Na’aseh v’nishma: We will do and we will get it!

We have spent half the year with dysfunctional families, tyrannical rulers, great escapes, and dramatic treks through the wilderness. We have learned lessons from tales of sibling rivalry, marital relationships, and conversations with talking animals. Genesis and the first part of Exodus provide no end of learning opportunities.

This week, v’ayleh hamishpatim: These are the rules. Admittedly, some of the verses we read in Mishpatim are challenging. And yet, many resonate and inspire us, offering opportunities to expand our sense of justice and responsibility for the world we live in.

Some examples?

We are responsible. If someone owns an animal who is known to be violent, for example, and the animal kills someone, the owner must make restitution. Where I live, stories of children and adults who are mauled to death by dogs are not so rare as I would wish. Our ancient forbears knew about the problems that afflict human society – and they weren’t so very different from those that afflict us today. How do we make sure animals are protected and safe? How do we make sure humans are, too?

We are responsible. Do not carry false rumors. Our Torah not only warns us against uttering sheker, falsehoods and lies, but also lashon hara, slander. Say negative things about someone to those who have no practical reason to know of a person’s weakness, and you violate Torah. Even r’khilut, truths about a person that are not defamatory but communicated for no good reason constitute gossip. So much communication that goes wrong can go right when we are mindful, careful, open and generous. Why not try to be all those things?

We are responsible. For widows. For orphans. For the poor.  These laws remind us that justice must be meted out equally to poor and rich alike, that we are obligated to care for those in need – weren’t we once slaves in Egypt, Torah asks? “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of a stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 23: 9).

If we fear the homeless instead of housing them, if we ignore the growing disparity between poor and rich, if we ourselves never imagine what it is to lose our jobs and our sense of worth, to be desperate, to go hungry, then we can hardly understand what we need to do to build a just society. It’s not that hard to ignore real pain and feed apathy, self-indulgence, and disinterest.

When given the chance to take on the law – before they knew every last requirement, every last mitzvot, the Israelites all answered, the Torah says, with one voice: “We will do!” (Ex. 24.7).

Na’aseh v’nishma.

“We will do,” they said. “We will do and then hear, then understand.”

It is in the doing that we understand how to become the holy people God longs for. By noticing in our conversations when we can redirect complaints and concerns so that those who are hurt can benefit from an opportunity to understand – directly – when and why something has gone wrong, from making sure that all we do and all we own – from cars to dogs – are held and used responsibly, by doing the tikkun olam projects waiting for our active affirmation, by saying “we will do” each morning when we wake up and act upon our commitment each day – this is what will lead to our learning to be the kind of people that is, in fact, a holy one.

When our works exceed our wisdom, our wisdom endures.

Naaseh v’nishma.

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Visioning the Godly in True Blue

Studying Torah begins and ends with a sweet realization: These texts reveal new truths at each reading.  The ancient authors of Torah knew that creating multiple possible realities was the very purpose of storytelling.

Last week, our congregational Torah study group occupied itself with Parsha Mishpatim, which includes the famed Book of the Covenant.  The Book of the Covenant, so scholars, likely began as a separate law code which was later integrated into a larger narrative composed by several different writers.

Personally, I think we’d be better off naming our writers “schools,” since the respective strands of text were themselves subject to internal revision before they were all redacted and re-redacted in later centuries.  But scholars are notoriously wedded to their terminology.  Hence, they call them the J,E,P, and D-writers, nodding in the general direction of a fifth R-writer for “redactor.”  In this case, the E-writer (I’d say E-school) is given credit for assimilating the Book of the Covenant into the E-narrative in Torah.

Has everyone fallen asleep?

Please don’t.  The fact that ancient Israelites wrote and retained different versions of certain stories (Genesis 1 and Genesis 2-3 are the paradigmatic example) is proof positive that there was no one authoritative account for all Israelites even in the old days.  Some of Torah even “corrects” other parts.  Example?  Just check out the way the pashal lamb is, according to Exodus 12:9, to be roasted.  The same pashal lamb is to be boiled, according to Deuteronomy 16:7.  Chronicles 35:13 offers an ingenious resolution to the apparent dichotomy: The lamb should be roasted after being boiled.  The Chronicler was bothered by discrepancies in the two earlier accounts and reconciled them with a brand-new recipe.

Our ancient forbears preserved variant traditions even when they contradicted each other.  That fact grants us the right to our multiple interpretations: Torah is a flowing, changing, living thing because both then and now the people of that book understood their narratives, their law codes, and their ideas to be subject to change.

That, I believe, is a very good thing.  It has all sorts of wonderful implications.  We can (and have) put women in the rabbinate.  We can (and have) included GLBT Jews as members of our clergy.  We can…

Well.  The study group spent some quality time looking at the laws of the Book of the Covenant.  We discussed how the law code aimed to protect property, land, and justice.  Ancient Israelites were warned not to accede to a majority opinion rather than tell the truth.  If required to give testimony, they were reminded neither to favor the wealthy nor the poor.  There’s a lot in Parsha Mishpatim that can make Jewish folk proud of their ancestors.

There’s a lot to struggle with, too, just as ancient Israelites must have done.  Take the literal possibilities of “an eye for an eye” (Ex. 21: 23-4).  There is no example in Tanakh of this law being applied, which strongly suggests that our ancestors didn’t take this passage literally even way back then.  Still, my Torah study group sadly noted the ways Exodus 22:17, “You shall not allow a witch to live” was used in later centuries to justify persecution and murder on a grand scale – in some time periods, against Jews.

At the end of our time together, I asked everyone to look again at the final passage of the parsha.  Moses, the text tells us, ascends the mountain together with Aaron and his two sons, and seventy elders.  There they see the God of Israel, under whose feet is the likeness of a lapis lazuli stone surface, the very image of the sky in clarity and purity.  Miraculously, God did not raise God’s hand against the all-too-human beings who dared appear where divinity could be seen.  Instead, the Torah tells us: “They beheld God and they ate and drank” (Exodus 24:11).

Most English translations of this passage do not do the Hebrew justice.  The verb used here for “seeing” is formed from the root chet-zayin-heyKhazah does not mean, simply, “see.”  It implies visioning.  A khozeh is a seer.  A khazon is a vision.  Those who were on that mountain visioned God, envisioned God, or had a vision of God.

Afterwards, they ate and drank.

I asked our study group to recall a time when they experienced Godness of some sort, to re-imagine a moment of divinity so powerful it simultaneously commandeered and sustained everything around them, including themselves.

We are mere mortals, despite (or perhaps because) of our dreams.  Must visionary experience inevitably give way to the everyday realm of assiyah, of doing?  Must we eat and drink to remind ourselves of our mortality after an encounter with immortality, after entering the realm of atzilut?

Or did those who beheld God take in the vision by drinking in the experience, by nourishing themselves with the divine so that they could be changed utterly, body and soul?

God’s feet, the text says, rested on a foundation of sapphire.  Sapir recalls, for the Hebrew reader, a word made of the same essential letters: Samech-pey-reish is a root used for “counting,” “relating,” and “writing.”  A sofer is a scribe.  A sefer is written text, a book.  The linguistic presence of these near homonyms in my mind made me ask the others: Was God standing on our story, on the narratives we have revered and struggled with for centuries?  The Tanakh is, after all, the foundation on which we build and rebuild our understanding of Godness.

So we ended our discussion where we began: The Book of the Covenant, the law, the Torah, the Tanakh – it is sourced in many voices, many readings, many possibilities.  What is godly stands, in significant measure, on that fact.

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