On the Weekly Torah Portion of Mishpatim

20120502-.Moses_Comes_Down_from_Mount_SinaiThis week’s Torah portion, mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18), is devoted almost exclusively to laws from God to the people of Israel. Only the last part of this portion deals briefly with the invitation to Moses, along with Aaron and Aaron’s sons as well as 70 of the elders of the People of Israel, to ascend to Mount Sinai. In the last verse of this Torah portion we are told that Moses alone went up all the way:

וַיָּבֹא מֹשֶׁה בְּתוֹךְ הֶעָנָן, וַיַּעַל אֶל-הָהָר; וַיְהִי מֹשֶׁה, בָּהָר, אַרְבָּעִים יוֹם, וְאַרְבָּעִים לָיְלָה.
Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights. (Exodus 24:18)

The Torah specifies that Moses stayed at the top of the mountain for 40 days and nights. Since the number 40 appears as a measure of time in various places in the Torah and the rest of the Bible (either as 40 days and nights or as 40 years), it will be good to consider its symbolism.

Whenever time is measured as 40, what follows is an event of great significance. For example, in the story of Noah, we are told that the rain poured down upon the Earth for forty days and nights; the people of Israel spent 40 years in the desert; in the book of Judges, we are told repeatedly that exactly 40 peaceful years separated the rule of one judge from the next; and 40 is the number of days that Goliath kept challenging the people of Israel to find him a worthy opponent before young David rose up to the challenge.

We are also told that Elijah walked from Beer Sheba to Mt. Sinai for 40 days and nights, without stop. And even in the Christian Gospel we are told that Jesus went to the desert without food or drink for 40 days and nights.

What unites all these periods measured by 40 is that they always precede transformative events. 40 is a symbolic unit of potent time that precedes major change, a change that gives voice to the timeless. The flood precedes a new covenant between God and humanity; Moses comes down with the Torah; Elijah receives a revelation of YHVH; Jesus overcomes the devil’s temptations.

It is highly unlikely that in some miraculous way, all these important events always had a period of 40 days or 40 years leading to them. The time is not physical time, and the events are not physical events in time and space. They are symbolic. But what is the symbolism of 40?

We may find a clue in the Hebrew alphabet, in which letters are also numerals. The letter mem (מ), the 14th letter of the Hebrew alphabet, has the numerical value of 40. In the Kabbalah, that letter represents the element of mayim (מים), Hebrew for water.

Just like the number 40, the element of water often appears in the Torah around potent transformative events: The Flood; baby Moses is saved by Pharaoh’s daughter when she pulls him out of the water (hence his Hebrew name, Moshe, word derived from the verb limshot, i.e. to pull out of the water); the people of Israel pass through the Red Sea on the way to the desert, and once again through the Jordan river on the way from the desert to the Promised Land.

But just as the number 40 in the Torah does not represent actual units of time, water (mayim) in the Torah does not actually mean what we now refer to as water. Rather, it is the principle of transformation. It is related to fecundity, to the creative feminine. It is that which brings about transformation and change. This is very similar to the Vedic literature, in which water symbolizes the feminine aspect of the divine, the principle of fecundity, as well as pure consciousness.

How are we to read these stories in which time is measured by 40? As invitations to action. When “Moses” goes up the mountain for 40 days, it is an invitation for us to go deep into our own height of consciousness and attempt to discover that the Torah is already there, alive within us.

When Elijah walks 40 days and nights, reaches Mount Horeb (Mt. Sinai) and receives the revelation that God is in the “sound of subtle silence” ((1 Kings 19: 11-12), it is an invitation for us to go within and find that sound of subtle silence within ourselves and attempt to be guided by it.

When the people of Israel walk through the Red Sea, having liberated themselves from bondage to Egypt or mitzrayim (lit. “duality of boundaries”), we are also invited to shed our investment in duality and in bound modes of behavior and thinking and embrace the unity and expansiveness, symbolized by Canaan, the Promised Land.

In this manner, understanding the symbolism can enable us to make the Torah a practical guide to life, here and now.

Copyright © 2014 Igal Harmelin-Moria
(Copyright does not pertain to illustrations)