Parashat Mishpatim

Under God's Feet

How do we reconcile our desire to see God with God's statement that no one can see God and live?

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"They saw the God of Israel." They gazed and cast a glance [at God], and therefore they deserved death. However, God didn't want to mar the rejoicing of the receiving of the Torah, so God waited to carry out the death penalty for Nadab and Abihu until the dedication of the Tabernacle (Leviticus 10:1-2). As for the elders, God waited until the incident mentioned in the verse "The people took to complaining bitterly before Adonai. Adonai heard and was incensed: A fire of Adonai broke out against them, ravaging the outskirts (bik'tzeh) of the camp" (Numbers 11:1), meaning the elders (bak'tzinim) that were in the camp. [The term bik'tzeh hamachaneh ("the outskirts of the camp") is interpreted as "among the officers who were in the camp," that is, the elders.] (Rashi on Exodus 24:10)

Abraham Ibn Ezra explained: They [the seventy-four] saw God in a prophetic vision, as did the prophets Amos in Amos 9:1 and Ezekiel in Ezekiel 1:26. (Nachmanides, quoting Ibn Ezra on Exodus 24:10)

They saw the Kavod of the God of Israel. [This Kavod is the seat of God's glory or God's throne.] (Saadiah Gaon)

All this refers to intellectual apprehension and in no way to the eye's seeing. (Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed, I:4)

Bless Thee, O Lord, for the living arc of the sky over me this morning./Bless Thee, O Lord, for the companionship of night mist far above the skyscraper peaks I saw when I woke once during the night./Bless Thee, O Lord, for the miracle of light to my eyes and the mystery of it ever changing./Bless Thee, O Lord, for the laws Thou hast ordained holding fast these tall oblongs of stone and steel, holding fast the planet Earth in its course and farther beyond the cycle of the sun. (Carl Sandburg, "Glass House Canticle" in Harvest Poems, Harcourt, Brace & World, 1960)

If you are in search of the place/of the soul, you are the soul./If you are in search of a morsel/of bread, you are the bread./If you know this secret,/ then you know/that whatever you seek, you are that. (Rumi, a thirteenth-century Persian mystic, quoted in The Power of Prayer around the World, edited by Glenn Mosley and Joanna Hill, Templeton Foundation Press, 2000)

Your Guide

Rashi agrees with the p'shat (most literal) reading of the text: They saw God and therefore died. What is the symbolic difference between seeing God's Kavod (Saadiah Gaon) and the actual Godhead (Rashi)?

Carl Sandburg notes the ways in which God's presence can be seen in unexpected places on earth. We strive to recognize the Divine in the world and see God's glory around us but often overlook God's presence in our cities and industrial centers. Where do you tend to overlook God's presence?

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Rabbi Vered L Harris

Rabbi Vered L. Harris is the educator at Congregation Beth Torah, Overland Park, KS.