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.
In Biblical Hebrew, mishpat is a sentence pronounced by a court: a judgment, based on evidence and sound reasoning. Today, we don’t live by the specific case laws in Parshat Mishpatim. Rather, we see them as part of a Jewish spiritual legacy. Traditional Torah scholars have thus reframed mishpat to mean: a mitzvah whose value you could figure out by reasoning through your life experience.
Do the laws in Parshat Mishpatim offer examples of these types of mitzvot?
Some say, “no.” The first law concerns behavior of a master towards an indentured servant, here called a “slave.” It does not make rational sense that a nation newly escaped from the horrors of slavery would condone slave-owners in its midst. The prophet Jeremiah, for example, believed that God’s true intent was the abolition of all slavery; failing to redeem slaves undermines a society.
But others say “yes.” In ancient Israel, people saved themselves from ruin through indentured servitude; laws governing the behaviors of masters made servitude safe. Reform is easier than total social and economic revolution; it’s a rational and ethical move to protect people as best you can.
Are Torah’s mishpatim rational ethical teachings or not? If not, how should those of us who live by reason approach them? The Maharal (Rabbi Yehuda Lev of Prague, 1520-1609) offers a perspective. “Science leaves so much about the biology of plants and animals unexplained. But that doesn’t make us say, I can no longer live in this world. Jewish philosophers have not fully explained the Torah. That doesn’t mean we have to abandon the Jewish world.”
Instead, we must allow the Torah’s mishpatim to stimulate inquiry, exploration of life experience, and tentative conclusions, leading us to improve contemporary social practices to be consistently reasonable and ethical.
“If you see the donkey of someone you hate collapsing under its load, you might want to refrain from helping, but you must make every effort to help” (Exodus 23:5).
Reframed as a more general principle: when your negative, judgmental opinions are triggered, you might fail to see the soul of the creature right in front of you; try not to fail. Everyone is susceptible, even the most talented teachers and counselors, so everyone should be vigilant.
The Zohar, the Big Book of Jewish Mysticism from the 1200s, develops this idea in a story about a donkey-driver. Rabbi Yossi meets Rabbi Hiyya for some late-night Torah study. Rabbi Yossi says, “Am I glad to see you! I am so ready for some intelligent conversation. The whole way over here I had to listen to crazy chatter from my donkey driver. I tell you, hanging around donkeys day after day has ruined this old man’s mind. He asked me ludicrous things like, ‘Who is the beautiful maiden without eyes, whose body is hidden and revealed?’”
Rabbi Hiyya says, “You might have been to quick to judge…sometimes these elders are hidden treasures.” They call the donkey driver, who says, “All day I traveled with this Rabbi Yossi, but I didn’t hear one word of Torah!” Rabbi Yossi realizes he had stereotyped the driver as an uneducated, unintelligent lunatic, and thus avoided any meaningful conversation with him. To make up for his behavior, he kindly says, “Well, I was intrigued with what you said about the beautiful maiden.” The old man says, “The maiden is Torah; the missing eyes are yours. Learning is all around you; you only have to open your eyes.”
Where, in your life, can you open your eyes and see a soul differently?
Visions of God (5773/2013)
They [the Israelite elders] saw the God of Israel, and under His legs was something like a work made of sapphire bricks, like the essence of heaven in its purity. (Shemot/Exodus 24:10)
What did the elders see?
Sforno says they saw the sky. Their spiritual vision revealed that it sits just below God.
Ba’al Haturim says they saw the image of their ancestor Ya’akov in the sapphire. If you re-punctuate the sentence, describing what they saw, it says, “They saw — my God! — Israel, under His feet.”
Ramban says they actually saw God. Not YHWH – not even Moshe could see that face directly – but Elohim. In Biblical Hebrew Elohim means “God,” and it also means “judges.” Right after the Israelites learned the new mishpatim, the new laws that would direct their judges, they saw the lawgiver, Elohim.
Please reflect: how do you see God? In nature? In the mystery of our kinship with ancestors three thousand years remote? In ethical behavior and mutual respect between people?
And then please thumb through your Siddur – yes, that compendium of old, sometimes impenetrable poetry. Where do you see your own experiences of God reflected in the poetry?
Commentators paraphrased: Sforno – Rabbi Obadiah ben Yaakov Sforno, sixteenth century Italian physician and philosopher; Ba’al HaTurim – Rabbi Moshe ben Asher, fourteenth century halachist and wordplay expert; Nachmanides – Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, thirteenth century scholar of Talmud and Kabbalah.
