Sunday, February 12, 2012

Coming Down (portion Mishpatim)

Several years ago, an old controversy was rekindled when climbers found the body of George Mallory buried beneath the ice on the north face of Mt. Everest. A broken altimeter in his shirt pocket suggested that Mallory may have reached the summit before dying on the descent. If so, he would have been the first man to stand atop the world’s highest peak, beating Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay to this feat by twenty-nine years.

But when news of this discovery reached Hillary, then 79 years old, he remained remarkably unperturbed. With the cool understatement of a British peer, Sir Edmund told a television reporter, “Coming down is also important.”

So, too, for each of us. We all experience peak moments when the adrenaline rush seems to carry us along. These can occur in either triumphant or tragic times, but they are almost always intensely spiritual experiences that, as they are happening, feel profoundly life-changing. Upon surviving a heart attack or having a baby, we swear our lives will never be the same and vow that from that point on, we will do things differently, get our priorities straight, give our focused attention to what really matters most. Sometimes we stay the course—but more often, after a bit of time passes, we lapse back into our old ways. We make our resolutions sincerely—yet we struggle when the peak moments recede into memory. We make it to the mountaintop, but we falter coming down.

This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, is all about coming down. It addresses the stuff that happens when the revelation ends and the adrenaline rush wears off. Last week, in Yitro, we experienced the high and holy moment when we heard God’s voice from atop Mt. Sinai. Now, with Mishpatim, we get the practical, mundane guidelines on how to behave the other 99% of the time: laws on marriage, employment, lost property, and finance. We go, in short, from the awesome to the banal—as indeed, we always must. Weddings and births are big occasions, but the real work lies in sustaining marriages and raising children, and it is done through thousands of little ordinary choices and small feats of endurance. Both God and the devil are, truly, found in the details.

This is at the core of our tradition’s approach to life. We dare not squander the time waiting for the next peak moment. Mountaintops are rare—but the descent lasts a lifetime. May we find meaning and holiness in the ordinary acts that, taken together, add up to the sum of our lives. Like Sir Edmund Hillary, let’s remember: “Coming down is also important.”

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