When I think of the concept of belonging, feeling connected, or permanence, I reflect back on a few years ago when I was granted permanent residency here in Australia. For the first time in almost 10 years, my ability to work and live and come and go as I saw fit was not to be questioned any longer (COVID restrictions notwithstanding). No longer did I feel at the whim of my current visa. I began to have a sense is feeling settled and of purpose. The process of becoming established in Australia was much more than applying for a visa, moving into my house, being installed as rabbi and beginning my work. It was about putting up a mezuzah, obtaining a drivers license, paying my taxes, shopping at my local grocery store, hosting people in my home and being asked to give directions. The magic or excitement of moving to a new place only carried over because I had to actually live in Sydney, as opposed to only come for regular visits. That energy had to be redirected into establishing a life in my new home.
I can only imagine what the Israelites must have felt in their journey through the desert. They have been uprooted from the only place they and their ancestors had known and had called home. Now, through great upheaval, they are wandering in the desert, homeless and stateless. They have the promise of a home and a glorious future, but the only tangible thing they have to cling to was the revelatory experience from Mount Sinai, which we read last week.
Now comes Parashat Mishpatim, which consists almost exclusively of a collection of laws. The question then is why? Why, immediately following the incredible and awesome experience at Mount Sinai, do we dampen the mood with the technical application of the laws? The mood could only last so long. Without the framework to put into practice what they had accepted the week before, the idea of the covenant would have been discarded almost immediately. We, as humans, need structure to adhere to in order to survive as a community. This collection of laws superficially could be seen to take the magic out of the moment, but I think they prolong it, by giving a focus for it and not allowing the powerful residual energy of the experience to be lost. While they can be perceived as a laundry list of dos and don’ts, they are a profound expression of the permanence of our relationship with God.
I pray this week that, just as the Israelites, the familiar becomes the basis for a powerful divine experience. That we allow ourselves to see the holiness not only in the unique moments, but in the actions we perform repeatedly. That we come to a place where we can move past the initial awesome experience of a new relationship and build it into something permanent, that we open ourselves to the possibilities of a relationship with the Almighty that is based not only on emotions, but physical actions as well. That the routines of the covenant serve not only to strengthen our bond with God, but with one another.
Rabbi Rafi Kaiserblueth