There is a kind of coldness, a stiffness, a certain rigidity that sets in without our even being aware it has happened. It is an effort at self defense, this hardness – a means of protecting ourselves by rendering our souls impenetrable and insensible to pain. This hardening, this shell formed around the heart, is what we mean by qlippah – the shell that hides the sparks of God, makes them inaccessible to one another, interferes with both transmission and reception. Locked inside of our own personal Faraday cage, each of us becomes cut off from the signal transmitted by all.

The dichotomy of qlippah/nitsuts (shell and spark) does not map cleanly onto the material/spiritual divide. We are not living in a gnostic universe, and there is not demiurge we can blame for our predicament. The truth is much simpler, and much sadder – that each of us is their own demiurge, weaving around ourselves a shell of falsehood, a kind of anti-cocoon that calcifies our being and makes us impervious to healthy change.

Shmoneh Esrei Part 1: Avot v’Imahot

Welcome to part 1 of my current pet project for the remainder of the summer, which is to go through each of 19 blessings of the Shmoneh Esrei and explore what kind of interesting things they have to tell us about the God they are directed toward. One of the neat aspects of the civilizational approach (see my previous posts on Reconstructionism) is that it throws into sharp relief one of the fundamental aspects of Judaism: that rather than upholding a single, coherent theology Judaism embraces an eclectic array of theological perspectives (often differing in emphasis, occasionally mutually exclusive), drawn from across the vast expanse of Jewish history. While from a certain point of view this can make it difficult to identify what, if anything, Judaism has to teach us about God, from another perspective it gives us an incredibly flexible toolkit for encountering a reality which by definition exceeds the capacity of the human mind to comprehend. Any truly Jewish attempt to understand the divine must begin with the humble admission of our inability to fully grasp the infinite.

With that in mind, let’s begin with the Avot v’Imahot. What’s really interesting about this blessing, and what makes it particularly appropriate that it should come first, is how it is at the same time so old and so new. Of all the alterations made to the Amidah in liberal siddurim, the most universally accepted is the addition of the names of the matriarchs–Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah–to the traditional patriarchal list of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This fairly simple addition is indicative of one of the most significant shifts in the Jewish community to occur in modern times: the slow, painful and hard-fought struggle of women to claim recognition as full members of the Jewish people, on an equal footing with men and with an equal stake in the ongoing evolution of our religious civilization. This struggle has made itself felt in all aspects of Jewish life, from the question of who can serve as leaders in communal organizations to differing resources and expectations in the religious education of children. As Judith Plaskow points out in Standing Again At Sinai, one of the areas which it has been necessary for women to reclaim for themselve has been that of history, which in the Jewish world as in most other societies has been up to recently almost exclusively a male-dominated discourse reflecting male concerns, in which women enter only peripherally as the objects of male desire, anxiety and control.

The Avot v’Imahot exemplifies this assertion by Jewish women of the right not to be erased from the historical narrative of their people by inscribing the matriarchs alongside the patriarchs in this traditional affirmation of the relationship between God and Israel. I’m some respects, the Avot may represent one of the earliest strata of Jewish theology, reflecting as it does a basically tribal world view in which God may indeed be the transcendent creator of worlds, adon olamim, but the significance of this idea is nevertheless eclipsed by the more local concern of the individual relationship between a particular god and that god’s particular people.

Rather than beginning with the more standard formula which emphasizes both God’s status as our god (eloheinu) and as “king of the world” (melech ha’olam), the Avot begins more simply by blessing God as “our god, and the god of our fathers (and mothers).” This perspective, also in evidence in different places throughout the Tanakh, is less concerned with the idea with God’s universal sovereignty than it is with the notion of God as elohei Yisrael, the God of Israel, whom we can rely upon for blessing and support on account of the covenant struck between that god and our ancestors. The omission in this context of the names of the matriarchs has always been significant because it reflected the patriarchal understanding of that covenant that saw it as a relationship between God and the privileged society of Jewish males, with women playing only a peripheral role if that.

