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Parshat Mishpatim: A Belly Full of the Divine

“And they saw the God of Israel: under His feet there was the likeness of a brick-shaped sapphire, like the very sky for purity,” (Shemot 24:10).

How impressive are all the descriptions of God’s revelation to Am Yisrael which began in last week’s parasha and continue this week: smoke, fire, light, blasting shofars. 

But those seemingly pale in comparison to the images that we see at the end of Parshat Mispatim. Though this vision is not revealed to the entire nation, Moshe, Aaron, his two eldest sons Nadav and Avihu, along with the 70 elders, all experienced a most unique event:

“Then Moshe and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, and seventy elders of Israel ascended, and they saw the God of Israel: under His feet there was the likeness of a brick-shaped sapphire, like the very sky for purity. Yet God did not raise His hand against the leaders of the Israelites; they beheld God, and they ate and drank,” (Shemot 24:9-11).

Even if we understand that the Torah is using anthropomorphic language here, what does it mean that they saw God? In addition, their reaction to this unprecedented occurrence is difficult; what did they do immediately following this vision? They ate and they drank! Is eating and drinking the appropriate response to this intimate experience of the Divine?

Granted, the text does previously describe the sacrifices that were brought as a celebration of the  covenant between God and Israel. But immediately following this prophetic encounter, was eating, even from sacrifices, the appropriate response? 

Some commentators answer in the positive, and explain that a festive meal always follows a covenant between two parties; even Yaakov and Lavan made one before they parted. So this meal could be understood as the seal on the covenant between God and Am Yisrael. 

But there is another way to read this incident: they did not actually eat, but the experience was as nourishing for them as if they had just eaten and drank.

In other words, what did their experience of the Divine leave them with? It left them with the sense of total appeasement and complete nourishment. In those moments they lacked nothing.

And what would be a way that we the readers could somehow touch that experience within ourselves, to somehow appreciate their encounter with God? Imagine you just ate the most scrumptious, filling meal accompanied by the finest merlot. Can you find that experience inside yourself? If you can, then you’d get some minute inkling of the sense of satiation that they felt after meeting the Divine.

This explanation can also help us understand our first question, i.e. what does it mean to see God? Rav Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook explains that there are two modalities in which one can experience the Divine: the imminent and the transcendent. 

The imminent experience of the Divine is something that we all hopefully have experienced in our own lives. This is the experience of God in nature, in all living beings, big and small. It is the sense of a higher power that we see in the stars and the sun, and even in the creativity of the poet and the thoughts of the scholars. These are what Rav Kook calls, “The Path to the Palace.”

But there is a higher level, called the transcendent. Though fleeting, it is a state of consciousness where one experiences the realm beyond thought and reason. It is, as Rav Kook writes, when “the heavens open up and we see the vision of God.” This is not the path to the palace, but rather sitting inside the palace itself. 

Here is where it connects directly to our story: Rav Kook teaches that it leaves the person with feelings of “an unearthly pleasure and piece of mind.”

As we’ve mentioned before, The Torah was written in human language. So when the text describes “seeing God,” and depicts images of light and sapphire, it is not telling us that God has a body and red shiny shoes. This is the text’s attempt to capture something of the experience of the ineffable, of the transcendent. And the best way that the Torah can articulate this is to share how they felt after the experience: totally full. Without any lacking. 

This leads us to an important question about ourselves: how can we tell if a choice that we made or an experience we choose was meaningful? The litmus test is how we feel afterwards. How do we feel after binging a series on Netflix, as opposed to after we’ve shared a meaningful, maybe even difficult, conversation with a loved one? How many experiences do we choose on a daily basis that leave us feeling empty? And what are the experiences that leave us with the feeling of being spiritually full? 

About the Author
Rabbi Yonatan Udren is the Co-Director of the RRG Beit Midrash at the Hebrew University Hillel, which offers Jewish educational programming for overseas and Israeli Hebrew University students from all backgrounds and denominations.
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