February 16, 2010

Parashat Mishpatim--Step Up/ Step Back

At the Sela Leadership Training I attended last year, we were instructed to use the “Step up/ Step back technique” in our inter-group relations.  This was one of our ground rules.  We were told explicitly: for those of you prone to listening rather than speaking, step up and consider talking more.  We were told, for those of you who usually speak first or often, step back and consider listening more.  Step up or Step back, we were reminded.

The reason why this ground rule was useful is because it called upon each of us to have a level of self-awareness.  Do I talk frequently and need to step back or am I often reticent and need to step up?  In each situation, should I step back or up?  Where to stand?

I am someone who usually listens and thinks before speaking.  I have a terrible habit of turning conversations backwards once I finally catch up enough to offer my comment.  Step up, I hear my inner voice saying often during conversations.  And on the flip side, I have strong and definitive opinions.  Step back, I have come to hear my inner voice say often during conversations.  In one individual, who knew, there could be such complexity. 

Such consideration of where and how to walk in conversations is not only a useful tool for self-development, it is also at the crux of this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Mishpatim

Last week, our ancestors stood at the foot of Mount Sinai, as Moses ascended the mountain.  All the people engaged in a moment of profound revelation.  This is why our people left Egypt, to enter into a new and just covenant, to encounter the sacred.  And so amidst thunder and lightning, Moses descended the mountain and recited the Ten Utterances or Commandments. 

And in this week’s parashah, the recitation continues.  Mishpatim.  “These are the rules of conduct” by which you will live your lives. 

Moses finishes reciting.  And the people proclaim, “Kol ha’d’varim asher dibeir Adonai na’aseh” “all the things that Adonai has spoken, we will do” (Exodus 24:3).  Moses then offers a sacrifice of well-being, and the people repeat themselves “Kol asher dibeir Adonai na’aseh v’nishmah,” “all that Adonai has spoken we will do and we will hear” (Exodus 24:7).  At the moment of Revelation the People choose.  Step up.  We. Will.  Do. 

At the moment of Revelation, we see our stiff-necked ancestors at their finest.  Not passive, like in the moments following the recitation of the Ten Utterances when Torah tells us the people “fell back and stood at a distance” (Exodus 20:15).  Not passive aggressive, like when the people call out, “If only we had meat to eat, we remember that fish we used to eat free in Egypt” (Numbers 11:4-5).  No this is the people at their best.  We. Will. Do.  We. Will. Step. Up.  We are active partners in this relationship. 

And, Moses?  Where is Moses in this narrative?  Moses, who has been running up and down the mountain like a spiritual ski gondola since last week.  Moses, who has spent the moments of revelation praising and pacifying, listening and repeating, doing and commanding, leading and leveraging: Where is Moses in this conversation?

This week Torah tells us: God says to Moses, “Aleih eilai ha-harah veh’h’yeh sham,” “Come up to Me on the mountain and be there” (Exodus 24:12).  Be there.  Just be.  Stop moving.  Stop doing.  Don’t ascend, don’t descend, don’t act.  Step back. 

Moses and the Israelites ultimately came into covenant, entered into the deepest of sacred relationships, in ways that were opposite to their nature.  The notoriously passive people responded to covenant by doing.  The woefully impulsive Moses responded by being.

They stepped up.  He stepped back.  And that was Revelation.

We today are wise to hear this story of covenant anew.  Experiencing God and the sacred, not to mention the rest of humanity, requires a presence of mind.  A spiritual centering.  An active choice, different for each of us, different in each moment:  Step up or Step back.

We are taught that the true moment of our people’s freedom came not at the instant they fled Egypt.  It came only at this moment, at Sinai, when they entered into covenant.  The absence of law, we are taught, is not freedom, but chaos.

“We will do and we will hear,” said the people.

“[Moses,] Come up to Me on the mountain and be.”

This is the voice of Torah in our lives.  Gently pushing us this week...to rise above our basest instincts.  We are more than chaos.  In our encounters with Torah, with the holy and with God...and most importantly, in our interactions with each other (each of us who is surely created in God’s image), we are reminded: Step up or Step back.  We live our lives in the realm of the sacred when we are self-aware enough to know how to reach out and encounter the other. 

We will do.  We will be.

Easier said than done.  The people’s misguided actions will lead them to build a golden calf.  Moses’ over-zealousness in pulling back keeps him covered in cloud and alone, oblivious to the people’s infraction.  Torah never calls on us to be perfect.  Just a little better than our instincts might tell us to be.

In that one moment, which is every moment, when an encounter of the truest nature is possible, we can do our part to make revelation possible. Step up or Step back.  And who knows what blessings we might receive.

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