Peak Moments and Rules

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, February 10, 2023 / 19 Shevat 5783

Summary: The Ten Commandments presents us with two experiences of God that map out nicely the world of rules we all must follow, as well as those peak moments of experience, which make us feel so alive.

Reading Time: Four minutes

An old congregant from Cleveland wrote me this past week, sharing a davar torah she had penned for last week’s Torah reading on the topic of the mi-khamokha line in our liturgy, which comes straight out of the Torah. She explored why the word mi-kamokha first appears without a dagesh, the little dot inside of certain Hebrew letters, while just three words later, it is written with a dot. This obscure grammatical question is one I asked Rabbi Stuart Kelman the year before I began rabbinical studies. His answer matched my congregant’s—we don’t actually know. Of course, that has never stopped Jews from providing provisional answers. We will return to that in a bit.

First, though, my friend shared how she and her spouse had changed congregations because they didn’t view themselves as halakhic Jews. Her answer saddened me because I think halakhah continues to serve an important role in the Jewish world, even for those who don’t view themselves as halakhic Jews, which, frankly, is most of the Jews out there. I find a compelling reason why halakhah matters in this week’s parshah of Yitro. This is the section of Torah in which Moses ascends Sinai, the entire nation experiences a moment of revelation, after which we receive the Ten Commandments. Pause for a second.

Revelation describes different things within religion. Often, we think of it as propositional. The idea that God revealed to us the Torah and the Ten Commandments is propositional. The revelation contains specifics, such as the commandments to observe the Shabbat, not to steal, and not to murder. There is a specific content to this sort of revelation, one that can be repeated and taught.

But there is also non-propositional revelation. This is an encounter with God, however one conceives of God, in which no explicit instructions are given. Instead of revealing God’s Will, one encounters God’s Being. This is a very different understanding. Mt. Sinai thunders while the people see the sounds and hear the sights. Their normal way of seeing is upended.

What is remarkable is that parshat Yitro provides us with an account of both types of revelation—a direct experience of God along with some content and rules. While not unique to Judaism, it is our tradition’s ability to balance the two types of religious experience that defines who we are. For some people and in some religions, the goal of religion is to have a personal encounter with God. Anyone who has been graced by such a moment understands it as one of life’s peak experiences. Finding God changes us. Others, however, believe that what makes a religion valuable is its moral instructions because those teach us how to live in community while they deepen our knowledge of justice.

The Torah seems uninterested in such dichotomies, presenting us with both in a single passage. This is not accidental. We all need to learn how to live with both the prophetic and the institutional. Laws tell us what to do or not to do. Peak moments tell us why we would want to obey them. When we feel our connection to the flow of life, it’s much easier to do the right thing out of a deep internal desire rather than from a sense of obligation. Peak moments recharge and renew us. They are our moments of awe. People who don’t experience awe get sicker and tend to be less happy or humble.

But if we are honest with ourselves, we all also need external rules to motivate us, shape us, and create a framework by which we can cooperate with others. Deadlines are one such example and are a reminder that we don’t always get that peak experience when we need it. Sometimes, we all need to be prodded.

Judaism often seems rule-bound, in a manner that we modern Jews often chafe at (or flat out ignore), yet our tradition also encourages us to seek out God through prayer (the amidah), private meditation (hitbodedut), or heightened experience (Shehechiyanu). We need our boxes, just as we need to step out of those same boxes.

Parshat Yitro confronts us with these two ways of being, which brings us full circle to the mi-khamokha prayer. Why a dot and no dot in the same word? The full phrase in English is, “Who is like You, God, among the mighty beings? Who is like you, majestic in holiness?” The first phrase is relational, comparing God to others. That’s the role of our rules, of propositional revelation. The second is something completely apart, a peak moment. The Torah seems to argue we need both. What do you think?

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. What have been some peak moments in your life? What impact did they have on you?
  2. Which external rules help you to be your best self?

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