Parashat Mishpatim 5781 / פרשת מִּשְׁפָּטִים
Torah Portion: Exodus 21:1-24:18
In this week’s parasha, Mishpatim, God privately reveals to Moses dozens of rules (mishpatim) that Moses would later convey orally to Children of Israel. Near the end of the parasha, Moses momentarily descends from Mt. Sinai before ascending once again to receive the stone tablets, upon which God would inscribe the Ten Commandments that God had earlier revealed directly to the people. During thes brief interlude at base of the mountain, Moses gathers his brother Aaron and Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, all of whom would become Israel’s first High Priests, and 70 elders of Israel. He then has these 73 men bow to God from afar, for God has said, “Moses alone shall come near the Lord; the others shall not come near.” Nevertheless, we then learn that Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu and the 70 elders do, infact, ascend the mountain together. Not only that, but upon ascending “they saw the God of Israel,… and God did not raise a hand against the leaders. They beheld God, and they ate and drank.” Despite God’s warning that you could not see God and live, all 73 survived their encounter on the mountain unharmed.
Biblical commentators throughout the ages have speculated exactly what the Moses and his guests saw on the mountain in that moment. One says they saw God in a prophetic vision as did the prophets Amos and Ezekiel (Abraham Ibn Ezra). Another says they saw God’s throne of glory (Saadiah Gaon). And another says they had a deep intellectual, mystical experience of “knowing” God, but they did not see God in the physical sense (Moses Maimonides). Though all three of these interpretations are possible, I am especially drawn to the last one because of the implications it has for those who experienced God that day.
These men were not just any men. They were the most esteemed, trusted and learned men of Israel. The seventy elders were most likely the leaders of the judges that Moses’s father-in-law, Yitro, had advised Moses to appoint so that Moses would not solely bear the burden of adjudicating Israel’s disputes and legal questions. These men constituted Israel’s equivalent of the Supreme Court.
The leaders of the judges ascended the mountain at a time when God was revealing to Moses all the ordinances of the Torah that they would be responsible for protecting. It wasn’t enough for Moses to simply tell the men what God had revealed to him, though. If that were the case, how could they possibly decided any cases that might pit one rule against another or that might involve considerable nuance. Rather, the men arose that day to learn the fullness of the law, not just the words, but their meaning and God’s intentions behind them. In effect, these men were attending law school. They were acquiring the skills, wisdoms and insights to fairly and competently interpret God’s laws for Israel. As they studied intently upon the mountain, they came to know God in a most intimate way. In Maimonides’s terms, they came to “see” God.
In bringing these leaders up to the mountain, Moses was inviting them to seek God’s “face,” that is, to understand what God wants of God’s people and how God works in the world. The elders would be charged with hearing the people’s questions and grievances and addressing them in ways that were “Godly.” This required that they know the law through and through AND that they had the capacity to see the individuals before them as reflections of God. All of them, after all, were and are made in God’s very image. Unless they could see that image of the Divine in each and every person, they would merely be going through the motions, and they would fail to truly uphold God’s law.
We are not High Priests or Judges of Israel, but the task of the 73 is our task, just the same. We are expected to “see” God in our lives, to discern what God wants of us and how God wants us to be partners with the Divine in the ongoing act of creation. We do not have to climb a mountain to see God, however, even though many of us do experience God’s presence in nature. Instead, we need only look into the eyes of those around us. Each and every human being is created in God’s image, after all. To see God, we must seek God’s face in our fellow human beings. Only then can we fully live our lives in faith both to God’s word and God’s intent.
This year we read Parashat Mishpatim on Rosh Hodesh Adar, on the first of the month of Adar, the month in which we celebrate Purim. On Purim we read about heroes and villains who have something to hide. Thus, we ourselves don masks on this holiday. Is this all that different from how we present ourselves in our everyday lives? Whether we intend to or not, we do not reveal all our secrets, all our pains and doubts, nor all our joys and certainties in a way that tells others exactly who we are and how they should relate to us. As a result, when encounter one another, we make all kinds of assumptions that shape how we interact. But many of our assumptions are wrong and, as a result, we hurt others in ways we can’t fully comprehend. To relate to one another in Godly ways requires us to recognize our assumptions, move beyond them, and to seek God’s face in one another.
We are all complicating beings who bear God’s image each in our own way. The lesson from the 70 elders of Israel (plus 3) is that we must take steps, both literally and figuratively, to see more of each other than meets the eye. Only when we see the fullness of God’s likeness in one another can we do the sacred work of caring for one another, which. at its core. was the work of the men who saw God at Mt. Sinai.