Thursday, February 03, 2005


Parashat Mishpatim

Rashi makes a cryptic comment on this week's parashah.
In chapter 24, verse 13, we are told that Moshe goes up the mountain and takes with him Yehoshua (Joshua). Rashi, who famously is the definitive explactor of text, says: "I don't know what is the purpose of Joshua here." Rashi doesn't know? What is significant is the fact the Rashi feels contrained to tell us that he doesn't know. When Rashi tells you he doesn't know something, it's clear that we must probe very deeply indeed.

We know - or we will know, after we have read the entire Torah - that Yehoshua is the new Moshe. Like Moshe, who led us out of the spiritual exile of Egypt, through the divided waters of Yam Suf (the "Sea of Reeds"), Yehoshua will lead us out of the physical exile of the Midbar (desert) and, through the divided waters of the Jordan, into the land of Canaan.

I can't draw a picture here, but the configuration on the mountain is: Moshe at the top, face to face with G-d. Yehoshua is down far enough that he and Moshe can call to one another, but Yehoshua can not see G-d. Further down still, after having completed their picnic bathed in the glory of G-d, sit Aharon and Hur, Aharon's older sons Nadav and Avihu, and the Elders of Israel. Finally, at the foot of the mountain, are Aharon's two younger sons, Elazar and Itamar, and the People.

The literary theme of Up/Down, of a Platonic above/below dichotomy has played out throughout the book of Exodus, largely in the imagery of G-d commanding Moshe to lift his staff, or to lift his hand. It is only when Moshe finally learns to use his hand completely on its own, without the assitance of the staff, that Yam Suf splits. Notably, the Hebrew word for staff -- matteh -- is a form of the verb NTEH - meaning to lift, to move up and down. A staff is perpendicular in shape. The power that is ultimately taken on by Moshe is the same sacred power G-d invests into the staff. Once Moshe learns how to use it, he can dispense with the staff. This is the way into Torah: we need props, we need supports, we need aid. When we have mastered the spiritual and moral lessons of Torah, then we no longer need any appurtenances.

The Vilna Gaon was the greatest Torah mind of the modern age. The Vilna Gaon (1720-1797), Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, also known as Ha-Gra, was an incredible genius by any measure. He began composing tracts on halacha by the time he was five years old, gave his first public teaching at the age of seven. By the time he was ten years old, there was no one left who could teach him anything. The Gaon because the definitive master of Talmud, but also of Kabbalah. He was also an authority on numerous secular subjects, including mathematics, astronomy, and music. It is well documented that he slept only two hours a day -- four thirty-minute periods, three at night and one in the daytime. One of his students stated that he absorbed books on secular subjects when he was in the toilet, where Torah study is prohibited. There is indeed no other scholar who had such immense, vast knwoledge of Torah text, of Talmud, of the rabbinic commentators. The Vilna Gaon was the single most influential leader of European Jewry in his time. Towards the end of his life, the Gaon had literally learned everything there was to know. He had absorbed and mastered all the commentaries on Torah, the entire Talmud and all the later commentators as well. Finally, he reached the point wherel as had occurred in his childhood, no one could teach him anything. He spent his final years studying directly from a Sefer Torah - a Torah scroll. Finally, having mastered the entire universe, he returned to the original source. It is an amazing story.

This is the power that Moshe has learned to wield. He learns to draw Down and embody all that comes from Above. But, as G-d told Moshe -- You will be as a god to Pharoah, and Aharon will be your prophet -- what is the next generation to be? As Yitro reminded Moshe last week -- You will waste away and die: you, and ALL these people. What then? Who will carry on, if there is nothing given over?

And so Yehoshua stands alone, 2/3 way up the mountain. He can hear Moshe, but not see what is going on. He can hear the sounds from the camp at the foot of the mountain, but can not discern their meaning (as we will see in the story of the Golden Calf). Those above him and below him -- Moshe at the top, and Aharon, Hur, Nadav and Avihu, 1/3 up the mountain -- none of these will enter the Land. Nor will the Peole in the camp below, for they are the Generation of the Wilderness. Some, but not most, will in fact survive and follow Yehoshua. Now Yehoshua, in a synasthaesic fog on the side of the mountain, is trying to piece together what is going on. He hears and perceives bits and pieces from both above and below, but he gets it wrong.

The Zohar uses this Parasha's discussion of the laws of slavery to launch into an extended discourse on reincarnation and transmigration. Anticipating the Law of Conservation Of Energy / Matter, the Zohar tells us that G-d created all the souls that ever will be at the moment of Creation. From time to time, G-d calls to a soul and says "Go down to such-and-such a place, to such a body." The soul responds, "I am satisfied to be here. I do not desire to go to another place to be enslaved and soiled." G-d replies, "From teh first day of Creation, you had no other destiny!" And the soul departs and descends to its fate.

This is a fascinating and penetrating understanding. For slavery, in the Torah, has two facets: there is Indentured Servitude, which is in many respects one of the mainstays of society. It enabled Jacob to live in the world, and historically it enabled many poor to become self sufficient. But there were strings atached. Or rather, there were strings severed. For a Hebrew Slave who indentured himself took on the obligation to leave behind what he had wrought in his master's household, including a wife and children, if his master provided a wife during the term of servitude.

The other type of slavery, the slavery that oppresses, is clearly pointed out in the Parasha. The Hebrew slave who does not choose to go out free is taken to the door of the house, and the Master bores a hole in his ear, thrusting the awl through and into the doorpost. "This is the ear that heard 'You shall have no other masters but Me'" says the Midrash. "The ear that heard'For the Children of Israel are my slaves', and yet he chose to become the slave to another human being."

Destiny, then, is what is prepared for us. It is available to us, but we must choose it. And even within our Destiny, there is an infinity of choices to be made. And each choice unleashes another infinity of choices.

Yehoshua is in the fog. He is not sure whether he is going to go higher, or be instructed to go down. He can't tell what G-d is saying to Moshe, nor can he tell whether the cries from the camp are of terror or rejoicing. His Destiny is to lead the Jewish People. And he will lead us, because he must.

His immediate dilemma, though, is to find his direction. Like Noah, enclosed in a windowless, foursquare ark, a rudderless craft, he doesn't know where he is, nor where he is going. He doesn't even know how to tell where he must go.

The moment of Destiny, then, is that moment when we are ripest for learning. That is when we are ready to receive Torah.

shabbat shalom


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