It is this understanding of covenant which made it possible throughout much of Jewish history to regard the all-important realms of religious ritual and Torah study as the sole prerogative and responsibility of men, with the self-reinforcing result that men have historically had sole access to the language and symbolic vocabulary for describing God. By establishing a place for the matriarchs alongside the patriarchs in this ritual affirmation of covenental continuity, Jewish women have asserted their right to have a voice in the ongoing evolution of our collective understanding of that covenant.

The basic theological truth contained in this blessing therefore is that all our understanding of God ultimately arises out of our own experience, that before we can say anything else about God we must first understand hir as our God. Even this intensely personal experience, however, does not arise in a vaccum. We come into ourselves through the medium of a family and a community into which we are born, and we are shaped by the historical experiences of our people just as surely as we are influenced by our own experiences. Thus, before looking at the role God has played in our own lives we must first acknowledge the role God has played in the lives of those who have come before us, and in the life of the community of which we are a part, understood in the broadest possible sense.

New Series: the Shmoneh Esrei

So I’ve got this thing about language and the truth–I like them to correspond. One of the most frustrating experiences of my life was when I was in second grade and they made us take this standardized test. One of the questions had three pictures–a dog, a boy and a potato–and asked you which one had eyes but couldn’t see. Of course, you probably know the answer they wanted me to give, but I had not yet been initiated into the more bizarre and illogical quirks of the English language, so I spent several long and frustrating minutes wrestling with the problem before declaring, under protest, that the dog must be blind. I’m pretty sure that when I eventually found out that potatoes have “eyes” it just made me more angry, not less.

Which is all to say that I get very emotionally invested in words and how they’re used. That’s why I think that one of the best ways to understand what we believe about God is to pay close attention to what we say about hir. Of all the Jewish texts, I think the siddur is really the most fascinating to study because of the way it assembles bits and pieces of the tradition from all over the place into a collection of things we say about God collectively, on a regular basis, over and over and over again.

I want to focus on the Shmoneh Esrei (so named because it had eighteen blessings before they added a nineteenth) because it exemplifies some basic themes you find throughout the siddur. First, what it has to say about God is very functional. The Amidah isn’t concerned with speculating about what kind of a thing God is, so much as focusing on the things God does. This is either very pragmatic, or deeply insightful, or both if you like. Reading what the Shmoneh Esrei has to say about God makes me think of the theology of the Rambam (Moses Maimonides), who claimed that we can’t really say or know anything about God because our concepts are all formulated to handle the finite things we encounter in this world and aren’t built to handle the infinite and transcendent. The only things we can really know about God are A.) What God is not and B.) What God does.

I thought it would be interesting then to go through the Shmoneh Esrei blessing by blessing and think about what each one is saying about God and our relationship to hir. This isn’t necessarily to say that you have to believe everything (or anything) the Amidah has to say about God in order to find meaning in reciting it each day. But if you, like me, happen to think of God as a transcendent and incomprehensible reality that nevertheless has an effect on our lives that can only be described in the language of relationship and concern, then this exercize might be an interesting model for thinking about what that means for you.

