Then Moses and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, and seventy of Israel’s elders ascended. They saw the God of Israel, and under His feet was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the essence of heaven in its purity. He did not raise his hand against the close Israelites. They beheld God, ate, and drank. (Exodus 24:9-11).
In our Jewish tradition, we speak of the Torah being composed of black letters and the white spaces between them. The black letters are linear, but the white spaces are portals into other time zones and other dimensions. We travel into these zones to retrieve Torah’s meanings.
Here, Torah speaks of seventy elders. Flash forward fifteen hundred years in time, to read in Talmud about seventy faces of Torah. Seventy possible interpretations of any passage, to reflect seventy different world cultures.
Torah speaks of sapphire, in Hebrew, sapir. Flash forward another seven hundred years, when Kabbalistic philosophy is emerging. Sapir becomes the root of sefirot, the Kabbalistic word for spiritual qualities that emanate from God.
Torah speaks of the leaders who come close (in Hebrew, etzel) to God. Flash forward an additional three hundred years to a more highly developed Kabbalistic system. The root etzel re-appears in the word atzilut, a state of being where human consciousness merges with the Divine.
Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. Send the mind forward in time to gather data, send it back to apply it to Torah. Relax linear consciousness, listen to the mind’s associations, and allow the associations to coalesce into interpretations.
What might it mean to see God? To be open to diversity; to look with generosity on the spiritual qualities in one another; and to remember that, despite our different religious paths, we share a yearning to connect with something greater than difference.
That’s what we try to do together in our Vancouver School of Theology class, “Jews and Christians: A Theological Journey.” Our journey is structured like a course, in a reasonably linear way, but it’s really a portal into all the big questions of ethics, society, religion and spirituality.
We are 25 adults of all ages. Nine of us identify with a Jewish movement: Orthodox, Reform, Renewal or Reconstructionist. Eleven identify strongly with a Christian denomination: United Church of Canada, Presbyterian, Anglican or First Nations Christianity. One of us is a Unitarian. Four identify with no mainstream tradition, calling themselves seekers, pagans, questioners, or creators of a new integrated path.
At each weekly class meeting, we start with contemporary religious and spiritual questions of general interest, chosen by students. How do we define a universal ethics? How can Canadians of different religious traditions feel comfortable praying in public? Then we move to issues specific to Judaism and Christianity, chosen by my co-teacher Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee and me. How do Exodus motifs guide modern Jewish practice? How do contemporary practicing Christians make sense of the virgin birth? What do Jews think Christians think Jews think? And what do Christians think about that?
On a typical day, our class whooshes between the surprising, the challenging, and the comical. We gasp, we ponder, and we laugh. We taste the experience of those 74 Israelite leaders at their spiritual picnic – or so I would like to think.
For more perspectives on Parshat Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18), click here.