This week, Moses goes to law school. Contending with Pharaoh had been easy — it came with a magic staff and miracles. Even last week’s Ten Commandments were child’s play, compared to this week’s crash course on bailment, theft, kidnapping, labor law, the indigent, mayhem, and murder.
And this was just the first lecture. “This is what God calls freedom?” he must have wondered. Lawyers reading this will probably sympathize.
By the sedra’s end, God sympathizes also. Moses is invited for a personal meeting in God’s office on Mt. Sinai. God will personally dictate a set of course notes — to be called “the Torah.” It will take some 40 days and nights.
But why so long? asks Abravanel. “How long does it take for God to write the Torah? Creating the entire world took only a week!”
Ah, says Sforno. This 40-day stretch was for Moses’s sake, not God’s. Newborn babies, he reminds us, are not considered fully alive until they make it through the first 40 days. Faced with this wholly new challenge of mastering Torah, Moses was like a newborn.
So God gave him 40 days to adjust. “Come join me on the mountain,” God said. “I can dictate the details to you in an instant, but you’ll need more time than that — someday, people will call it a ‘time-out.’ Forty days in the rarified air of the mountain will provide a bird’s eye view of it all, the big-picture reason for being, and the confidence to start again.”
I love that idea: Time-out in life for us as well — like in Major League Football, where play stops on occasion for teams to catch their breath, restrategize, and re-enter the game refreshed and renewed. When living wears us down, we too should get to signal to whoever is running us around at the time, and retire for a while without penalty. As in football, life would stop temporarily, maybe with a commercial in some unknown planet where extraterrestrial beings are watching. Who knows?
When the time-out ends, we would bound back into our work and families, new strategies in place, as if reborn and newly ready to face whatever challenges life throws our way.
As it happens, tradition credits Moses with climbing the mountain not just once, but three times — for the first tablets, then the second ones, and, also, in between to plead for Israel after the Golden Calf. Three times, Moses huddles alone with God, to rethink, restrategize, and (like the newborn baby) re-emerge reborn. That’s my plan for us as well. We too should schedule a time-out three times in the course of a normal lifetime: as young adults about to launch our independence in the world; in our middle years, our “mid-life crisis,” when what we have been doing may not sustain us through the years ahead; and when we grow old, when a lot of life may still be left and we need “time out” to consider what to do with it.
We may need others as well. I won’t limit it to three, because life regularly throws us curves, erects new challenges, and wears us down. At some point we have no choice but to admit that modern-day complexities cannot always be mastered just by trying harder and doing better. The solution, then, must lie in stepping back and looking for some hidden reserve deep down within ourselves — the kind of wisdom that comes only from taking time out to reflect on where we’ve been, and to recalibrate where we still most want to go. We call that “revelation.”
Revelation was not just for Moses atop Mt. Sinai; it is available to us all, atop whatever counts as our own personal mountain. Whenever we feel overwhelmed, we need time out to rediscover the still small voice of God within, the renewed discovery of our own self-worth, and the confidence required to reaffirm our purpose and know again how precious life can be.
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is cofounder of Synagogue 3000 and a professor of liturgy, worship, and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.