Mishpatim: After the Vision, Eat Something

In this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, God tells Moses:

“Come up to God, you and Aaron, Nadav, and Avihu, and seventy elders of Israel, and bow down from a distance.” (Exodus/Shemot 24:1)

Aaron is Moses’ brother, and Nadav and Avihu are Aaron’s two oldest sons, who will later be initiated as priests. The seventy elders are judges and the de facto representatives of the Israelites.

And Moses went up, and Aaron, Nadav, Avihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel.  And they saw the God of Israel, and under [God’s] feet something like brick-work of sapphire, and it was exactly like the heavens latohar.  And [God] did not stretch out {God’s] hand against those singled out from the children of Israel. And they beheld God, and they ate and they drank.  (Exodus/Shemot 24:9-11)

latohar (לָטֺהַר) = for the ritual purity, for being acceptable for sacred purposes.

Brickwork in Ishtar Gate of Babylonia (Staatliche Museum, Berlin)

Seventy-five men see God in a transcendent vision. Then, overwhelmed by this spiritual

experience—they take out their lunches and have a bite to eat?  What’s that supposed to mean?

The commentary on the portion called Mishpatim (“Laws”)  is divided.  

latohar = for the purity; for being acceptable for sacred purposes

First God tells Moses to climb at least partway up Mount Sinai with his brother Aaron, his nephews Nadav and Avihu, and 70 elders.  When they do so, they see God in a transcendent vision, and then, overwhelmed by this spiritual experience—they take out their lunches and have a bite to eat?  What’s that supposed to mean?

The commentary on the portion called Mishpatim (“Laws”)  is divided.  Some modern commentators explain that since the Israelites have just received the Torah, or at least the Ten Commandments and a number of laws, the elders are now engaged in the sort of feast that marks a covenant or treaty.They probably shlepped some meat from sacrificed animals up with them for the concluding feast.2

I find this approach disappointing, because it downgrades the vision of God’s feet to merely part of cutting a covenant, the ancient Israelite version of a signing ceremony.

Other commentary claimed that it was not actual, physical food; the elders were feasting upon their contemplation of the divine glory.  In the Talmud, Rav even said that in the “World to Come” humans will be nourished only by their appreciation of God’s glory.3  In other words, none of that nasty physical chewing will be necessary.

According to other commentary, the Torah refers to real food and drink, but the elders on Mount Sinai raise their food to a more spiritual level.  The kabbalist Isaac of Luria wrote that we raise the sparks of holiness in plants and animals by eating them with the proper devotion.  19th-century rabbi Samson R. Hirsch wrote that the sapphire brick in the elders’ vision is a metaphor showing that even a lowly brick acquires a heavenly purity when it serves the divine.4

But what if the elders are not thinking about raising sparks?  What if they really do go from seeing a mystical vision of God to enjoying a nice snack?  One way to explain their flexible outlook is to look at the previous clause, “And He did not stretch out his hand toward them”.  Ovadiah Sforno interpreted that as meaning they are already seeing like prophets; God does not need to put them into an altered state of consciousness, the way God does with Saul, or Ezekiel, or the 70 elders themselves in Numbers 11:25-26.5

Maybe the consciousness of the elders is so integrated, at that moment, that they can find God in everything—in the taste of food as much as in a numinous vision.

I know some people who shun any hint of spirituality or mysticism.  They would explain a vision of God’s feet on sapphire bricks as a mere hallucination due to some bodily malfunction.  I also know people who love mysticism and cultivate spiritual ecstasy.  They seem to view the practical details of life as inferior, and prefer not to pay much attention to what their bodies are doing (except, perhaps, when they’re engaged in ecstatic dance).

I like the middle way.  I think an ideal world is one in which we are all like the 70 elders on Mount Sinai: we calmly accept whatever mysterious vision of God arrives, and we also savor the food, drink, and other physical gifts that God’s world provides.  When we unite body and soul, we become whole.

(This post was first published on February 7, 2010.)

  1. E.g. Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary, The Jewish Publication Society, 2001, p. 479.
  2. Cf. 12th-century rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, a.k.a. Rashbam, on Exodus 24:11, http://www.sefaria.org.
  3. Talmud Bavli, Berakhot 17a.
  4. Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumah: Sefer Shemos, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2005, p. 533.
  5. 16th-century rabbi Ovadiah Sforno on Exodus 24:11, http://www.sefaria.org.

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