It is possible to organize one’s life around two pillars
the flash moment of insight, in which we know deeply who we are and the potential arrival at our own promised land. This is the Jewish story.
The Jewish narrative begins with the assertion that once we encountered God. Our experience of God was direct, it was personal, it inspired action. The revelation at Sinai is the point of departure for the collective journey of the Jewish people.
Likewise, the Jewish story has direction. We set out from Sinai millennia ago, and we began our journey toward “the promised land.” We often think of these landmarks as historical moments. But their power for us exists not in their function as moments in history, but rather as claims of possibility.
It is possible to organize one's life as a journey from revelation to redemption.
Once we have experienced the flashing, fleeting moment in which we know deeply who we
are and what it is we are meant to do with our lives, what then?
How does one journey from Sinai?
How does one build a life that honors the truth of that one, most precious moment?
Why is it so hard to construct a meaningful life? Why is the moment in which we know our deepest selves and what we are meant to do with our lives so fleeting? Why does it stand like a lone mountain in the wilderness, just as Mt. Sinai stands in the vast Egyptian desert? Why can’t we preserve this clarity all of the time? Why is it so hard to remember?
I am sure that you can picture a person you know who does not forget, who seems to know at all times who they are and what they are meant to do with their lives. We call these people enlightened. They seem to stand always at the foot of their own proverbial mountains.
But, the Jewish narrative is honest. It speaks the truth that so many of us feel with great frustration. God is not ever-present for us. Revelation is a miracle. It does not happen daily. It is possible to find our way to Sinai again, but it must be a conscious process. It takes work.
The Torah’s response comes in the form of a phrase that immediately follows its recounting of the story of revelation. It teaches, “v’eile hamishpatim”—these are the laws, the guidelines, the halakhah, that one can follow to walk the Jewish journey. Whereas a description of revelation occupies only a short chapter of the Torah, the legal sections that follow make up more than half of its teachings, which come to be known as Halakhah. Halakhah is a Hebrew word that is usually translated as “Jewish Law,” but the word itself comes from the verb lalechet, meaning “to walk.” Halakhah is a path, or the way Jews walk through the world. It is a system of law made up of mitzvot, commandments, that legislate the smallest details of life.
Jewish tradition teaches that there are 613 commandments in the Torah pertaining to every detail of the life of a Jew. We have instructions for how one should get out of bed in the morning, how to eat, work, study, and treat one another; how one should go to the bathroom and make love. The rabbis of the Talmud offer an explanation for why we use this specific number, teaching:
There are 613 commandments, 365 negative instructions, like the number of days in a year, and 248 positive instructions, like the number of bones in the body. On every day of the year, halakhah offers us the opportunity to bring meaning into our lives. 365 rules, 365 days. And, the system does more than say, “do this everyday.” Each day has its own instruction, its own invitation, its own unique opportunity.
365 negative, 248 positive.
Consider your hands. What potential is contained in your hands? What unique potential—something that only your hands can do, not mine, just yours? What about your ears? your heart? What unique potential is contained in your mind or in your heart?
The rabbis teach that there are 248 parts of the body, and each, in its own way, contains the potential to make a difference, to connect you with your community and with your Creator. My hands were made to shape the potter’s clay, my breast to nurse my child. What were your hands created to do?
Traditional Jewish living invites us to live consciously. It says that we are meant to walk the path from revelation to redemption. It calls this path halakhah, and it invites us to walk. It is a holy journey. Judaism offers sign posts, in the form of holy moments and holy days. It says, take pause in these moments, and in so doing, you will create space for the Divine.
Halakhah is a recipe for creating a meaningful life. By legislating interpersonal ethics, business ethics, ritual purity, and religious conduct, Jewish law teaches that each of these seemingly mundane moments of life, contains within them the possibility for meaning, of finding the way back to a moment of personal revelation, back to your own Sinai. The singular challenge of our lives is to honor the flash, Sinai moment; to construct a life in which we work, everyday, to be the person we were born to be, recognizing the Divine presence in our lives and in the world.
As we move through the world and through time, as we heed the call of our own inner voice, we are meant to look about and to see that God is everywhere. We use our hands, and our hearts, and all of the bones in our bodies to do the work of our lives. And in each step we take, each action we perform, we are meant to recognize the presence of the Divine walking with us. We are meant to come to realize that every moment of our lives brings us back to the mountain in the wilderness, where we once saw God. Every moment becomes a moment of revelation, such that we are eventually bathed in light.
Bless us God, that we should be like one in the light of your presence. Help us to honor the purpose of our lives. Help us to sanctify the moments of our lives, so that our lives are filled with You, filled with meaning.