Monday, February 4, 2013

Being There (Mishpatim)

“Be here now.  Be somewhere else later.  Is that so difficult?”
                        (David Bader, Zen Judaisim)

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
                        (Henry David Thoreau, Walden)

I love the quote from David Bader’s very funny satirical little book, Zen Judaism.  With its Yiddish-inflected sensibility, it is both humorous and wise.  Be present where you are.  It shouldn’t really be so hard.

And yet, apparently, it is.  Henry David Thoreau famously left town and lived in a stripped down cabin on Walden Pond for two years in an effort to live mindfully.  He realized that this is very difficult, indeed.  All too often we are here, physically, without being fully present, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

Our weekly Torah portion, Mishpatim, acknowledges this challenge of mindful living. 
In Exodus 24:12, God says to Moses: “Come up to Me on the mountain and be there, and I will give you the stone tablets with the teachings and commandments.”  Why does God add those words, “be there” (v’h’yeh sham)?  If Moses is on Mount Sinai, where else would he be?

Menahem Mendel of Kotzk  answers: “From this apparent redundancy we learn that even with one who strains himself to ascend to a high mountain top, and is indeed able to reach the summit—it is nevertheless possible that he is still not there.  Even though he may be standing on the very peak itself, his head may be elsewhere.”

If, as the Kotzker Rebe observes, it is this hard for Moses to be fully present on Mount Sinai, then, as the Rabbis would say, kal va’chomer—all the more so—for us, in our daily lives.  Indeed, since the time of Moshe Rabbeynu and, for that matter, Henry David Thoreau, distractions have multiplied exponentially.  Today, if you want to get off the constantly-demanding grid of email, Twitter and cell phones, you have to go a lot farther than Walden Pond. 

Or not.  

You can always just turn everything off.  A great deal of Jewish life is designed to help us focus on what really matters.  Saying blessings focuses our attention on our surroundings.  Prayer and meditation exercise our mental mindfulness muscles.  And Shabbat is all about turning off the external distractions and being fully present in the moment.

Start small.  Focus.  Pay full attention, to family and friends, here and now, even if just for a little while at first.

Be here now.  Be somewhere else later.  Is that so difficult?

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