A Taste of Torah: Weekly Commentary from the JTS Community
Parashat Mishpatim 5762
Exodus 21:1 - 24:18
February 9, 2002 27 Shevat 5762
This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Lauren Eichler Berkun
The conclusion of this week's Torah portion raises a profound question about the nature of Revelation. Was the revelation at Sinai an auditory or a visual experience? According to the book of Deuteronomy, the answer is quite clear: "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" (Deut. 4:11). The purely auditory nature of Revelation was, according to Moses, a purposeful pedagogical choice. "Since you saw no shape when the Lord your God spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire — be careful not to act wickedly and make for yourselves a sculptured image..." (v. 15). The emphasis at Sinai on hearing rather than seeing provided spiritual training to combat idolatry.
Chancellor Schorsch has written eloquently about this aspect of Revelation: "For Judaism, then, God is a felt presence rather than a visible form, a voice rather than a vision. Revelation tends to be an auditory and not a visual experience. The grandeur of God is rarely compromised by the hunger to see" ("The Sacred Cluster," p. 9). However, despite this important theological insight, the climax of the Sinai narrative in our Torah portion is startlingly visual.
At the conclusion of the lengthy list of laws in Mishpatim, the children of Israel assert their willingness to adhere to the covenant of God's mitzvot. Following the famous pledge, "All that the Lord has spoken, na'aseh v' nishma, we will faithfully do," Moses ascends the mountain with the seventy elders of Israel. There "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..." (Ex. 24:11). For all of God's stern warnings, on penalty of death, "not to break through to the Lord to gaze" (Ex. 19:21), this narrative concludes with a striking assertion of sight.
I would like to suggest that this mysterious moment of "vision" at the end of parashat Mishpatim teaches a valuable lesson about our relationship with God. That this "God—gazing" occurs at the conclusion of the first body of Torah legislation is no accident. The elders enjoy this spectacular sight of sparkling sapphire after the Israelites have committed to upholding God's commandments. Thus, our Torah portion suggests that there is only one true way to behold God's presence — keeping the mitzvot.
This idea is captured in the mitzvah of tzitzit, in which we are commanded to "look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them" (Num. 15:39). In a beautiful midrash, the rabbis notice that the language of this Torah verse is strangely singular. Despite the plural construct of the word, "tzitzit," the verse does not say, "look at them," but rather, "look at it/him." Therefore, the rabbis make a powerful suggestion about the act of looking at our tzitzit: "One who observes this mitzvah is as if he were greeting the Divine Presence, for the blue thread in the tzitzit resembles the sea, and the sea resembles the sky, and the sky resembles the Throne of Glory." In other words, by looking at our tzitzit, we are able to see God!
This act of looking "at" God is really an act of looking "for" God. How do we find God in this world? How do we witness God's majestic and merciful presence in our lives? We strive to uphold the mitzvot of God. Through a commitment to the sacred commandments of Torah, we may all behold the glory of God's Throne.
Best wishes for a Shabbat Shalom.
Rabbi Lauren Eichler Berkun