The Physical and the Spiritual, for God and for Us

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Mishpatim

Going Up to “See” God

The end of Parshat Mishpatim has another version of the story of the Giving of the Torah, well worth comparing to the one we read last week. For our purposes here, three verses of the story can be taken on their own terms, Shemot 24;9-11.

To a plain reading, verse nine tells us that Moshe, Aharon, Nadav, Avihu, and the seventy elders “went up.” The next verse says they “saw, va-yir’u,” Elokei Yisrael, the God of Israel, with some description of what they saw (not important for the comment of HaKetav VeHaKabbalah we are about to study, other than it describes God as having legs). In the following verse, we are told God did not “shalach yadav, send out His hand” to atzilei Benei Yisrael, the nobles of the Jewish people, and they ate and drank.

Rashi thinks the verse portrays a sin these nobles committed, including Nadav and Avihu, punished at other times, to not ruin the joy of the occasion. HaKetav VeHaKabbalah starts with a different concern, the seemingly physical presentation of God (whom the verses describe as having legs and hands, at a purely literal reading). His strategy to avoid those implications casts the story in a more philosophical light.

Levels of “Seeing” God

He notes, first, how tradition read the difference between Elokim and Hashem, which he applies to our verses’ use of Elokei Yisrael and Elokim. Elokim refers to the universal God of Nature, Who operates in the world through the ordinary patterns we all know. Hashem/ Elokei Yisrael speaks of when this same God directly guides or cares for the Jewish people, often miraculously.

[I’ve seen the distinction more than once, as well as the idea of Elokim being the Attribute of Justice and Hashem of Mercy, I’ve never seen what seems to me to be the connection, that Mercy stems from a personal relationship, as it were. We all deserve justice, Hashem’s choice to develop a specific connection with the Jewish people brings Mercy. Not quite our topic, sorry for the digression.]

Mecklenburg then offers a distinction I don’t remember seeing, betweenlir’ot, to see, God, andlachazot, to envision or behold. To his view, the former indicates a higher level of prophecy than the latter.

Moshe and Aharon vs. the Elders

Verses ten and eleven, he says, describe what Moshe and Aharon “saw” as opposed to what the rest of the elders did. Moshe and Aharon “saw” Elokei Yisrael, attained understanding/ appreciation of the mode of the specific and miraculous Providence the Jewish people merit [and which we pray Hashem will demonstrate openly in our troubled times, to save us from and help us defeat the evil massed around us]. He turns the end of that verse, their seeing something under God’s legs, as it were, to another issue, having nothing to do with a description of God, so I will omit it here.

But it is meant to contrast to verse eleven, where the nobles only have a vision of Elokim, who did not “send out His hand,” a phrase R. Mecklenburg takes pains to show does not mean anything physical. Yad, hand, can refer to having a prophecy, as in the phrase hayta alai yad Hashem in Yechezkel 37;1 and 40;1, and to “send out” a hand can mean to benefit someone, as he shows from several verses in Tanach.

These nobles were able to eat and drink because they did not have a prophecy in the vein of Moshe and Aharon. A vision of how Elokim runs the world generally does not need/ require a loss of one’s physical faculties. To reach the level of “seeing” Elokei Yisrael, like Moshe and Aharon, obligates leaving the physical, at least for those moments.

A reading HaKetav VeHaKabbalah explicitly offers to counter any possibility of the verses being read to indicate God has any physicality whatsoever.

Bring the Physical to the Temple on Holidays

In a reverse mode (not necessarily disagreeing with what we saw above), R. Hirsch to 23;15 focuses on the prohibition against appearing at the Beit HaMikdash empty-handed. Some wall off Temple/Church from their mundane physical lives, think we are spiritual in houses of worship, but need not carry those lessons to our ordinary lives (I’m pretty sure he has the dominant religion of Germany in mind), as if the two can be walled off from each other (render unto God what is God’s, etc.).

It makes church the place for spirituality/relationship with God, the home a place to be purely physical and materialistic (I doubt the clergy of any religion would accept this split, but if people decide that’s true, it explains how morally bankrupt evildoers, such as mobsters or despots, can think of themselves as religious). For such people, it’s fine to be focused on self and materialism, free of God, as long as one shows up at worship when expected.

Not so, R. Hirsch points out. When you come to see Me, Hashem is telling us, bring your home life with you, because all your needs—food, symbolized by the flour offerings, health by the oil, and joy, symbolized by the wine (he says)—are linked to your relationship with God.

The three aspects of the holiday, with corresponding offerings, make similar points. It is a regel, a time for Torah, a chag, when the nation gathers, and a mo’ed, where we connect with Hashem. For the first, each Jew brings an olah, a burnt offering marking their being present in the Mikdash, “seeing” God [he does not here explain how he came to each of these; for re’iyah being connected to Torah, I guess he would say that’s what comes from being in God’s Presence, an understanding of Torah]. The chag easily matches the chagigah, and the mo’ed inspires joy in us.

