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February 7, 2002

Being There

Parshat Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1 -- 24:18)

http://www.jewishjournal.com/torah_portion/article/being_there_20020208

As you think about your day, how many different instances can you think of when someone -- your spouse or significant other, children, a parent, colleagues, an employee or employer, friends, relatives -- wanted or needed your attention. Perhaps one at a time; perhaps all at once. Yet, in how many of those moments was it difficult to feel completely focused on the moment?

If your life is anything like -- well, like any of the rest of ours -- your mind is full of a long list of things to do, the projects you are working on and perhaps even on your own needs. It's not hard to imagine why it may have been difficult to be completely engaged and present, even when the people you care about called to you.

There is a wonderful Chasidic teaching in the name of the Warkar Rebbe that teaches there are three things we learn from a baby: how to laugh, cry and keep busy. A baby, he explains, may be crying one moment, and in the very next, the baby sits laughing as he or she is tickled, entertained or cooed. A baby, the rebbe suggests, is completely present and engaged, busy with what he or she is experiencing each and every moment. Whatever life brings, the baby is totally immersed in the sensation and lives fully in that time. When a baby cries, there is nothing but the tears and wails; and when he or she laughs, the joy is complete and full. So, what is it that the baby understands that is so much more difficult to do as we grow older -- that makes it so challenging for us to respond to the moments we are called into by those who vie for our attention each day of our lives?

The answer, I believe, can be found at the end of this week's Torah portion. Recounting Moses' journey to the top of Mt. Sinai, the Torah tells of God's call to Moses: "Go up to me on the mountain, and be there, and I will give you the tablets and the teachings, and the commandment that I wrote to teach them." The 19th century master, Reb Menachem Mendl of Kotzk, asks: Why does the verse relate God telling Moses to "be there" if Moses was already supposed to be climbing the mountain? After all, if Moses is already climbing the mountain, will he not inevitably "be there?" Where else would there for him to be?

The answer, Mendel says, is that God wanted Moses to be more than simply physically there: God wanted Moses to be fully there. Moses was to "be there" with all his mind and heart. Recognizing the very real human difficulty in doing so, God calls to Moses to push away any diversions and be present and engaged in the moment he was living. Be there -- free of the challenges of leading the people to a newfound freedom, free of the questions about his leadership, unburdened, for the moment, by the practical means to create the civil society that the rest of the parasha discusses. Be there -- on the top of the mountain -- where there is God, Moses and the mountain. Only then could God give Moses the tablets, the teachings and the commandments. Only then, could Moses receive what God wants to teach.

Like Moses, we, too, must listen to the voice that urges us to "be there" -- to close out our distractions and learn to laugh, cry and be busy -- in the moment we are living. It is there that we can find relationships with others, with ourselves and with God. It is there that we can find that which God is trying to teach us.

So, the next time you find yourself in the presence of a baby, "be there." Let the baby teach you how to laugh, cry and keep busy.

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