On Ecstasy and Laundry: Parshat Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1–24:18)

If you imagine the revelation narrative, or the encounter between the Israelites and G-d, as a tapestry stretched on a loom, it is as if the pattern of weaving was interrupted in chapter 19 (Yitro) and weaved anew in chapter 24 (Mishpatim). At the end of chapter 19, G-d speaks the aseret ha-dvarim, or the Ten Commandments, directly to the people at the foot of Mt. Sinai. After the frightful intensity of the human encounter with the divine and the spectacle of smoke, shifting ground, and horns blasting, the narrative is interrupted in Mishpatim (chapters 21-23) with a fairly dry list of civil laws. It actually feels like a cliffhanger and a commercial break advertising halachic precepts.

The thread of drama picks up again in chapter 24 and we are back at the foot of the mountain as Moses orchestrates a covenantal seal between G-d and the people. There is palpable tension between the realm of the mortals and the heavenly realm, with Moses connecting the two by scattering the very essence of life, animal blood. Moses leads the people close to the heavenly realm, but ultimately they remain at a distance.

The crux of this chapter is in the people’s repeated consent to the covenant with a phrase that receives a lot of attention from commentators: na’aseh v’nishma–we will do and we will hear. The Talmud discusses this apparent reversal of priorities: “When the Israelites said, ‘We shall do,’ before ‘We shall hear,’ there came forth a heavenly voice: “Who revealed to My children this secret that the ministering angels use?—as it is written, ‘Bless G-d, His angels, who are mighty of strength, and do His word, to hear the voice of His word’ (Psalm 103:2)—first they do, then they hear.” (Shabbat 88a)

The angels were all created alike with “serene spirit, pure speech and sweet melody.” (Kedushah liturgy) The angels are programmed to praise G-d with rigid obedience. Humans on the other hand, are imperfect beings who possess free will, a great diversity of belief, and the ability to change and transform. Humans experience suffering and redemptive longings, making us stretch and contract. But something happened at Mt. Sinai and, at least for a short time, humans hacked the angelic code, becoming angel-like and accepting the covenant in unison and without hesitation.

Some of the leaders got even closer to divine presence, as Moses brought the 70 elders along with his brother and nephews to a place where they actually got to gaze at G-d. Yet, immediately after this ecstatic spiritual experience they answer their corporeal needs by eating and drinking. Their souls may have pulled up toward the divine, but their hunger tethered them down to their physical sense of being.

“After the Ecstasy, the Laundry,” is a catchy title of a book by Jack Kornfield, which touches on the drudgery of spiritual practice and the difficult task of translating the fleeting experience of oneness with the divine into our imperfect lives. At Mt. Sinai, the Israelites may have reached a higher rung of expanded consciousness, but they would eventually be back to living their unremarkable, contracted lives. Moses brought back the stone tablets, perhaps as a transitional object to remind them of the encounter with G-d, and a list of instructions on the mundane act of “doing the laundry”.

In meditation, I sometimes imagine standing at the foot of Mt. Sinai and in my mind’s eye I can see the shimmering “pavement of sapphire, like the very sky.” In those moments of meditation, as I try to lift my gaze, I see nothing and grasp at nothing. The more I lift my gaze, the more I know how much I do not understand. Yet, I know what it feels like in my body when I show up for another human being, give a smile and receive a smile, hold a hand, and share a meal.

I like the stretchiness of being human, even if it means that sometimes I am terrified of death. And I treasure those rare, fleeting moments of hacking the angelic code, even if I only dream of them. As I long for a spiritual kind of love, I turn Yeats’ poem into a prayer:

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,

Enwrought with golden and silver light,

The blue and the dim and the dark cloths

Of night and light and the half light,

I would spread the cloths under your feet:

But I, being poor, have only my dreams;

I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

 

 

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