Be there: on Mishpatim and presence
February 07, 2016
In this week's Torah portion, Moshe and Joshua and 70 elders have a mystical experience together. They ascend the mountain and behold a vision of God, under Whose feet there is the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, as pure as the very sky itself.
As if that weren't enough, then God says to Moshe. "Come up to Me on the mountain, and be there." And this time Moshe goes up on the mountain alone, and enters into the very cloud of God's presence, and remains there with God for forty days and nights.
This year the phrase והיה שם / "be there" leapt out at me. It seems superfluous. Wouldn't "come up to Me on the mountain" have been enough? Tradition teaches that every word in Torah carries meaning, which means there must be a reason for this phrase to be there. "Be there" suggests a different quality of being present.
It's one thing to climb the mountain. It's another thing entirely to really be present at the top -- or to really be present along the journey up or down. Anyone who meditates has probably noticed how hard it is to be in the moment. It's human nature to get caught up in the past or the future, to become so conscious of remembered wounds or joys (or anticipated ones) that we miss the now. Surely Moshe had that problem, just as much as you or I do. So God reminded him: come to Me, and be there.
I was talking about this with R' David Markus , and he asked whether I saw an anagram in the phrase והיה שם (be there.) I looked at it -- and suddenly saw the beautiful teaching he had wanted me to glimpse. Rearrange the letters of והיה ("and be"), and you get the four-letter Name of God, that Name which some consider too holy to speak (and others say we "speak" every time we breathe). When we can be there, then God is there. Making ourselves fully present is how we open up to encountering God.
Shabbat is a 25-hour-long opportunity to be there. On Shabbat, we're called to set aside our striving, to set aside the inclination to try to change things. We relinquish whatever happened last week: whether bitter or sweet, those days are over now. We resist anticipating whatever might happen during the new week to come: whether bitter or sweet, those days aren't here yet. Shabbat is the day we're given, each week, to be in the now. To let now be enough. To find the perfection in this very moment. To be there.
"Six days you shall labor and do all your work," Torah teaches, "but the seventh day is the Shabbat of Adonai your God; on it, you shall not do any work..." Maybe you recognize those words from the Shabbat lunchtime kiddush. The rabbinic text known as the Mekhilta asks, "Is it really possible to do all of one's work?" Isn't work, by its definition, something which can never entirely be completed? Rather, teaches the Mekhilta, on Shabbat we are called to rest as if all of our work were complete.
The Hasidic master known as the Sfat Emet teaches -- following on that idea from the Mekhilta -- that when a person truly stands still for Shabbat, peace and wholeness will descend on them, and it will be as if their work were complete. When we can relinquish workday consciousness, and our to-do lists, and the stories we tell ourselves about the future and the past -- when we can be there, as God instructed Moshe -- then we can touch perfect wholeness. Then it is as though our work were done. Then we can experience Shabbat as "a foretaste of the world to come."
The mystical vision of God atop a firmament which was like sapphire, as pure and clear as the very sky, may be beyond us. And the experience Moshe had atop the mountain, surrounded by a cloud of divine presence for forty days and nights, may be even more unimaginable. But we can all follow God's instruction to him, because we can all have the experience of Shabbat as a time to be there, to commit to being wholly present right here and right now. And right here, right now. And right here, right now.
Image: a detail from a painting by Rabbi Pamela Jay Gottfried, in watercolor and salt.
This is the d'var Torah I offered at my shul yesterday morning.