We are supposed to then bring this physical/spiritual experience home, I believe he means, to turn our own tables and families into a mizbe’ach, a place where our eating elevates our connection to Hashem, makes us sanctify our lives in God’s service.

God does not have any physicality, I believe R. Hirsch would agree with R. Mecklenburg, but we are supposed to recognize our physicality and use/incorporate it into our relationship with Hashem [a sharp contrast with what I’ve been learning in Mesilat Yesharim recently, at a shul near me, between Mincha and Maariv. A very fundamental question in Judaism, the role of our physical selves].

Cursing Judges and God

Shemot 22;27 challenges translation, because it refers to Elokim/elohim, either God or judges (a debate between R. Akiva and R. Yishmael in Sanhedrin 66a, as well as among translators on Sefaria, not to compare the two). As Malbim points out, both sides agree the Torah prohibits being mekallel either, their debate is only about which the Torah referenced explicitly, leaving it to us to infer the other.

They, we are told not to be mekallel, and then lo ta’or a ruler/leader of the people. Some translations treat the two verbs the same, render both as “curse,” where others turn mekallel into revile, leaving ta’or as curse. Malbim suggests kellalah refers to a purely verbal denigration (like reviling), where le’arer implies some form of damage caused to the other by one’s speech, the opposite of a berachah.

Based on the idea, he suggests that when Hashem promised Avraham la’or those who would be mekallel him, back at the beginning of Lech Lecha, it extended to anyone who just spoke ill of Avraham would find Hashem actively punishing them.

Malbim says the verse uses a word for judges that clearly reminds us of God’s Name because they serve the godly/godlike purpose of instituting law/justice, and Jews are obligated not to speak slander them for doing so, such as when they require a lender to take collateral under the court’s supervision, and to return it to the impoverished borrower daily, so s/he can use it (the topic of the previous verse).

Although it complicates the lender’s life, s/he may not complain about the judges, nor wish them ill. Malbim infers a call for the Jew to bless (the opposite of le-arer, as he said earlier) Hashem, for giving us such wise and just laws, actualized by the judges.

I might not have thought of it this way without having just seen the two previous comments, but Malbim highlights for us how the Torah links judges to the Judge, uses the same word for both, to show us the human judges’ role in applying God’s law on earth.

And Now For Something Completely Different

Of course I could try to fit the comment of R. David Tzvi Hoffmann I chose to discuss this week into this rubric, but the truth is it caught my eye because in 21;26, he addresses a topic to which I’ve been giving some thought recently, the status of the eved Kena’ani, the partially converted non-Jew, who is enslaved by a Jew (consensually or not, a matter of debate). As we begin, I hope we also savor his comments, because we will not see him again until Sefer VaYikra.

Eved Kena’ani is a fraught topic given the abuses of enslaved people in many places, including particularly the American South of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and raises many challenges. R. Hoffmann tries to avoid one of those, although I fear not fully successfully.

The Torah tells us the eved goes free should the adon knock out the eved’s eye or tooth, the two examples the Torah’s way of establishing a category, any visible body part that will not regenerate. R. Hoffmann first points out how the Gemara knows the eved here means a Kena’ani and not an a Jew who became indentured for some years. The latter never loses his status as a full Jew, so he obviously would be repaid for damage committed against him.

The eved Kena’ani is in a more complicated situation; should the adon break his arm, for example, there is no specific Torah-mandated reaction [if we ever return to having avadim Kena’anim, and it is not at all clear we will, or that the Torah would want us to, I expect that beit din would institute protections for such people. It is part of their job, to see where the Torah chose not to legislate, for whatever reason, and fill in those gaps]. Where a body part is removed, even a tooth, the eved goes free.

R. Hoffmann insists the purpose of the rule is to teach theadonto treat the eved properly, that excessive cruelty will result in the loss of the eved’s labor. Unfortunately for the theory, R. Hoffmann himself knows that tradition considers this a kenas, which means that if the adon were to confess to having done this, he would not lose his rights to the eved [again, as I said before, I assume/expect/hope courts would intervene].

Perhaps this is a topic not to raise until I have a fuller theory, but it has come up repeatedly in the Daf Yomi I study with people at [who host me and allow people to take this shiur for free, just by registering], and I think it is worth beginning to consider, what the Torah meant by this institution. As a first step, it is true that an adon who mistreats an eved and refuses to admit it until proven otherwise in court, will lose his rights to have the eved. More to come, I hope.

Until then, we have a week with an interesting focus on the balance between the physical and spiritual/ religious, a reminder God has no physicality, although there are varying manifestations of God in our world; an obligation to relate to God with our physicality, to make it, too, part of our service of God; an awareness of judges’ Godlike role in actualizing God’s justice in the world. And a beginning of thinking about a hard topic, what the Torah intended with the institution of eved Kena’ani and its rules.

About Gidon Rothstein

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