D’var Torah: The Old Man of ‘Mishpatim’


Di Piazza

Rabbi James Stone Goodman


The last line of parashat Mishpatim reads: “And Moses came into the cloud and went up the mountain, and Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights (Exodus 24:18).”

Dont you want to know what Moses sees up the mountain? In the Zohar, the classic text of Jewish mysticism, Moses ascends wearing the garment of colors draped over his shoulders like a cloak. He seems to ascend by virtue of the rainbow. What is this garment of colors, and how does it enable Moses to ascend, and what did he see? Dont you want to know? I do.

I continued reading in the Zohar: He saw what he saw, enjoyed the All, up to that place.

Whats the All? What place? The place where language comes up against its limit? Is that a place?

What did Moses experience? The Zohar is purposely ambiguous: He saw what he saw. Everything. The All — Hakol in Hebrew, the pleroma in Greek.

Then from the Zohar, a series of images: It’s like this, and it’s like this, and like this. First you understand the obvious, then you are introduced to the less obvious, and so on, until the secret (if youre attentive) manifests, the irony is to emerge again at the obvious, the plain sense, what we call the pshat. Its a trip (see the Rashi to 24:18).

The opacity of the text releases and everything clarifies through the obvious. It’s all in the pshat, the plain sense, the surfaces give way and its now transparent, revealing Everything.

Just as the One contains the many, just as the garment of colors is the refraction of the unitary light, the rainbow is the image: It is many and it is One. It is color, it is light, light and spectrum, it is everything in its unity and in its particularity. We have arrived at the pshat, the plain sense of story, the surfaces release and we glimpse the multiplicity within, we have been taken into Gods confidence. The secret of the hidden and the revealed, to know it (as if) for the first time.

Dont you know this? You do.

We were listening for the Old Man of Mishpatim who has spoken, saying: Its like this and like this — an old man like me doesnt come with a single thing like a word rattling around an empty bottle.

First comes the obvious, then the less obvious, to arrive where we began the plain sense, the surfaces having released their hiddenness. Reality as it presents like a transparency.

The Old Man of Mishpatim continued: This table I am tapping on? Mostly space and movement.

Rabbi James Stone Goodman serves Central Reform Congregation and is a past president of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the dvar Torah for the Jewish Light.