Adrian A. Durlester

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Random Musings Before Shabbat - Mishpatim 5767

To See, To Behold, To Eat, To Drink

This week's parasha, Mishpatim (Ex. 21:1-24:18.) is "chock full o'commandments" and there's plenty upon which one might muse. Near the end of the parasha are two curiosities.

The first begins with 24:3 and continues through 24:7, ending with the well known "na'aseh v'nishma." It's a fascinating ritual, and, from what we now of ancient near-eastern culture, no altogether that unusual. It is how the people affirm the covenant that is being given them. First (24:3) Moshe recites all the rules to the people. They answer "All these things that the L"rd has commanded we will do!" Then (v.4) Moshe WRITES down all the commandments. After all, a treaty isn't a treaty unless it is written down and signed (or sealed.)

But hold on there a second. What are today's liberal Jews to make of this? It clearly says that Moshe wrote down all the commandments. [To the (shall remain nameless) Reform rabbi who once remarked to me that one could not consider oneself a Reform Jew while still accepting the literal concept of Torah mi-Sinai: take that!] It couldn't be plainer. Moshe wrote the commandments down. (Of course, what does this do to the concept of oral Torah, and of those mitzvot which do not appear until later in the text? If you're a linear thinker, it's a problem.)

After he has written them down, Moshe does a little ritual blood dashing. And then he AGAIN takes the "record of the covenant" and reads it aloud to the people. And the people answer: "na'aseh v'nishma."

It's a nice, tidy little ritual (except for the messy blood dashing) that repetitiously affirms the covenant between the people of Israel and G"d. And it was written down! Not these stone tablets of "the ten." Those don't appear until chapter 31, and it says quite clearly that G"d inscribed them. The implication is clear. There was some form of written record of the covenant other than the tablets. Would that we could find it.

And here's an interesting thought. Later on G"d carves those ten commandments into stone. Here, it is Moshe who has to do the hard work of writing all that G"d has said down, and transmitting it to the people. One could look at this is several ways. G"d was choosing to emphasize those ten. (Not according to the rabbis.) There's the theory I propagated in some sermons last week that G"d chose these particular ten because they were among the hardest to keep.

Or perhaps G"d figured "if I just carve these 10, that's enough to remind them of all the other rules-the ones which I had Moshe write down anyway. And then I can still catch the heavenly league football game this afternoon." Or maybe G"d thought "if they can't figure it out from these ten, the rest are meaningless anyway."

G"d carving the tablets could be a way of saying "Moshe may get some of the stuff wrong when he writes it down, so maybe I should make sure at least these ten are never disputed." (Jokes on you, G"d. Never disputed? Ha!) Why didn't G"d write all of it down for us. Is G"d making Moshe the Bart Simpson of his time, doomed forever to write on the blackboard? And doomed forever at confessing the sins of the people.

Only G"d knows the answer here.

On to our next curiosity. Chapter 24 vv. 9-11. Moshe, Aharon, Nadav and Avihu (we'll be hearing more about them in a while) AND seventy elders of Israel ascended the mountain. And they SAW (vayiru) G"d, and underneath G"d's feet a pavement of sapphire, as pure as the sky itself. Even though G"d has pretty much said earlier that only Moshe was to ascend the mountain,. G"d does not strike down any of the others. So the seventy elders, Aharon, Nadav and Avihu BEHELD (vayekhezu) G"d, and THEY ATE and THEY DRANK.

They're in the presence of the almighty, and they make a picnic? Of course, the rabbis of the Talmud put a little spin on it, seeing it as an intellectual encounter with the Divine-that what they were eating and drinking was G"d's presence. A possible and acceptable interpretation. In the presence of G"d there is no need for earthly, quotidian things. G"d provides all that is necessary, and perhaps more. The rabbis say that the elders didn't really "see" (vayiru, from the root resh-aleph-hey, to see) G"d, they "beheld" (vayekhezu, from the root khet, zayin, hey, which also means to see, or perceive, but is cognate with other Hebrew and Arabic words that mean things like "seer" and "vision" and "inner vision") G"d. That is to say, they finally "got it." They understood that G"d was real, and truly could not be represented by idols." The food and drink are perhaps metaphor for "they perceived with all of their senses."

However, it could just as easily be telling us "even in the presence of G"d, you have to meet your basic human needs. It's easy, in the face of something awesome (or awful) to forget all about yourself and your needs. And, with all due respects to the mystics, G"d's presence isn't likely to provide your body with the necessary amino acids and proteins to enable you to survive.

Or think of the Grand Canyon scene in National Lampoon's vacation. "Oh, look, it's G"d. How impressive. OK, gotta go!" It's nice to encounter G"d, but we're hungry and thirsty after that climb.

Of course, it doesn't say who provided the food and drink. Was G"d being a good hostess, or did they bring they stuff with them?

Or maybe G"d had a plan after all. Keep the elders happy and sated, while Moshe comes up the mountain to get these tablets that G"d has inscribed. (Curiously, the text says G"d inscribed the tablets with the teaching (haTorah) and commandment (v'haMitzvah), both the teachings, and commandments. Hmmm. OK, we'll overlook the singularness of the nouns and view them as collective, therefore implying the plurality of "teachings and commandments." Either way, we have a problem. Because either G"d wrote a teaching and a commandment, or G"d wrote all the teachings and the commandments. Not just ten commandments. Hmmm.)

OK, it's time for me to go now and see, behold, eat and drink. Will they all relate to a common source, or will some needs get fulfilled divinely and some mundanely? Let's all go find out for ourselves.

Shabbat Shalom

Adrian ©2007 by Adrian A. Durlester

Some Previous Musings on the Same Parasha

Mishpatim 5766 - Mishpatim with a Capital IM
Mishpatim 5765-Eid Khamas (revised)
Mishpatim 5764-Situational Ethics
Mishpatim 5763-My Object All Sublime
Mishpatim 5762-Enron Beware!
Mishpatim 5761-Change from the Inside
Mishpatim 5760-Chukim U'mishpatim
Mishpatim 5759-Eid Khamas-Witness to Violence

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