On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah - Mishpatim: Always Be Present

Near the end of Parashat Mishpatim, God tells Moses to go to the mountain, and to “be there.” Why would God tell Moses to “be there” after already telling him exactly where to be? In this episode of On the Other Hand, Rabbi Rick Jacobs poses the idea that God wants to make sure Moses is  spiritually, emotionally, and mentally present—and that being present in that way is just as important for all of us today as it was for Moses.

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Welcome back to On the Other Hand: 10 Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Every week Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism shares his thoughts on the Torah portion. This week it's Parashat Mishpatim, and episode 107. Rabbi Jacobs teaches us a little bit about how you can be there, no matter what it is that you're doing.

This week we focus our attention on Parashat Mishpatim from the Book of Exodus. Mishpatim literally means sentences or laws. And the parashah is filled with a whole variety of Jewish laws about all aspects of life: ritual, moral, civil.

And we have at the end, I think, one of the great moments where after this litany of laws, God says to Moses, “Alei elai haharah v’hayei-sham.”

God says, “I'll send to me, the mountain.” Meaning, come up the mountain to me. And then amazingly it adds v’hayei-sham: and be there. Now of course if you're a Jewish commentator, and I feel we may have a Jewish commentator or two listening to the podcast this week, you are just completely intrigued by v’hayei-sham. I mean, it's unnecessary. It's superflous. I mean, why do you say to Moses, “Come up to the mountain and be there.” It's sort of like, if you come up the mountain you are there.

I think in this, there is a teaching about spiritual life altogether. And the Kotzker Rebbe, the great Hasidic master, he saw in this additional phrase a world of meaning, a world of possibility.

 So just think for a moment, where are you right now listening to this podcast? In your car? Are you walking? Are you washing the dishes? Are you? Are you? Are you? Are you? And are you listening to the podcast with a tenth of your attention? Fifty percent? My guess, again that's not a critique, I listen to podcasts always while I'm doing something.

And I think the teaching is to be present. Wherever we are, whatever it is that we're doing. If we're washing those dishes, to be attentive to the tactile and purposeful task of washing the dishes. If we're praying, are we actually in the prayer moment? Or are we thinking about what we did before, or what we were going to do after? So in this simple phrase, “And be there, Moses,” we’re all instructed to be present in whatever it is that we're doing.

Now, the great 20th century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber had a life changing experience on this very subject, but not connected to this Torah teaching. Martin Buber, arguably one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century, was as many scholars are, loving sitting in his study writing, thinking. And one day he was in his study and one of his students came. And Buber, you know, was kind of annoyed that the guy was disturbing him because he was writing. So the student comes in, he sits down, he tells Buber about the painful things he's struggling with. And Buber does one of these kind of, “Uhuh, uhuh.” The whole time he's thinking about what he's writing, about what he's doing. And the student leaves.

Buber finds out a couple of weeks later that that student actually took his life. And came to Buber not with a casual question, not to ask about, you know, some technical matter of philosophy. He came to Buber for a life question, and Buber was not v’hayei-sham. Buber was not there.

So from that moment you could either collapse as a human being. Buber used that as the impetus to really solidify his whole philosophy of I, thou. Of really being in deep relation, whether it is with God, another person, or even he uses natural imagery: a tree, a mountain. It is, I think, a clear sense that for all of us being present is absolutely the hard thing.

I mean, some of us who are in families. I remember when my kids would say when they were young, you know, Dad can you can you come with? You know, I want to go outside and play baseball. You know we're having a catch. And I could tell that my kid is look at me going, Dad, where are you? I say well, I'm here. We're playing catch. And my kid would just look at me and say no you're not, you're somewhere, you're thinking about something else.

Well, I imagine I may not be the only person who's had that experience. And I think Parashat Mishpatim and this phrase in Chapter 24 Verse 12 is that reminder to all of us to be there.

Last teaching: Rabbi Nancy Flam, who is just, I think, one of the most inspirational teachers. I was privileged to work closely with Nancy while she was a rabbinic intern for me way back at the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue. Nancy, who is really a master of Jewish healing practice, answered a very formal question. People said, you know, I go visit people who are sick. And I get so nervous when I go visit them. And Rabbi Flam, can you can you help?

So Nancy gave this beautiful answer, that she really I think gave us another way to think of v’hayei-sham.

And she said, you know, no matter how experienced you are—if you're a chaplain in a hospital, or you're just a friend or family member going to visit, there can be that moment when you're about to walk into a hospital room. And you think to yourself, how can I do this? What do I say? I don't know, I mean, they're going to you know ask me what maybe the purpose of their… I’m caught. Nancy would remind all of us that there's no right thing to say. There's no magic words that can be spoken. And that our presence is in fact, all that is not only necessary, but all that is needed to bring a blessing to that person.

And though we may have to still our inner dialogue of “What do I say? How do I stand? How do I not say something foolish?” You know. And the goal in that moment, maybe the goal in all the moments, is simply to be present. And by the very act of our being there to express both love, hopefully a sense of connection to others, a connection to the Holy One. That just, v’hayei-sham, just be there in the fullness of your being. And that actually can bring a blessing of enormous power and depth.

So if you are washing the dishes right now, and you’re listening too intently to the podcast, I'm going to tell you to stop listening. And just feel the water as it washes over the dishes or the glasses or your hands. If you are out, about to have a catch with your child, definitely turn the podcast off and pay attention to just being on the lawn and the back and forth and being present. If you're at work you know put your focus where it is it ought to be.

And I think when we learn how to do that, and Moses maybe, as our master teacher, knew how to do that maybe better than others, that we actually can do not only more in our lives, but we can get more reward, more, I would think fulfillment, out of each and every simple thing. And not to rush through our lives, not to keep thinking about what we just did or about what we're going to do, but what we are in this very moment doing. There are spiritual practices of breathing. Sometimes it's, you know, when—I remember I used to eat my lunch every day at my desk. And I would gobble down my lunch while I was answering e-mails. And there's something about just actually tasting the food. Feeling the breath as it comes in and comes out. Noticing the rhythms and, you know, the world around us and the people.

So let's take the teaching that God in calling Moses up the mountain gave to all of us. And wherever we are, whatever it is that we're doing, v’hayei-sham. And really, truly, be there.

Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of On the Other Hand: 10 Minutes of Torah. If you liked what you heard today and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at ReformJudaism.org and on iTunes, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism including rituals, culture, holidays, and more. On the Other Hand: 10 Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. Until next week, l’hitraot.