The miraculous and the absurd

I’m going to be grasping at straws for a little while tonight, because what I really want to talk about is something that lies so close to the core of me that it exists on a level that’s too fine for me to grasp. It’s like talking about what happens on the quantum level, where simply to observe an event is to change it, so that we are forever frustrated in our search for understanding. What I really want to talk about, though, are two ways of looking at the world, which for lack of better words to describe them I’m going to call the miraculous and the absurd.
I’m not going to be all modernist and claim that these are the only two possible ways of looking at the world, because that would be silly. I do however feel strongly that when it comes to me personally, they are the only options available. For me, if not for the rest of humanity, the world is either miraculous or it is absurd. There is no third choice.
What these two points of view share in common is that they both acknowledge that the world in which I find myself is much bigger, stranger and more complex than I am capable of understanding (I’m tempted to say, bigger than a human mind is capable of understanding, but I don’t want to get hung up on trying to make my experience valid for everybody–you can tell, right?). This doesn’t mean I’m skeptical about human knowledge, per se. I’m a strong believer in science as a set of tools for discovering more about our universe and how it works. What it does mean is that I’m skeptical that we will ever run out of things to discover. Even if we somehow were able to bring our picture of the world completely up to date, to completely define the world as it exists at this very moment, I think it’s quite likely that something completely new and unprecedented would pop up in short order to throw the whole thing into confusion once more. In other words, I have a deep and abiding faith in the universe’s ability to surprise us.
The way I see it, there are basically two ways to respond to a universe with an infinite capacity to confuse and astound us. One is to react with a deep sense of fear and anxiety at the uncertainty and instability of life, an anxiety that can ultimately only be held at bay by adopting a stoic fatalism, the iron-willed determination not to rely too much on anything or anyone. This is the perspective I call the absurd. The other possibility is to respond with wonder and amazement, to reach out to embrace the world in all its strangeness, to open onself to the sense of possibility and transformation inherent in a world in which the most amazing things are happening all the time. This is what I call a sense of the miraculous.
The thing is, these perspectives aren’t in disagreement over the facts. They basically agree in their picture of what the world looks like. The difference lies in how they choose to emotionally respond to those facts. There’s a story told of Rabbi Bunim of P’shiskha that he used to say that everyone should carry around two pieces of paper with them, once in each pocket. On one is written “I am dust and ashes.” On the other, “The world was made for me.” The trick is knowing when to look at one pice of paper and when to look at the other. For me at least, the journey of life has been all about learning how to leave the “dust and ashes” paper in its pocket and reach for the “world was made for me” paper more often. When I confuse my friends by telling them I believe in a personal and transcendent God, this is more or less the practical, emotional content of that belief–that the sheer craziness of life is evidence, not of our separation and alienation from the incomprehensible “everything,” but of our deep connection and kinship with it, and that by making ourselves open to that connection, by turning aside when we see that bush burning in the wilderness, we can become active partners in the divine becoming that’s happening all around us.

Drawing Near to God

Here’s a thing we learned about in class concerning Nadav and Avihu (Thanks to Tamar Kamionkowski):

So as everybody knows, Nadav and Avihu are Aaron’s sons, next in line to inherit the position when he is gone. They are anointed and serve alongside their father during the dedication ceremony that marks the commencement of the Mishkan. But then something goes horribly and bizarrely wrong: Immediately after, they “offer alien fire” to God, and are burnt to ashes. Talk about a short term of service.

Here’s the thing–no one really knows what the Torah means by “alien fire.” A number of explanations have been offered throughout the ages. Most of the ones I’m familiar with posit some form of arrogance or carelessness in the brothers’ nature. Either they are guilty of showing careless disregard for the ritual of sacrifice prescribed by Moses, or they had the temerity to appear before God drunk on wine (inferred from the fact that Moses issues a commandment about priests not showing up for duty inebriated right after the brothers’ smoking corpses are carted away). The unifying element in these explanations is that they regard the flame that burns up Nadav and Avihu as a manifestation of divine anger.

But there’s another possible explanation, one that certainly didn’t occur to me when I was reading the episode but which makes a certain sense in light of the symbolic vocabulary of the sacrificial cult. Consider: Nadav’s and Avhihu’s bodies are consumed by fire from God, just like the fire that descended to consume the sacrifice at the climax of the dedication ceremony just a few psukim back. What is left of them is then taken outside the camp along with their priestly garments, just like the skin and bones of the sacrifice.

Philo, a Jewish philosopher of the Hellenistic period, sees what happened to Nadav and Avihu as basically positive. In effect, they chose to sacrifice their physical forms in an effort to get close to God. There is a sense that to some extent, they became the sacrifice. What does this imply about the animals in the sacrifice? That they aren’t receiving harm in place of the Israelites, as one might expect, but the benefit of getting close to God in their place, because we’re not allowed to sacrifice ourselves in that way. As tempting as it might be to seek a complete unity with God, such closeness is impossible for humans without the destruction of our physical form.

