There’s an old children’s joke that goes: Where was Moses when the lights went out?
The answer: In the dark.
While this used to generate a good deal of hilarity when we were (much) younger, the question Where was Moses? is a good one to ask this week.
Mishpatim follows on directly from the previous parashah, Yitro, which contains the narrative of the Ten Commandments (or, more accurately, the Ten Sayings). After a small digression into some rules about altars and sacrifices, the Torah continues the narrative by launching straight into These are the rules that you shall set before them.., a long list of additional commandments. This takes up most of the parashah, and is followed by:
“And to Moses, [God] said: Come up to Adonai, with Aaron, Nadav and Avihu and seventy elders of Israel and bow low from afar: Moses alone shall come up to Adonai, but the others shall not come near, nor shall the people come up with him.”
So where was Moses when the commandments were being given?
Rashi’s explanation is that the passage above is in the pluperfect – God had previously told Moses to come up with Aaron etc. Thus, we have here another example of the maxim, ein mukdam umeuhar ba-Torah – Torah is not chronological. It would place Moses at the top of the mountain, making a quick shuttle down below, between commandments, only to run back up again with company in time for the end of the parashah.
Rashi’s resolution is elegant (if harder work for Moses) but there is also an alternative reading. Far from the Cecil B de Mille picture we might carry in our minds, the Torah presents an option of a Moses standing, at the foot of Sinai like everybody else, while God (who, as Rashi tells us, had considerately bent the upper and lower heavens into a kind of platform to carry the Throne of Glory) issued the commandments from the top.
One model is of a leader as intermediary, the lone figure who can ‘come up’ to God. The other is of a leader who stands with his people at the time of their greatest insight. As we read the Torah this week, we can ask – what kind of leaders do we want? And if we are leaders ourselves – what kind of leader do we want to become?
Rabbi Deborah Silver is a member of New North London Synagogue and Assistant Rabbi at Adat Ari El, Valley Village, Los Angeles.