Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Parashat Mishpatim: Boundaries

A Message for Parashat Mishpatim 2017
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Parashat Yitro presented Ma’amad Har Sinai as a scene of illuminated clarity:

 All of Har Sinai was smoking, because God had descended upon it in the fire (19:18).
And all the people were seeing the thunder and the flashes and the sound of the ram’s horn and the mountain in smoke (20:15).

The Har Sinai of Parashat Mishpatim was markedly different:

And Moshe went up, and the cloud covered the mountain. And God’s glory abode on Har Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days. And on the sixth day He called out to Moshe from the midst of the cloud…And Moshe entered within the cloud and went up the mountain. (24:15-18)

In stark contrast to the previous display of a radiant fire, clouds now obstructed a clear vision of the mountain. Indeed, it was the pillar of cloud that had once before served as a blinding veil, shielding Am Yisrael from the Egyptians upon the exodus from Egypt (14:19). This time it was Am Yisrael who could not see clearly.

From the specific descriptions of Har Sinai at these two different points of time emerge two sight-specific experiences that were practically opposite in nature.

Whereas the “fire-consumed” Har Sinai of Parashat Yitro served the purpose of clarity, the “cloud-covered” mountain of Parashat Mishpatim established the necessary boundaries between Am Yisrael and God. The described “elect of Yisrael,” who were barely spared punishment at that time, fittingly sinned by means of an optical transgression: But against the elect of Yisrael He did not send forth His hand, and they looked at God and ate and drank (24:12). Failing to appropriately set limits for themselves, these individuals overstepped their designated boundaries.[1] God’s unprecedented revelation to the people brought with it a simultaneous call for hesitancy and caution.

I believe that God had actually already begun to hint at the importance of an appropriate distance when he spoke at Har Sinai. In contrast to His initial encounter with Moshe – when He denied a revelation of His name (3:14), God then introduced Himself by means of his personal name: I am YHVH your God, Who freed you from the land of Egypt (20:2). Michael Wyschogrod underscored the significance of this revelation:
The God of Israel is not just a Thou. The God of Israel has a proper name. There is no fact in Jewish theology more significant than this.[2]
Several statements later, however, God issued a strict warning regarding an over-familiarity with His name: “You shall not take up (tisa) the name of Hashem your God in vain.” Leon Kass noted the verb “take up” in this instance, explaining that by treating anyone’s name as something that can be “taken up” is to take him up, as if by his handle. He further explained:
Like making images of the divine, trafficking in the divine name evinces a presumption of familiarity and knowledge. To handle the name of the Lord risks treating Him as a finite thing known through and through. Even if uttered in innocence, the use of the Lord’s name invites the all-too-human error that attends all acts of naming: the belief that one thereby knows the essence.[3]
God, then, set forth a delicate message to the people at Har Sinai. He urged them to come forth and learn His name – but do so with caution.

In The Art Of Loving, Erich Fromm described a common misconception regarding love. We tend to idealize “symbiotic love,” and desire a fusion with another wherein we know them as deeply as we know ourselves. Fromm explained that mature love of both man and God is instead achieved through the retention of the individual self, in the paradoxical state of both “belonging” and “not belonging” to the union.[4] The contrast between the “revealed fire” and “concealed cloud” scenes at Har Sinai remind us of the sensitive balance inherent in a healthy relationship. Mature love is only achieved together along the guidelines of appropriate limits and boundaries.

[1] See Moreh Nevukhim 1:5.
[2] Michael Wyschogrod, The Body of Faith (Plymouth, UK, 1996), pg. 91.
[3] Leon Kass, “The Ten Commandments: Why the Decalogue Matters,” Mosaic Magazine, June 1, 2013. Available at:
[4] Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving (New York, 2006). See specifically pg. 67-72.