What protects the priest being so close to God is following every detail of the ritual–it provides them with a way to get close to God without being swallowed up. In the theology of the Priestly sources within the Tanakh, the blood of the sacrifice does the work of purification, cleansing the temple of impurities incurred by the actions of the community. The story of Nadav and Avihu gives one the sense that at a certain distance God doesn’t discriminate between human and animal blood–the divine aura is too powerful not to consume anything that gets that close.

I feel like what’s at issue in this story is intimacy, God’s desire for intimacy with humankind, as well as humans’ desire for intimacy with God–an intimacy that can never be consummated in this world without the destruction of the human partner. Because of this unfortunate fact, that intimacy has to be deferred, expressed with the utmost care, waiting until the world to come in which, unshackled from the limitations of body and form, the two can unite. It might be a little difficult to accept because of the unsettling imagery in which it is depicted in this story, but that imagery itself serves to underscore a point–that as much as God and humans may desire complete closeness to one another, it is not our place to sacrifice our bodies and lives to achieve it. At the end of the day, no matter what spiritual heights we may have reached, it is our duty to come back down the mountain and raise families and build institutions, because that is part of the work for which we have been created in the first place.

As someone who tends to experience emotions in a very raw and extreme way, it’s easy for me to see a little of myself in Nadav and Avihu. There are times, both in my loftiest pinnacles and my deepest depths, when I feel a yearning for connection with the divine so intense that all I want is to drift off into the infinite, never to return. What finally brings me back down to the ground in times like this is a sense of connection with those who are dear to me, as well as a sense of responsibility for the concrete details of my life, mundane as they may be. I would never want to abandon my sense of the vast otherness of God, even if I feel from time to time as if my separation from that mysterious Other will break me like an empty glass. At such times I try to comfort myself with the wisdom of this story, that that desire, impossible as it may seem, is also felt by God, and that the sense of estrangement I feel is God’s voice whispering gently into my ear, “Not yet.”

God In Reconstructionism

One of the accusations most frequently leveled against Reconstructionist Judaism is that “Reconstructionists don’t believe in God.” The Reconstructionist idea of God is probably one of the most misunderstood aspects of the movement, and that isn’t entirely the fault of its critics. The fact is that, like so many of his ideas, Kaplan’s understanding of God was rather complicated and difficult to grasp, he was constantly fine-tuning it throughout his life in order to meet the challenges of his critics, and the movement as a whole has shifted somewhat since his death.

It’s true that classical Reconstructionism makes some major adjustments to the idea of God that do not sit well with the more traditional theology of some of the other movements. In a nutshell, the problem Kaplan was trying to deal with in his theology was similar to the one he was trying to deal with in his approach to Jewish peoplehood: that of reconciling two worlds with different values and priorities which both have a legitimate claim on the hearts and minds of American Jews. In this case, the two worlds in question were the religious tradition of Judaism and the findings and methodology of modern science. Most Jews alive today, felt Kaplan, were too invested in the scientific worldview to be able to accept the idea of a supernatural God who dispenses reward and punishment, miraculously circumvents the laws of nature and directs history to a predetermined end. Furthermore, contemporary developments in the critical analysis of the Hebrew Bible make it difficult to maintain the thesis that the Torah is a unified text handed down to Moses by God at Sinai, rather than a collection of texts composed at different times in response to various historical and political circumstances and edited together at a later date.

These factors would seem to render what most would consider the “traditional” Jewish conception of God problematic at best. Certainly others in Kaplan’s generation were perfectly willing to reject the idea of God entirely in favor of “ethical culture” founded on purely humanistic principles. Kaplan, however, felt that the idea of God was still necessary to Judaism, albeit in a “reconstructed” form. His solution was to reject those aspects of the traditional conception of God that were incompatible with a modern, scientific worldview while subjecting “the God idea” to a careful functional analysis. An avid student of American pragmatist philosophers such as William James, Kaplan started with the question, “What is the practical difference the God idea makes in the lives of those for whom it is important?” and built up from there.

