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.