This week’s parasha, Mishpatim (Ex. 21:1-24:18.) is “chock full o’commandments” and there’s plenty upon which one might muse. Near the end of the parasha are two curiosities.
The first begins with 24:3 and continues through 24:7, ending with the well known “na’aseh v’nishma.”
וַיָּבֹ֣א מֹשֶׁ֗ה וַיְסַפֵּ֤ר לָעָם֙ אֵ֚ת כָּל־דִּבְרֵ֣י יְהוָ֔ה וְאֵ֖ת כָּל־הַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֑ים וַיַּ֨עַן כָּל־הָעָ֜ם ק֤וֹל אֶחָד֙ וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ כָּל־הַדְּבָרִ֛ים אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה נַעֲשֶֽׂה׃
Moses went and repeated to the people all the commands of the LORD and all the rules; and all the people answered with one voice, saying, “All the things that the LORD has commanded we will do!”
וַיִּכְתֹּ֣ב מֹשֶׁ֗ה אֵ֚ת כָּל־דִּבְרֵ֣י יְהוָ֔ה וַיַּשְׁכֵּ֣ם בַּבֹּ֔קֶר וַיִּ֥בֶן מִזְבֵּ֖חַ תַּ֣חַת הָהָ֑ר וּשְׁתֵּ֤ים עֶשְׂרֵה֙ מַצֵּבָ֔ה לִשְׁנֵ֥ים עָשָׂ֖ר שִׁבְטֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
Moses then wrote down all the commands of the LORD. Early in the morning, he set up an altar at the foot of the mountain, with twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel.
וַיִּשְׁלַ֗ח אֶֽת־נַעֲרֵי֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וַיַּֽעֲל֖וּ עֹלֹ֑ת וַֽיִּזְבְּח֞וּ זְבָחִ֧ים שְׁלָמִ֛ים לַיהוָ֖ה פָּרִֽים׃
He designated some young men among the Israelites, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed bulls as offerings of well-being to the LORD.
וַיִּקַּ֤ח מֹשֶׁה֙ חֲצִ֣י הַדָּ֔ם וַיָּ֖שֶׂם בָּאַגָּנֹ֑ת וַחֲצִ֣י הַדָּ֔ם זָרַ֖ק עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּֽחַ׃
Moses took one part of the blood and put it in basins, and the other part of the blood he dashed against the altar.
וַיִּקַּח֙ סֵ֣פֶר הַבְּרִ֔ית וַיִּקְרָ֖א בְּאָזְנֵ֣י הָעָ֑ם וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ כֹּ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה נַעֲשֶׂ֥ה וְנִשְׁמָֽע׃
Then he took the record of the covenant and read it aloud to the people. And they said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will faithfully do!”
It’s a fascinating ritual, and, from what we now of ancient near-eastern culture, no altogether that unusual. It is how the people affirm the covenant that is being given them. First (24:3) Moshe recites all the rules to the people. They answer “All these things that the L”rd has commanded we will do!” Then (v.4) Moshe WRITES down all the commandments. After all, a treaty isn’t a treaty unless it is written down and signed (or sealed.)
But hold on there a second. What are today’s liberal Jews to make of this? It clearly says that Moshe wrote down all the commandments. [To the (shall remain nameless) Reform rabbi who once remarked to me that one could not consider oneself a Reform Jew while still accepting the literal concept of Torah mi-Sinai: take that!] It couldn’t be plainer. Moshe wrote the commandments down. (Of course, what does this do to the concept of oral Torah, and of those mitzvot which do not appear until later in the text? If you’re a linear thinker, it’s a problem. I cannot even begin to layout the mountains of apologetics that have been written to justify that these words do not say what they plainly say. The simplistic answer is that what is referred to here is only the written Torah as we know it, replete with lots of things that need further explication, thus justifying the need for the oral Torah. But if such a thing were truly needed, why not specify it in the Torah itself? The circular and self-referential logic used here mystifies me. But I digress.
After he has written them down, Moshe does a little ritual blood dashing. And then he AGAIN takes the “record of the covenant” and reads it aloud to the people. And the people answer: “na’aseh v’nishma.” We’ll dispense with any discussion of putting carts before horses here.
It’s a nice, tidy little ritual (except for the messy blood dashing) that repetitiously affirms the covenant between the people of Israel and G”d. And it was written down! Not these stone tablets of “the ten.” Those don’t appear until chapter 31, and it says quite clearly that G”d inscribed them. The implication is clear. There was some form of written record of the covenant other than the tablets. Would that we could find it. Would that it obviated the need for this mysterious oral Torah that has been shaped and sculpted by the minds of human beings whilst attributing it to Divine origin. Seems to me if G”d intends to give us something, G”d will tell us about it plainly.
And here’s an interesting thought. Later on G”d carves those ten commandments into stone. Here, it is Moshe who has to do the hard work of writing all that G”d has said down, and transmitting it to the people. One could look at this is several ways. G”d was choosing to emphasize those ten. (Not according to the rabbis.) There’s the theory I propagated in some sermons years ago that G”d chose these particular ten because they were among the hardest to keep.
Or perhaps G”d figured “if I just carve these 10, that’s enough to remind them of all the other rules-the ones which I had Moshe write down anyway. And then I can still catch the heavenly league football game this afternoon.” Or maybe G”d thought “if they can’t figure it out from these ten, the rest are meaningless anyway.”
G”d carving the tablets could be a way of saying “Moshe may get some of the stuff wrong when he writes it down, so maybe I should make sure at least these ten are never disputed.” (Jokes on you, G”d. Never disputed? Ha!) Why didn’t G”d write all of it down for us. Is G”d making Moshe the Bart Simpson of his time, doomed forever to write on the blackboard? And doomed forever at confessing the sins of the people.