In practice, this meant abandoning the idea of a personal God who behaves like a more perfect version of a human being and regarding God instead as more like a force or process at work in the world. Kaplan’s God does not transcend nature, looming above and outside the world of our experience, but rather manifests in and through the natural world. At the same time, God is not simply identified with the sum total of what is, as in a pantheistic philosophy, but rather is regarded as the sum total of all the forces at work in the universe which tend toward wholeness, unity and goodness. The classic formation of this principle is that “God is the power in the universe that makes for salvation.” One consequence of this theological stance is that, just as God is not fundamentally separate from nature, so to God is not separate from humanity. Humans contain within themselves some aspect of divinity which becomes manifest when we come together  for constructive rather than destructive ends. The proper role of humanity is to act as partners with the Divine in bringing about a more just and peaceful world.

The criticism leveled at Kaplan’s formulation of the God idea came from two directions. On the one hand, Jews coming from a more traditional theological perspective (which included many Reform as well as Orthodox Jews), argued that Kaplan’s conception of God was too anemic and abstract. In removing the personal and supernatural aspects of God, they claimed, he had also removed everything that made God an important and vital force in peoples’ lives. What was the point of a God who does not hear or answer prayer? On the other hand, many atheists, secular humanists and proponents of “ethical culture” were uncomfortable with Kaplan’s insistence on clinging to God language, feeling that the use of the term God, no matter how it is re-interpreted, inevitably leaves the door open to the fundamentalist conception of a supernatural being who issues arbitrary decrees from on high and favors one group of people over another.

By all accounts Kaplan did not consider himself to be primarily a theologian. In talking about God, he was more concerned with developing an idea of  the Divine that would resonate with Jews who otherwise might be driven away by the supernatural theology of traditional Judaism than in making dogmatic statements about ultimate reality. He made it clear that his preference would be for people to develop a God idea that worked for them rather than expecting a single theological system to be universally applicable. Nevertheless, he frequently found himself walking a precarious line between the competing worldviews of critics from various denominations for whom his naturalistic theology was off-putting at best. Modern Reconstructionism has evolved in response to the changing cultural and spiritual life of the times, and today there are probably few Reconstructionist rabbis who would agree with everything Kaplan wrote about God. At the same time, there are aspects of his theology that I think hold up very well, and are definitely worth a second look. For more about Kaplan’s ideas on God, I highly recommend The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion, which also contains an extended treatment of his approach to the various holidays and festivals of the Jewish calendar.

Some late-night rambling

What elevates us may be that which is most universally human, but sometimes I think that most defines us as individuals are our quirks and obsessions. Ultimately, to find a way to offer up the strangeness within us to G-d, this constitutes the basic religious project of our lives.

This is true not only of individuals, but at the tribal/communal level as well. This is one reason why the idea of a truly universal religion is absurd: If the raw material differs, how can the process of refning it be the same?

Postulate: That all spiritual experience begins from the particular and moves outward into the universal. That furthermore it is the nature of the particular experience from which it begins that defines the unique character of a religious tradition. It becomes an indelible fingerprint that can never be removed without killing the tradition, no matter how abstract and universalistic the tradition becomes.

In Judaism, the particular that our universal understanding of G-d grows from is a shared sense of history and national identity. Our conception of G-d began with the god of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It was only as this idea was refined in the crucible of subsequent generations of prophetic insight that the universalistic kernel buried inside the national experience could begin to grow and bear fruit.

At some point along the way the G-d of Israel became also the G-d of all the nations, the transcendent Master of history, while still remaining at the same time our G-d, the G-d with whom we shared a unique and irreplacable special relationship. This seemingly paradoxical standpoint is not unique to Judaism. Indeed, it represents a central problem at the heart of any religion developed enough to have moved out of the stage of the purely particular religious experience. Nearly all religions recognizable as such have begun to make this transition. It might be said to define the boundary between religion itself and the more anarchic “spirituality” that forms the primal matter of more formal/developed religion.

