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  • Writer's pictureSamuel Lebens

Misphatim: To look or not to look

Updated: Feb 19, 2020

Directly after the national revelation (or theophany) at Sinai, God reveals to Moses a more extensive legal code than the Ten Commandments -- a code of mishpatim, or laws (Exodus 21:1). After that legal code, and after Moses reads it to the entire people, and seals a covenant with them, in which they accept the law upon themselves, "Everything that God has said, we will do and accept" (Exodus 24:7), we're told of another, less public theophany:

Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel ascended; and they saw the God of Israel: under His feet there was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity. Yet He did not raise His hand against the leaders of the Israelites; they beheld God, and they ate and drank (Exodus 24:9-11).

After this unprecedented vision, Moses is called to ascend, alone, into the cloud, atop the mountain, for forty-days.

But did they really see God? What about God's later declaration to Moses, "you cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live” (Exodus 33:20). Of course, you could escape the problem with a technical fix: the seventy elders, alongside Nadab, Abihu, Moses and Aaron, saw God, but they didn't see his face. Perhaps. But even if the various theophanies of the Torah can be rendered consistent, the text, it seems to me, still invites us to compare the national theophany of last week's reading, with the invitation-only theophany of this week's reading, and the various occasions upon which God appears to Moses alone. We shouldn't paper over the differences, we should explore them.

A close reading of Exodus 20, and its presentation of the national theophany, raises a number of perplexing issues. You might think it clear from Exodus 20:1, for example, that God addressed the entire Decalogue to the Jewish people, gathered – as they were – at the foot of the mountain:

God spoke all these words, saying...

But every other verse reporting the occurrence of Divine speech in the entire Pentateuch contains the word אל, or the particle -ל, to place beyond doubt to whom the speech was addressed. The only exception is Exodus 20:1. Who exactly was God speaking to? Who heard all Ten Commandments? For this, and other reasons, the Jewish tradition contains all sorts of claims about what, exactly, was heard by the nation at Sinai.

According to one well-known opinion, they heard only the first two commandments, before asking Moses to serve as an intermediary, since they couldn't take more exposure to unmediated divinity. Another opinion claims that they heard the entire Decalogue before asking Moses to serve as an intermediary for any further commandments.

One Hassidic tradition says that they heard only the first letter of the Decalogue (Zera Kodesh 2:40a). Given the linguistic ambiguities of the account in Exodus, it could be that they merely heard thunder, or a voice without words at all. The book of Deuteronomy (5:22) makes things clearer: the masses certainly heard a voice talking. But did they hear any words?

The national theophany was breath-taking. It was unprecedented. And yet its presentation in the Torah seems to be deliberately ambiguous. It's as if the Torah doesn't want us to know the exact contours of the experience. And how was God's presence manifest at Sinai? It was manifest as a cloud (see, for example Exodus 20:18)! As Moses was later to remind us:

You came forward and stood at the foot of the mountain. The mountain was ablaze with flames to the very skies, dark with densest clouds. The LORD spoke to you out of the fire; you heard the sound of words but perceived no shape—nothing but a voice (Deuteronomy 4:11-12).

There was cloud, smoke, fire. All of these things are vague. None of them have clear and discernible boundaries. The liturgy of the High Holy Days brings this home to us when it describes the revelation in the following terms:

You were revealed in a cloud of glory, to your holy people, in order to speak with them. From the heavens, you caused them to hear your voice, and you were revealed unto them within mists of purity.

God's presence was clear to everyone, but the experience was essentially fuzzy, misty, cloudy, ambiguous, intangible, transcendent, and therefore, despite the vivid knowledge that God was speaking to us, the exact contours of the event (if there were any) were inherently unclear.

Compare this to the invitation-only theophany at the end of this week's reading.

The elders of Israel gazed upon the Lord. It's as if the clouds parted for them, and they saw God on his throne, and his foot-stall of sapphire, with total clarity. And though, in the nature of things, man cannot see God and live, we're told that God "did not raise His hand against them" (Exodus 24:11). By rights, they shouldn't have been able to see what they saw. But God let them.

