by Hazzan Barbara Barnett
In last week’s Torah Portion, Yitro, the Israelites received the 10 commandments. A more dramatic Biblical story is hard to find. Trumpets, clouds of smoke, pillars of fire. Moses on the mountaintop. Lofty words from the highest heights. “All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the shofar and the mountain smoking” (20:15).
But this week, we are back on the ground, as it were. The follow-up to the grandeur of Yitro is the parasha Mishpatim, containing more than 50 separate mitzvot dealing with kidnapping, personal injury and property damage, occult practices, helping the poor and vulnerable, returning lost objects, and alleviating the suffering of animals. Giving the land (and ourselves) a Shabbat rest. And much more.
We no longer find ourselves up there in the clouds with Moses, but grounded with the more everyday rules that govern our very human behavior. But are the two portions are inextricably connected.
There’s a famous midrash about the angels complaining to G-d that they didn’t receive the Torah. “Why people? Why Moses? Why not us?” they want to know.
Instead of responding directly, G-d instructs Moses to explain. Essentially, he says the Torah is not in Heaven. Not given to the “ministering angels,” but to humans who have to deal relate to each other, and so much of Torah takes us back to the fundamental Torah concept of “V’ahvta L’rayacha Kamocha” (“Love your neighbor as yourself”). What would angels do with such guidance as the Torah provides; the angels already have a profound relationship God. They don’t need the constant reminders and prodding.
This juxtaposition of the two: the literal and spiritual “high” of Mount Sinai. And the down-to-earth details of Mishpatim—the fine print, as it were send an important message.
God is in the details as much as atop Sinai.
To make the most of our Sinai moments, we must make it real in our world, and not on a lofty mountaintop, but down here on the ground. But you still need Sinai.
The Zohar explains that the ideals of Sinai must be internalized and absorbed into our very bones. Whenever we have a moment of insight and clarity, we must channel that into action.