Truth and Fiction, Part 2

As is so frequently the case, it’s been a while since my last post, but I did want to continue the thought I had begun previously. Looking back over the direction I was heading, it now seems to me that what I was saying was starting to get needlessly general, so in this concluding post for Truth and Fiction, I’d like to bring it back to the basic question that might have occurred to anyone reading the previous section: Why Passover? In other words, given that we struggle constantly with the role of the miraculous in religion, why in particular does the story of Passover, and more specifically the moment of the parting of the Sea of Reeds, arouse most intensely these questions for us?

I think that to begin to answer this we have to acknowledge that though the Tanakh is filled with examples of G-d’s miraculous intervention in the affairs of humanity, the…what is the word I’m looking for here? The role, the tenor, the mood of the miraculous event is different from moment to moment in the text. Through most of Genesis the narrative has a very folkloric quality. G-d walks and talks with humanity. Angels pop up here and there, mostly as messengers, sometimes even to marry humans and have children with them. G-d gets angry at humanity and floods the whole world, and only a few generations later mankind gets together and tries to build a tower to heaven. What I’m getting at here is that there’s a mythic quality to much of Genesis that makes it feel much less urgent to strictly define in what sense the stories we’re reading should be regarded as “true.” Certainly there are people who persist in regarding the biblical account of creation, for example, as literally true in a historical sense, but for most of us it isn’t too difficult to regard the stories as metaphors and feel quite comfortable dealing with them at that level.

Not so in Exodus. By the end of Genesis, the narrative has already switched over to a more historical, “realistic” perspective, and with the opening of Exodus this transformation is complete. No longer are we operating in a folkloric mode in which a few larger-than-life figures loom large against a mostly empty background. Exodus opens in such a way as to signal loud and clear that now we are dealing with a much broader stage, in which the political and economic circumstances of nations have as big a role to play as the personalities of individuals:

A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.” (Exodus 1:8-10)

This semihistorical mode is an important part of what makes the Passover story so powerfully relevant in the lives of each generation that retells it. The ethnic tensions that drive the story, as well as the repression and consequent longing for freedom that spring from them, are as real and plausible to us now as they were thousands of years ago. That this relevance is powerful enough to transcend not only time, but also language and cultural identity, speaking meaningfully not only to Jews but to people throughout the world from a vast variety of different backgrounds and historical contexts, is testament to the story’s status as one of the foundational organizational narratives of the human species.

Nevertheless, it is precisely this historically plausible quality of the narrative that makes it seem so vitally important to determine how we are supposed to relate to the miraculous events which occur throughout, breaking forth like lightning against the cloudy sky of historical reality. Because if indeed Exodus starts out by constructing a plausible historical and political stage, it is only with the intention of ultimately destroying it. At its heart, the story of Exodus is about the miraculous power of G-d breaking in from outside the bounds of the seemingly solid cage of political reality in order to change it beyond all recognition.

It is this, I think, that we sense when we fixate on the parting of the Sea of Reeds and the question of whether it “actually happened” or not. When the sea parts and the people of Israel cross on dry land to escape their oppressors, something infinitely greater is at stake than the mere question of G-d’s ability or willingness to suspend the ordinary functioning of the laws of nature. Contained within this fantastic event is the thesis that there is a power within and behind the world utterly opposed to systems of repression, able to free us from the bonds of historical necessity that seem to dictate that the way of the world is the foot of the powerful upon the neck of the weak. My belief is that, subconsciously at least, when we ask about whether Moses really parted the Sea of Reeds, we’re not really inquiring about the simple factual matter, but about the radical thesis it communicates.