One bizzarre aspect of this invitation-only theophany, is how they eat and drink as they take in the vision of God. It might seem as if they're at the cinema, stuffing their faces with pop-corn.

Accordingly, the Talmud goes out of it's way to say that they weren't really eating and drinking. Rather, they were drinking in the experience. This wasn't physical sustenance. It was spiritual sustenance.

And indeed, as far as Abba bar Aybo (otherwise known as Rav) was concerned, the cloudless vision of the elders was a taste of the world to come; a state in which all we eat and drink is the splendor of God's radiance:

Rav was wont to say: The World-to-Come is not like this world. In the World-to-Come there is no eating, no drinking, no procreation, no negotiations, no jealousy, no hatred, and no competition. Rather, the righteous sit with their crowns upon their heads, enjoying the splendor of the Divine Presence, as it is stated [regarding the invitation-only theophany]: “And they beheld God, and they ate and drank.”

Nachmanides, by contrast, accepts that the eating and drinking was literal rather than figurative, but that it was appropriate. They were eating the meat of the sacrifices that Moses had brought, as they were required to do. They were drinking because we are commanded to rejoice in the acceptance of the Torah, and we drink wine, ritually, as an expression of joy. Moreover, as my teacher, Rabbi Chanoch Waxman points out, it's actually quite common for a covenant to be sealed with a ceremonial meal. Moses had just sealed a covenant between God and the Jewish people. Accordingly, the elders were right to eat with God, their covenantal partner, so to speak, in attendance.

Why did they receive such a clear vision of God, when the vision of the massess had been cloudy? They saw what they saw with such clarity, according to one Midrashic tradition, because they were worthy. Nachmanides concurs.

But there are other opinions, in the Midrash, according to which there was something deeply awry with the invitation-only theophany. If the eating was metaphorical, it was somehow gluttonous. They were feasting their eyes on a vision that should have been savored. In the words of the Midrash, "they became bold in their hearts and stood on their feet, [while] they feasted their eyes on the Divine Presence."

And, if the eating was literal, then they were stuffing their faces in the presence of a revelation that should have frozen them in dumbfounded reverence. In the words of the Midrash, they were brazen like "a servant who attended his master while [holding] a slice of bread in his hand and taking bites from it."

Indeed, a common Midrashic motif declares that Nadab and Abihu, who die a dramatic death by fire in the book of Numbers, were really being punished there for the arrogance that they displayed in this week's invitation-only theophany. The verse tells us that, during the theophany, God did not raise His hand against them. To the Rabbinic imagination, this suggests that they were worthy, at that time, of destruction. So why did God defer their punishment? The Midrash explains: "because the giving of Torah was dear to the Holy One, blessed be He, He therefore did not want to harm them and bring calamity to them on that day."

And thus, the tradition presents us with two radically different readings of the invitation-only theophany. It was without ambiguity either because of the increased worthiness of the invited audience; or it was less ambiguous because of their arrogant audacity. When confronted with a revelation of God, should you look at it straight on, or should you avert your gaze?

This question takes us back to Moses at the burning bush. At first, the sight of the fire that didn't consume the leaves drew Moses close. But as soon as God spoke to him, he recoiled:

[God] said "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God (Exodus 3:6).

Nadab and Abihu, we assume, would have gazed straight ahead. But was Moses right to hide his face? Enter the Midrash:

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Karcha said, Moses did something unseemly when he hid his face. Had he not hid his face, the Holy One, blessed be He, would have revealed to him what's above, what's below, that which was, and that which is going to be. And, [towards] the end [of his life, Moses eventually] asked to see, as it is written, "Show me, please, your glory" (Exodus 33:18). The Holy One, blessed be He, responded: "when I wanted [you to see my glory] you didn't want to [look]. Now that you want to [see], I do not want to [show you]."

It's as if Moses was restrained from the maximal revelation that he so desired, only because he had been hesitant to seize the opportunity when it first arose. Had he been more like Nadab and Abihu, he would have been granted something close to omniscience. But our Midrash continues, and records a dissenting opinion:

Rabbi Hoshaiya Rabba said, Moses displayed great honour by hiding his face [at the burning bush], but Nadab and Abihiu uncovered their heads, and feasted their eyes upon the Divine Presence...

