Higher Up The Mountain
Mysticism Isn't The Point
This is Life as a Sacred Text, an expansive, loving, everybody-celebrating, nobody-diminished, justice-centered voyage into one of the world’s most ancient and holy books. We’re working our way through Exodus these days. More about the project here, and to subscribe, go here.
All too often, we think about connection with the sacred—with the holy, with God—as being about warm, fuzzy feelings. Spirituality. Mysticism. Those moments in prayer and meditation when something feels like it’s opening up, even just a little. And yet. The Torah makes it clear that even the most powerful theophany—encounter with the divine—isn’t, in the scheme of things, all that important.
After the giving of the Ten Commandments, while the Israelites are still hanging out at Mt. Sinai, God invites Moses to “ascend to God” (Exodus 24:1) with Moses’ brother Aaron, Aaron’s sons Nadav and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel. They do so, and, the Torah tells us, they
“saw the God of Israel; under God’s feet there was the very likeness of sapphire brickwork, like the very sky for purity… they beheld God, and they ate and drank.”(Exodus 24:10-11)
It’s an amazing thing, really—they saw God! They had a snack with God! They beheld the divine in a heavenly vision of brilliant sapphire blue! This is peak religious experience, is it not? (Remember: the anthropomorphism is metaphor).
This is so much of how the popular conversation often talks about spirituality—it’s immersive, ecstatic, "authentic." Powerful, profound experiences that are deeply aesthetic—they feel good, so good. Whether or not one actually, well, sees something (Divine brickwork! The Holy One’s toes!) or even gets a nosh (!!!!!?!!!), the experience of peak religiosity is often painted as being about what happens in the moments of profound connection—the beholding. The feeling. The experiencing. The grooving.
And yet. After the communal vision of God, Moses continued up the mountain, leaving his friends behind. He stayed there for forty days and forty nights. (Exodus 24:18) While up there, he did not eat or drink, because his experience was about more than just sensual or aesthetic pleasure. Moses received commandments.
Moses’ entourage came with him, but only partway up the mountain. Moses himself ascended higher. He went up into a place not about visions, but about obligations. Into a place not about experiences, but rather, covenant.
Moses, here, accepts his (and the people of Israel’s) half of the responsibility for a relationship with the divine. It’s not about getting something cool—but, rather, about agreeing to give something. It’s about getting a lot of rules to follow. All the “do this, don’t do that,” of the Torah, though seemingly perhaps more inconvenient to the seeker of ecstasy, is, here, on a higher level.
Religious practice is meant to transform who we are and how we live in relation to the world. The 16th century law code the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 249:14) recommends donating a little bit of money, even just a few coins, to tzedekah—to those in need as part of our obligations towards economic redistribution—every weekday morning before prayer. After doing so, it becomes harder to pray only for our own personal needs and warm fuzzy feelings and to forget about the suffering and injustice outside our door. Of course, awareness of the big picture is packed into the liturgy, but the act of giving imprints itself on our consciousness, and it becomes harder to slip back into the familiar litany of me, me, me after confronting the tzedekah box.
As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it,
Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and ruin pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, the vision.
It’s not about how great it feels to connect with God. That’s really, really, really not the point. It can be a lovely side effect that can refuel you in the work, to be sure. But it’s not the point.
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And, of course, the work of a spiritual practice can and does sustain us so that we can do the work for a more just world in a deeper and more effective way—it’s a two-way street. A spiritual practice gives you—or should give you, in any case—clarity about your obligations in and to the world, and it can sustain you as you do the work. Because the work is hard. And your practice can keep you grounded and clear as you go about it. But the point is not the feelings. The point is not the ecstasy. The point is not personal gratification. The point is about what happens on top of the mountain.
The work of covenant is sometimes daily and plodding, focused on the world around us— involving a lot less feeling and a lot more action. It’s not a coincidence that this same section of the Torah that includes Snacks with God at the Sapphire Floor also includes the commandments neither to mistreat the stranger nor oppress the widow or the orphan (Exodus 22:20-21)—that is to say, the economically vulnerable and socially marginalized.
It also demands that we not follow the masses in doing evil (Exodus 23:2), not spread false rumors (Exodus 23:1), not subvert the rights of the needy (Exodus 23:6) and that the observance of Shabbat applies not only to those with land and power, but also incumbent upon the servant, the stranger, and even animals, so that everyone in the extended community can rest and become refreshed. (Exodus 23:12)
Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest ancient rabbinic sages, once said (Sifra Kedoshim 4:12) that the greatest principle—the klal gadol—of the whole entire Torah is Leviticus 19:18: “You should love your neighbor as yourself.” Holiness is in what we do in this world, in this plane. We serve God most—we are at the highest point on the mountain—not when we feel good, but when we stretch beyond ourselves and to offer ourselves to those who need, quite badly, what we have to offer.
Covenant is about using freedom in service to others.
Covenant is about realizing that true liberation is tied up in obligation.
Our obligations to ourselves, to those with whom we are in community, to those outside our community who are vulnerable, to the world as a whole and, yes, to the divine. It is through this work—this attention to sometimes achingly mundane details, often focusing on others’ needs rather than our own—that we, slowly, sometimes painfully, become the people we were meant to be all along.
And, as we learn to give of ourselves, to offer ourselves to God and to others in service, we find that the daily practice in the work of covenant has the power to transform who we are and how we live in relation to the world. As we learn to focus on what we have to offer even when we don't derive immediate, tangible benefit, or pleasurable aesthetic feeling, so too might we learn to better serve those around us, to stretch beyond ourselves and to offer ourselves to those who need, quite badly, what we have to offer.
That’s the work at the top of the mountain. That’s the klal gadol.
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