D’var Torah: Parashat Mishpatim

Here’s the text of the d’var torah I gave today, if anybody’s interested:

Our parsha for this week is rich in commandments that attempt to regulate human relationships at their most problematic. Absent is the assumption that God’s chosen people will be free of conflict. What we find instead is a nuanced awareness of pain–of pain inflicted by one human being against another, and of the necessity of establishing social mechanisms to address this pain in a way that doesn’t destabilize the community. Reading the laws concerning redress of grievances, one can sense a careful balance being struck between the rights of the victim, the perpetrator, and of society as a whole. Of central concern throughout is the question of responsibility. Amidst a litany of injury, theft and even death inflicted by one member of the community upon another, we are asked at all times to keep the all-important questions in the forefront of our minds: to whom am I responsible, and for what, and to what extent?

The question of responsibility is complicated, and no single answer can capture its essence. Nevertheless, I would like to look at one understanding of responsibility suggested by an episode that occurs toward the end of this parsha.

In chapter 24, in a passage beginning with verse 9, we find the following:

“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 
When contrasted with the hard-nosed legislation that makes up the majority of this Torah portion, the poetic effect of this mystical vision is quite striking. And yet its meaning in this context may seem hard to fathom. 

The opinion of Rashi was that the sapphire pavement is meant to signify the suffering of the people Israel. Just as the Israelites were enslaved and forced to make bricks in Egypt, so the memory of their suffering takes the form of brick-work laid out beneath the feet of God. In his ethical treatise, “Hokhmah U-Mussar,” Rav Simha Zissel describes this as an “imaginative projection,” the concrete form of a spiritual truth. But what is the truth that God wishes to convey? Doesn’t it seem out of place to insert a reminder of Israel’s recent suffering into this moment of supreme joy, this celebration of the newly-forged covenant between God and Israel?

For Rav Zissel, the answer to this question lies in a particular understanding of morality based on responsibility for others. A devotee of the ethical discipline of Mussar, his primary concern is with how people can better understand and strengthen their ethical selves. God, in appearing to the leaders of the Israelites with His feet resting upon a pavement of the sorrows they have just escaped, is expressing a profound solidarity with the people that goes beyond the simple relationship of master and servant. In other words, God is not so much reminding us of our suffering as He is reassuring us that He is aware of our suffering and willing to share in our burden. In this way, we can regard the sapphire pavement as a dramatic illustration of the fact that every genuine community, even that existing between God and His people, is founded on our ability to identify with the other’s pain, and our corresponding willingness to shoulder the burden of another. God’s willingness to share in the burden of His people can be taken as an illustration for our responsibility for the burdens of our fellow human beings.

This understanding of the sapphire pavement as an imaginative projection of God’s shared concern for the the suffering of Israel is underlined by the conclusion of this passage. There is a breathless transition here between three distinct moments: “… He did not raise His hand against the leaders of the Israelites; they beheld God, and they ate and drank.” These three moments present us with the ideal picture of a peaceful relationship with God. In contrast with other moments in the Torah where we see the people shrinking away from a direct experience of God in fear for their lives, here we find God and Israel united in the simple face-to-face of community. The non-violence of this moment, already implicit in the untroubled gaze of the people’s leaders on one side and the restraint of God who does not “raise His hand” on the other, is sealed by the final moment, wherein “they ate and drank.” 

There is some question in the tradition as to whether eating and drinking in this passage are to be taken literally or metaphorically. In the Zohar Rabbi Yose suggests the passage should be taken to mean “feasting their eyes upon [God’s] radiance.” Rabbi Yehudah, on the other hand, claimed that “They actually ate, nourishing themselves!” I would suggest that perhaps “they” in this case refers not only to the leaders of Israel, but to God as well–not in the sense of eating and drinking, but of engaging in the kind of fellowship best represented in our experience by sitting down together to share a meal. The power of this moment lies in the significance of the shared meal as the primal moment of community–God and Israel, sitting at the same table, united by the experience of a shared burden. In such a moment, even the infinite gap between God and humanity can be bridged in fellowship, providing us with the model for a non-violent relationship, not only with the divine, but with our fellow human beings.