While every Jew and every non-Jew (the erev rav) and the soul of every future convert to Judaism were at Mount Sinai and heard God speak the first of of ten commandments (literally the ten declarations) only 74 Jewish leaders saw God: “Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and 70 of the elders of Israel ascended (Mt Sinai). They saw the God of Israel, under whose feet was a Ma’a’seh (an event or experience) like a pedestal of sapphire, like an essence of sky for purity. God did not lay a hand on the leaders of Israel. They envisioned God, and they ate and drank.” (Exodus 24:9-11)
1- A vision (a direct experience) is not reserved only for a prophet (Moses) or a priest (Aaron). Of the elders of Israel, 72 were granted or merited (the best leaders of the elders) this blessing. The elders were like Aaron, the leaders were men like Moses or women like Miriam the prophet (Exodus 15:20)
2- After this Divine experience they did not become remote ascetics or sacred gurus. They simply continued, but in a much more spiritual way, their worldly activities (eating and drinking).
3- But Moses, who pleads to see YHVH face to face is told, “You cannot see my face, for no mortal shall see me and live.” (33:18-20) So Torah teaches us that no finite creature can, at least in this lifetime, fully and totally unite with the Infinite Creator of the universe; yet the 74 did see God. Perhaps this means that as part of a group (a minyon) some Jews may be able to envision the Divine One.
4- The 74 envision Elohay Yisrael not YHVH the God of Israel’s covenant. Elohim is the generic Semitic term for divinities (Elohah in Aramaic and Allah in Arabic). Spiritual experiences are always nutritious; but nutrition comes in hundreds of different foods. So in every culture and nation, not only Israel, there are people who have spiritual experiences. YHVH calls the 74 up (24:1) Mount Sinai. They all experience a vision of Elohim but only Moses will receive the Ten Commandments.
5- Sometimes the Divine experience does not lead one to greater levels of love, mercy and humility. Sometimes it leads to arrogance and fanaticism. Nadab and Abihu, sons of Aaron, decide to offer strange fire before YHVH and die (Numbers 3:2 & 26:60). Moses himself gets angry with Israel, calls them bad names and hits the rock. He is banned from entering the Holy Land.
Today, many cult leaders and political zealots claim God told them holy ends justify evil means. Others claim that the God within is the only standard to follow. Spirituality should lead one to community service, not to holy self righteousness or self centered fulfillment.
What does our Torah teach us about a Divine vision?
6- God stands (is based) on a Ma’aseh, an activity, event, action, or experience. A Divine vision grows out of an experience or an event that is perceived to be awesome and holy. It occurs partly in space/time and partly in the mind of the experienced one.
7- A pedestal or a brick is human made. A sapphire (Sapir is the word in our verse) jewel is God- nature made. You can experience Divinity in nature, or in human activity. personally or in history, by yourself or in a group.
8- In Hebrew Sapir is the same root as the verb to number, and to relate a story. Safer is a book. Sippur is a story. Sofer is a scribe. Mispar is a number. God can also be experienced through math, books, or life’s narratives, when one feels overwhelming awe through them. Sefer Yetsirah, the most important of the early Kabbalah books, already points this out.
9- The heavens/sky is conventionally the abode of the Divine. But here purity is present as part of God’s basic essence or basic structure i.e. as bone is for flesh. Mitsvot (for Jews) are a basic essence/structure of spirituality.