What we've discovered, I think, is a deep dispute among the sages regarding revelation and clarity. One side maintains that the clearer the vision of God, the better. It sounds like a truism. Of course clarity is good. The more the better. And so, if God shows you His face, you should seize the opportunity to take a careful look. The other side of this dispute is, at first glance, counter-intuitive. But I believe that it expresses a deep religious truth. It says that a certain lack of clarity is a religious virtue, and that religious clarity can sometimes be a vice.

God is beyond us. Accordingly, we should recognise that a theology that claims to have a complete grasp of God's will, or God's nature, is suspect. Theological certainty is a species of idolatry. Moreover, it is arrogance.

When Nadab and Abihu finally do meet their demise, it's because they bring a fire offering into the Tabernacle without having been commanded to do so. They thought they knew the will of God. But the will of God is inestimable.

A particularly vivid articulation of the religious value of uncertainty is to be found in the writings of the Hassidic master, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner; the Ishbitzer. He was acutely aware that God is only ever present to us in the cloud.

When God did speak to us, at Sinai, He said, "I am the Lord your God." But there are two personal pronouns in Biblical Hebrew: ani and anokhi. The Ishbitzer writes:

“I (anokhi) am the Lord your God.” The verse does not state “ani,” for if it stated “ani” that would imply that the Holy One Blessed Be He revealed then the totality of His light to Israel, precluding the possibility of further delving into His words, for everything would already be revealed. The letter khaf [of anokhi], however, denotes that the revelation is not complete, but is rather an estimation and comparison to the light which God will reveal in the future.

The letter khaf is used, in Hebrew, to draw comparisons. So the idea is that whatever we heard or saw at Sinai, however vivid, and however clear, can only be an approximation of God's reality. He continues:

And this is hinted to by the [notion] of day and night. The night represents the fact that God, may He be blessed, opens the gates of wisdom for man. And the night comes so that a person shouldn't think that he has understood everything in its entirety, because everything which he has grasped [until now] is [in actual fact] like nighttime compared to the day that is to follow, and so too forever. It follows that everything is nighttime compared to the light that God will emanate in the future.

Even the theophany at Sinai was like the dead of night compared to the deep reality of God that lies beyond our grasp. The idea isn't to denigrate the revelation. The Ishbitzer is clear that it represents the best approximation available of God's will. But as he says elsewhere:

[E]ven one who walks in the path of the Torah [as he should], must also be in a state of uncertainty, since perhaps he is not fulfilling the will of God completely. The will of God is exceedingly profound.

We walk in the path of God. But if we're ever certain that we're getting it completely right, if we ever think that we've grasped the form of God in Technicolor clarity, then we're veering into idolatry. As the Ishbitzer explains, an idol is cut in three dimensions. But God doesn't conform to the sort of clear-cut patterns that we could carve out for him.

And so, we have two opinions. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Karcha might tell you that religious certainty is a worthy goal. Moses was wrong to turn his face. When, years later, God tells him that no man can see God's face and live, perhaps God was just being kind. Of course a person can see God's face, but only if he's more daring than Moses. He has to be willing to look.

But we also have the opinion of Rabbi Hoshaiya Rabba. He might suggest that the problem with Nadab and Abihu was that they saw an image and took themselves to have seen God. The illusion that you have special access to the heavens is the breeding ground for a destructive religious arrogance and fanaticism. Moses knows this, and so he turns his face aside. As Rabbi Fivel Yedidya Glasser mentioned to me this week, some things can only be seen if you don't look at them straight on.

It is only after the elders have their vision, while Moses is enveloped by the cloud, that the people carve out their Golden Calf. If you cannot live with the elusiveness of a cloud, you stumble towards the misplaced certainty of a Golden Calf.


With thanks to Rabbi Herzl Hefter who introduced me to the Ishbitzer, and the world of Hassidut.

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