Mishpatim: After the Vision, Eat Something

April 15, 2011 at 4:07 pm | Posted in Mishpatim | 2 Comments

(This blog was first posted on February 7, 2010.)

And Moshe went up, and Aharon, Nadav, Avihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel.  And they saw the god of Israel, and under His feet something like brick-work of sapphire, and it was exactly like the heavens for purity.  And He did not stretch out his hand toward those singled out from the children of Israel; and they beheld the God, and they ate and they drank.  (Exodus/Shemot 24:9-11)

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

First God tells Moshe to climb at least partway up Mount Sinai with Aharon, Nadav, 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.  The historical approach suggests that since the Israelites have just received the Torah, or at least the Ten Statements (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 sacrificed animals up with them for the concluding feast.

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

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

Some say that 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 says 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.

But what if the elders aren’t 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 flexibility is to look at the previous clause, And He did not stretch out his hand toward them.  Ovadiah Sforno interprets that to mean that God does not put them into an altered state of consciousness, the way God does sometimes with prophets (Saul, for example, or Ezekiel, or the 70 elders themselves in Numbers 11:25-26).

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.

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  1. […] After God’s revelation to the Israelites at Mount Sinai, the people repeatedly promise to do everything God says. Then Moses and Aaron lead the elders halfway up the mountain, where they have a vision of God’s feet. (See my earlier post, Mishpatim: After the Vision, Eat Something.) […]

  2. […] appear in the vision on Mount Sinai is sapphire, “like the heavens for purity”.5 (See my post Mishpatim: After the Vision, Eat Something.)  Sky blue is the color most directly associated with God.6  So surrounding the wrapped ark with […]


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