With the advent of Mishpatim, this week’s Torah portion, we are presented a long list of rules. Last week’s story of the revelation of the 10 Commandments at Sinai seems like and interesting mix of nomos and narrative, but this week there is all law and almost no lore. What is the significance of this shift in the text?
There is no doubt to me that there is a value of law in society and it would make sense for the Torah to communicate laws. Laws helps us enforce certain behavior, but laws are not inherently meaningful. It seems obvious when we say it, we need stories to make sense of our lives. Stories are not childish or for entertainment. So where are the stories in our Torah portion?
The one section of narrative in this Torah portion is another take on the story of revelation. There we read:
And Moshe went up into the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. And the glory of the Lord abode upon mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days; and the seventh day God called to Moshe out of the midst of the cloud. And the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like devouring fire on the top of the mount in the eyes of the children of Israel. And Moshe entered into the midst of the cloud, and went up into the mount; and Moshe was in the mount forty days and forty nights. (Exodus 24:15-18)
The source of these laws is a devouring fire. As a parent I can relate to this burning desire sometimes to have my children follow rules blindly, but in the long run I realize that things would work out better if I took the time to explain the meaning of the things I want my children to do. Just as I am not surprised if not actually happy when my children push back on why perceive to be arbitrary rules and directives, I am no surprised that the sin of the Golden Calf will come before the end of these forty days and nights.