Do We Trust The Torah?
Parashat Mishpatim 2018
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
Can you think of a moment in your life when you decided to trust the Jewish tradition?
Sharing a personal perspective, I can cast my mind back to a moment when I was asked to trust a sacred and transformative moment. It was during my conversion ceremony. Prior to my immersion, I was asked by my sponsoring rabbi the following, to which I was called to reply.
‘Have you come here of your own free will?’
‘Do you pledge allegiance to the God of Israel?’
‘Do you pledge allegiance to the Torah of Israel?’
‘And do you pledge allegiance to the People of Israel?’
Answering yes to that triad of questions was emotionally powerful in a way that transcended the legal underpinnings of the procedure (even sharing it now still moves me). Of course, establishing informed consent was a legally binding and necessary act. But it was also something more. It was a moment of trust. A moment of saying, regardless of what happens, I will stick with this.
This is where I belong, this is where I need to be, this is the path that I will walk from now on. For those of you who are married or have been married, you may be able to relate to that moment of trust when you pronounced your vows (in some ways, my giyyur, conversion, my chuppah, wedding and my semikhah, ordination opened up that same register of transformative trust).
Vows, pledges, promises: plunges of love, belonging, commitment. Ritual pageantry shapes transitional moments where one claims agency in order to move into a new space, a new reality, a new place of belonging. A new identity and perhaps in some way, a new self.
If that sounds a little intense, well, good – it’s meant to. Liminal, transitional moments are ‘intense’ to downright frightening which explains why so many cultures use ritualized decoys to contain the vulnerability of that moment.
My sermon last Shabbat dealt with Revelation and the Exodus in terms of science, history and meaning. Citing Dr. Richard Elliot Friedman’s new book on the Exodus, I aimed to make a rationalist argument in defense of the Torah and its message. Perhaps the Exodus really happened, albeit in a different way than we expected. In any case, my argument went, there are compelling reasons to accept the values we derive from such an event, be it historical or symbolic.
It is a fine and coherent argument but I now would like us to transcend it and take it in a different direction.
Mishpatim deals with the aftermath of Revelation. The fires have died down and the dust has settled, the tones of the shofar have faded. The magic of the experience has evaporated; what remains is the memory and its emotional import. Mishpatim is a Torah portion that strives to do different things. On one level, it performs a hermeneutical dance of what the Rabbis would call ‘klal u’frat’, from the general to the specific. If the Aseret haDibbrot (Ten Commandments) represented ten general principles, then the legal material of Mishpatim unpacks and interprets them in specific, concrete ways. How we treat the vulnerable in our society, those who dwell on the periphery. How we legislate justice. How we safeguard the principles and integrity of monotheism.
Then there’s the other face of Mishpatim: the mystical. There’s a strange scene where Moses and Aaron, and Aaron’s son’s Nadav and Avihu (not his other two, Elazar and Itamar, which is telling if you want to cast your minds to Parashat Shemini in Leviticus) go up the mountain with seventy elders of the Israelites and see God in stunning, Technicolor detail. They eat, drink and celebrate in a vision that is strange and esoteric.
‘Vaya’al Moseh v’Aharon Nadav v’Avihu v’shiv’im miziknei Yisrael. Vayiru et Elohei Yisrael v’tachat raglav ke’ma’aseh livnot hasapir uch’etzem hashamayim latahor.’
– ‘And Moses, Aaron, Nadav and Avihu and seventy of the elders of the Israelites ascended. They saw the God of Israel and beneath His feet, there was the working of stones of lapis lazuli like the core of the purest heavens.’ (Ex. 24:9-10) (My translation).
Of course, such an anthropomorphic description of the Divine encounter makes us uncomfortable – it certainly did make the Rambam (Maimonides) uncomfortable who considered this envisioning of God an intellectual rather a sensory experience. Even so, it is a telling narrative that splits the soul of Mishpatim into two: the legal versus the mystical, the rational versus the esoteric, the ethical versus the experiential. Sitting as a fulcrum between these two readings of the portion sits a passage that balances those opposites. Before Moses and his companions enjoy their mystical experience, they and all the people at the foot of the mount affirm the covenant after Revelation by bringing offerings – one for each of the twelve tribes – and by taking a ‘sefer habrit’, a book (or record, or perhaps deed or contract) of the covenant and read it aloud to the people (not unlike a marriage license, a conversion certificate or a naturalization document). ‘Kol asher diber Adonai na’aseh v’nishmah’ they famously pronounced. ‘All that the Eternal has said, we will do and we will hear.’
One could expound famously and thoroughly on this one line alone. What I would like to focus on, however, is the element of trust. The Israelites took the plunge (quite literally, according to the Talmud in Tractate Yevamot 46, since the entire people immersed in a mikveh and ‘converted’ at the moment of Revelation). They didn’t look for symbolic meaning or historical fact, like we did last week. They took an emotional risk. They said a full-throated, whole-hearted yes, without having full knowledge of all the consequences. Indeed this liminal, transitional moment is a scary one.
There is something profoundly counter-cultural to this. As I mentioned during one of my Rosh haShanah sermons on surrender, we as modern human beings like being in control. Trust doesn’t come naturally to us and with good reason. There is a place for skeptical inquiry and evidence-based scrutiny. But there’s also a place for trust, for saying yes. There is a place for us seeking out ‘Elohei Yisrael’ in our own way, to ‘gaze’ into the deepest core of our universe and ask ourselves, in a healthy, life-affirming way: how can this holy Torah of ours touch and transform my life?
How can Torah change our lives?
‘Na’aseh v’nishmah’ teaches us that sometimes the experiential trumps the rational. We may have to try it before we can say whether we like it. We may want to open ourselves up to wonder, to being overcome with the unexpected.
To be receptive to those aspects of the tradition that mystify us a little, perhaps. To try on a new mitzvah, a new observance, a new way of seeing the world through the lens of the Jewish tradition and trusting it to transform us somehow.
As we journey from Revelation onwards in our annual cycle of reading the Torah, I would invite us to journey together. To create a space in our lives for Judaism in ways we may not have encountered it before. To pledge ourselves to a practice of Judaism that is intuitive and experiential. To set ourselves a new challenge – in whatever way feels appropriate to each of us – and to be willing to be surprised and delighted of what this rich tradition can bring us.