Working with Your Inner Ox (5772/2012)
In Parshat Mishpatim – immediately following the Revelation on Mount Sinai — the Torah devotes at least 20 consecutive verses to the ox. These verses offer the only example in any ancient law code in which an animal, along with its owner, is held responsible for the animal’s actions.
What do the ox and its owner represent?
Just before Parshat Mishpatim, God speaks to the Israelites at Mount Sinai, amid clouds and flashing lightning. At Mount Sinai, God empowers everyone to listen and to implement the Divine word. But the people are afraid, and they ask Moshe to be the intermediary who delivers the word to them. At the end of Parshat Mishpatim, Moshe, Aharon, Aharon’s sons, and seventy elders ascend to see God. Torah says, “under God’s feet there was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity.”
So: Moshe is empowered to deliver God’s word, the ox is held responsible, and the elders behold the sapphire under God’s feet. Thus, the ox stands between heavenly speech and earthly speech, between the holy origin of a message and its actual delivery.
Will speech born of the highest intention reach its listeners with a holy message? It depends on both ox and owner. Torah holds the gigantic ox and its owner responsible. But so is the owner of the ox. The ox represents power. The ox’s owner represents restraint. Both are part of the team.
How do you work with your inner ox? How do you pair passion and restraint to deliver a holy message?
Interest-Free Loans (5771/2011)
This week is International Hebrew Free Loan Shabbat, a week to learn about and honour the work of Hebrew Free Loan Societies. These non-profit Jewish community organizations raise funds and make confidential interest free loans to support transitions and new initiatives. They are based on two principles: (1) Maimonides’ teaching that the highest form of tzedakah is to help a person help themselves; and (2) The Torah’s teaching, from Parshat Mishpatim, to offer interest-free loans.
Torah says: If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, do not act toward them as a creditor; exact no interest from them.(Shemot/Exodus 22:24)
Rashi comments on the Torah’s choice of words: “My people” teaches that as we make individual tzedakah decisions, we should prioritize “my people,” i.e., those closest to us. “Among you” reminds us that each of us is always close to poor because the causes of poverty — illness, war, recession, displacement – can come into anyone’s life. “Do not act as a creditor” teaches: keep the transaction confidential so as not to embarrass anyone.
Rashi continues: The word “interest” teaches us about the great wound that a loan can make in a person’s life. The word neshech (interest) is from the same root as nashach (bite). A snakebite begins as a little wound, but the wound can swell throughout a person’s body. Similarly, interest seems like a small percentage, but it mounts up and becomes a huge amount of money.
No doubt Rashi knew about loans from his own experience of building and maintaining a winery. Many of us know personally about interest from mortgages, student loans, car loans, and business loans. If we are able, let’s help others avoid that burden.
Spiritual Maturity (5766/2006)
Parshat Mishpatim presents laws about the treatment of slaves, women, animals, foreigners, and debtors. In its closing scene, Moshe, Aharon, Nadav, Avihu, and seventy elders ascend Mount Sinai to have a meal while gazing at God. To describe this scene, the Torah borrows words from the story of Avraham’s attempted sacrifice of his son Yitzchak.
“Moshe arose early in the morning…to the elders Moshe said, sit for us here, until we return to you…He built an altar, and twelve pillars, representing the twelve tribes of Israel …God called to Moshe…God did not raise his hand against the leaders…” (Shemot/Exodus 24)
“Avraham arose early in the morning…Avraham said to his youths, sit yourselves here…and we will return to you…Avraham built the altar there, he arranged the wood, and he bound Yitzchak…The messenger of God called to him…Do not raise your hand against the boy…”(Bereisheet/Genesis 22)
A few significant changes in wording highlight the Torah’s view of the spiritual meaning of the mishpatim. Avraham’s “youths” become Moshe’s “elders.” Avraham’s nation of one descendent has matured into the twelve tribes Moshe leads. Avraham’s mistaken notion about what to sacrifice is replaced by Moshe’s clarity.
Spiritual maturity, the Torah suggests here, does not come when a person is passionately willing to sacrifice everything of theirs to God. Rather it comes when a person understands that ethics places limits on passion and on power over others. An elder who takes responsibility for transmitting this understanding is truly sitting in the presence of God.
Inspired by Rabbi Yonatan Grossman