“They perceived G-d, and they ate and they drank!”

“They perceived G-d, and they ate and they drank!”
(Exodus 24:11) Shevat 30, 5781/February 12, 2021

It’s only natural if we all got a little swept away last week as we read about – and stood at – Mount Sinai, and in the midst of the smoke and fire, the lightning and thunder, the sound of the shofar, and the shaking of the earth, received the Ten Commandments directly from G-d’s mouth to our hearts. After all, it was only a once in a forever experience, one that our sages assure us, we were all present for. But now its time to come down from our emotional and sensual and spiritual high, and get grounded again.

The closing commandment of last week’s parashat Yitro, building an altar of earth, was the first suggestion that the Torah that we have only begun to receive will be a Torah of this earth. That is, a covenant between man and G-d which will unfold and be fulfilled by what we do – you and me – here, in this life, on this earth.

This week’s Torah reading, Mishpatim, literally, “laws,” further grounds us. The laws being delineated here are, almost in their entirety, laws that concern man’s relationship with his fellow man, that is, “civil law.” Laws dealing with ownership, liability, damages, theft, injury, murder, manslaughter, and so on, and all the critical nuances which need to be considered in each instance.

These are laws that we can wrap our brains around, laws that define our social and civil conduct, unlike commandments known as Chukim, which involve dietary laws and ritual practices, and define our relationship with G-d. It seems like a hard landing after the glorious high of Mount Sinai.

After having opened up His heavens for us, we might have expected G-d to get right down to the nitty gritty details of the Tabernacle and the priesthood and the offerings. After having gotten our attention why does the Torah refocus us on our own communal life down here on earth? The fact is our life here on earth, how we treat one another, how we govern ourselves and how we deal responsibly with our inevitable failings, is G-d’s chief concern.

He created this world for us, and He wants us to live in, prosper and share this beautiful creation with one another. Only when we have set the ground rules for our lives together on earth can Torah proceed to phase two of G-d’s covenant with Israel: the creation of a spacial and temporal reality by which G-d can rest His presence among us.

In other words, the building of a Tabernacle and future Holy Temple. First things first! Only when Israel is dwelling in unity and at peace with itself can an environment exist into which G-d can possibly rest His presence. To create this social tranquility we have mishpatim – civil law. And this is why the first thing G-d shares with Moshe and Israel, following the Ten Commandments, are the commandments mapping out these essential laws.

But parashat Mishpatim isn’t just about these necessary, yet, perhaps, dry laws. Following the laying down of these laws, Torah refocuses on Mount Sinai, reprising Israel’s unanimous commitment to Torah, “All that HaShem has spoken we will do and we will hear,” (Exodus 24:7) and describes the twelve monuments that Moshe had built for the twelve tribes of Israel, the offerings made on the altar and the casting of blood onto the altar and into the basins.

We are back at Sinai, and now it is Israel’s turn to pull out all the stops and to express our love for G-d, our thrill over receiving Torah and our eternal commitment to keeping its every law and statute. And then, very briefly, and just before the parasha ends and Moshe ascends Sinai and enters into his forty day and forty night seclusion with G-d, Torah treats us to a breathtaking encounter, sharing with us the vision of “Moshe and Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel who ascended, and they perceived the G-d of Israel, and beneath His feet was like the forming of a sapphire brick and like the appearance of the heavens for clarity.” (ibid 24:9-10)

Majestically describing the indescribable, Torah seems to be assuring us that life here on earth, at the foot of Mount Sinai, and not in its clouded peak, can nevertheless be a visionary and spiritual life, tedious civil laws notwithstanding. To make this message crystal clear, Torah closes this story with the words, “And upon the nobles of the children of Israel He did not lay His hand, and they perceived G-d, and they ate and they drank.” (ibid 24:11)

Accessing a profound comprehension of G-d’s infinite perfection does not preclude either the physical necessity of eating or drinking, nor the spiritual potential of eating and drinking when done in full consciousness of G-d’s presence in our lives.

It is little wonder that the children of Israel’s holidays and spiritual occasions inevitably involve eating and drinking, even as we are envisioning G-d’s greatness. Welcoming G-d to our table is but one small step from welcoming G-d into our world by building for Him (spoiler alert) a Sanctuary, so that He may dwell amongst us!

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