Parashat Mishpatim – Exodus 21:1 – 24:18

Being Present in a World of Distractions

By Rabbi Daniel J. Feder

In a world of distracted people and shortened attention spans, there is a verse in Mishpatim that helps us regain our focus. This striking verse is from Exodus 24:12: “The Eternal One said to Moses, ‘Come up to Me on the mountain and wait there . . . ‘ ”

The meaning seems straightforward in the English translation found in The Torah: A Modern Commentary1; it seems easy for our modern minds to comprehend. But this verse provides a great example of how a close reading of the Hebrew verse can yield a different perspective.

The key Hebrew words are literally translated as: “Come up to me on the mountain and be there.” This seems odd, as Lawrence S. Kushner and Kerry M. Olitzky teach in Sparks Beneath the Surface, “If Moses were to follow God’s instruction and come up on the mountain, then he would already be there. Why then does the text add ‘and be there?’ “2

The Sages of the Torah taught that not a single word of the Torah is superfluous — every word serves a purpose. Rabbi Menachem Mendl of Kotzk (1787-1859) taught, “if Moses went up to the mountain, of course he would be there. However, this is proof that a person can exert tremendous effort to reach the top of a mountain . . . but his head may be elsewhere. The main thing is not the ascent but being there, and only there . . .”3

It turns out that chronic distraction may not be unique to our age. God seems concerned that even the great Moses might be distracted and not fully present for the Revelation. And if Moses needed the reminder, how much more so do we — in our multitasking culture — need to be focused and present. It’s a discipline that’s as challenging now as it ever was.

  1. W. Gunther Plaut, gen. ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, rev. ed. (New York: URJ, 2005), p. 524
  2. Lawrence S. Kushner and Kerry M. Olitzky, Sparks Beneath the Surface: A Spiritual Commentary on the Torah (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Inc., 1993), p. 91
  3. Aharon Yaakov Greenberg compiled Torah Gems, Itturei Torah (Tel Aviv: Y. Orenstein “Yavneh” Publishing House, Ltd., 1998), p. 165

Rabbi Daniel J. Feder is the senior rabbi of Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame, CA.


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