On Sinai, Moses Takes a Time-Out



With the Super Bowl behind us, I can, at last, put aside the numerical complexities of football: three-point field goal; six-point touchdown; one-point conversion; two-point safety; two-minute rule, four downs; 10 yards, etc.

I am, however, taken by the time-out regulations. Each team gets three of them per half.

It would be awfully nice, it seems to me, to have time-outs in life: When circumstances wear us down, life would stop temporarily, maybe with a commercial in some unknown planet where extraterrestrial beings are watching us. Who knows?

Whatever the case, when the time-out ends, we'd head back to work and our families like recharged football players being whistled back onto the field. We'd launch new strategies in place of old ones, ready to face whatever life throws our way.

Call it crazy, but that's the sort of thing I muse about these last gray days of winter.

While still within these doldrums, the Jewish calendar gives us Mishpatim, a reading that promises "time out."

Most of it is purely legal: laws of murder, mayhem and the like. But it ends with Moses ascending Mount Sinai to meet with God for 40 days and 40 nights.

The odd thing is that the story now stops for two weeks; it will take two sedras until we rejoin Moses on the mountain. For the interim two weeks, we get to wonder what he did those 40 days and 40 nights.

Our commentators wonder also. "How long does it take for God to write the Torah?" asks Abravanel. "Creating the entire world took only seven days!"

Sforno answers by referring to another 40-day period. For the first 40 days of their lives, new-borns are considered by halachah to have had only tentative status as "alive." Infants who die before that (God forbid) are not considered to have been fully born.

We enter this world, as it were, through birth and then rebirth: the nine months of gestation, when the fetus marshals the capacity to emerge safely from the womb; and its first 40 days, when it masters the tasks of staying alive. It takes 40 days, says Sforno, to be reborn, and that is why Moses remained so long atop Mount Sinai — not for God's sake, but for his own. It was a 40-day "time out," a chance to re-energize his flagging spirit when the trip from Egypt began to wear him down and his task was far from over.

But here's the thing: Tradition credits Moses with climbing the mountain not just once, but three times — for the first tablets, then the second ones and, in between, to plead for Israel after the Golden Calf. Moses, too, had three time-outs. Each one lasted longer than it had to, as far as God was concerned. They each got stretched to 40 days to give Moses time to rest, restrategize and re-emerge reborn.

The English calendar gives us February hope with Groundhog Day: the illusion of an early spring. The Jewish calendar gives us Mishpatim, and the promise of renewed life, three times — just what we need if you think about it: first, as young adults about to take our independent place within the world; second, in our middle years, our "mid-life crisis," when we fear that what we've been doing will not sustain us through the years ahead; third, when we retire, or otherwise become what they euphemistically call a senior. Then, too, a lot of life is left; we get a third "time out" to consider what to do with it.

Moses did it; why shouldn't we? Take time out, I mean, three times: when we graduate college, hit middle age and start thinking about our twilight years?

Ad me'ah v'esrim — "May you live for 120 years!" That's the traditional Jewish birthday greeting. The idea is that Moses lived for 120 years. Maybe we will, too.

We could equally be wished three chances to be reborn.

Ad me'ah v'esrim — "May you take time out for 120 days, 40 days three times, and may you make the most of every one of them."

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman teaches at HUC-JIR in New York.


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