Traditional Judaism would claim that G”d gave us the oral Torah to solve this. It seems like a real stretch to me. Only G”d knows the answer here.
(I do not intend to demean the works of the many rabbis and scholars who ultimately contributed to what eventually became Talmud, Shulkhan Arukh, etc. There is much to be learned from their writings, thoughts, and ideas. It’s likely a goodly portion of their speculations about the fuzzy parts of the Torah are reasonably accurate. I am happy to have Talmud and so many other commentaries as a part of our tradition. I just wish we didn’t feel a need to attach a Divine origin to the process that created them. )
On to our next curiosity. Exodus Chapter 24 vv. 9-11
וַיַּ֥עַל מֹשֶׁ֖ה וְאַהֲרֹ֑ן נָדָב֙ וַאֲבִיה֔וּא וְשִׁבְעִ֖ים מִזִּקְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
Then Moses and Aaron, Nadav and Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel ascended;
וַיִּרְא֕וּ אֵ֖ת אֱלֹהֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וְתַ֣חַת רַגְלָ֗יו כְּמַעֲשֵׂה֙ לִבְנַ֣ת הַסַּפִּ֔יר וּכְעֶ֥צֶם הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם לָטֹֽהַר׃
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.
וְאֶל־אֲצִילֵי֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל לֹ֥א שָׁלַ֖ח יָד֑וֹ וַֽיֶּחֱזוּ֙ אֶת־הָ֣אֱלֹהִ֔ים וַיֹּאכְל֖וּ וַיִּשְׁתּֽוּ׃
Yet He did not raise His hand against the leaders of the Israelites; they beheld God, and they ate and drank.
Moshe, Aharon, Nadav and Avihu (we’ll be hearing more about them in a while) AND seventy elders of Israel ascended the mountain. And they SAW וַיִּרְא֕וּ (vayiru) G”d, and underneath G”d’s feet a pavement of sapphire, as pure as the sky itself. Even though G”d had pretty much said earlier that only Moshe was to ascend the mountain, G”d does not strike down any of the others. So the seventy elders, Aharon, Nadav and Avihu BEHELD וַֽיֶּחֱזוּ֙ (vayekhezu) G”d, and THEY ATE וַיֹּאכְל֖וּ (vayokh’lu) and THEY DRANK וַיִּשְׁתּֽוּ (vayishtu.)
They’re in the presence of the almighty, and they make a picnic? Of course, the rabbis of the Talmud put a little spin on it, seeing it as an intellectual encounter with the Divine-that what they were eating and drinking was G”d’s presence. A possible and acceptable interpretation. In the presence of G”d there is no need for earthly, quotidian things. G”d provides all that is necessary, and perhaps more. The rabbis say that the elders didn’t really “see” (vayiru, from the root resh-aleph-hey, to see) G”d, they “beheld” (vayekhezu, from the root khet, zayin, hey, which also means to see, or perceive, but is cognate with other Hebrew and Arabic words that mean things like “seer” and “vision” and “inner vision”) G”d. That is to say, they finally “got it.” They understood that G”d was real, and truly could not be represented by idols.” The food and drink are perhaps metaphor for “they perceived with all of their senses.”
However, it could just as easily be telling us “even in the presence of G”d, you have to meet your basic human needs. It’s easy, in the face of something awesome (or awful) to forget all about yourself and your needs. And, with all due respects to the mystics, G”d’s presence isn’t likely to provide your body with the necessary amino acids and proteins to enable you to survive.
Or think of the Grand Canyon scene in National Lampoon’s vacation. “Oh, look, it’s G”d. How impressive. OK, gotta go!” It’s nice to encounter G”d, but we’re hungry and thirsty after that climb.
Of course, the Torah doesn’t say who provided the food and drink (though the rabbis were happy to speculate on that.) Was G”d being a good hostess, or did they bring they stuff with them?
Or maybe G”d had a plan after all. Keep the elders happy and sated, while Moshe comes up the mountain to get these tablets that G”d has inscribed. (Curiously, the text says G”d inscribed the tablets with the teaching (haTorah) and commandment (v’haMitzvah), both the teachings, and commandments. Hmmm. OK, we’ll overlook the singular-ness of the nouns and view them as collective, therefore implying the plurality of “teachings and commandments.” Either way, we have a problem. Because either G”d wrote a teaching and a commandment, or G”d wrote all the teachings and the commandments. Not just ten commandments. Hmmm.)
OK, it’s time for me to go now and see, behold, eat and drink. Will they all relate to a common source, or will some needs get fulfilled divinely and some mundanely? Let’s all go find out for ourselves.
©2017 (portions ©2007) by Adrian A. Durlester
Other Musings on this parasha:
Mishpatim 5777 – Whjy I’m Still not Unplugging for the National Shabbat of Unplugging Next Week
Mishpatim 5776 – Might For Right
Mishpatim 5775 – Revisiting Situational Ethics
Mishpatim 5774 – Chukim U’mishpatim Revisited
Mishpatim 5773 – No One Mounrs the Wicked
Mishpatim 5772-Repairing Our Damaged Temple
Mishpatim 5771 – Getting Past the Apologetics
Mishpatim 5770 – Divine Picnic
Mishpatim 5769 – Redux 5757/5761 Change from the Inside
Mishpatim 5768 – Justice for All
Mishpatim 5767-To See, To Behold, To Eat, To Drink
Mishpatim 5766 – Mishpatim with a Capital IM
Mishpatim 5765-Eid Khamas (revised)
Mishpatim 5764-Situational Ethics
Mishpatim 5763-My Object All Sublime
Mishpatim 5762-Enron Beware!
Mishpatim 5761-Change from the Inside
Mishpatim 5760-Chukim U’mishpatim
Mishpatim 5759-Eid Khamas-Witness to Violence