves mired in. We can appreciate the light, the guidance, the flashes of insight we might get from the special moment, and we can turn our minds back to those moments to guide us and to bring us hope and courage when we need them most. All of us have those special moments that we cherish that have the power, in their recalling and retelling, to transform and guide us on our personal journeys.
May it be Your will, Holy One of Blessing, that we take the moments to find holiness in our day-to-day life, and to be aware of our blessings daily. May we find inspiration for today, and dreams for tomorrow, as we recall the most special moments in our lives. May the special moments help us get through our darkest hours. May the flash of Your light guide us on our journeys through life.