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They saw the G-d of Israel. Under his feet was the likeness of sapphire brickwork, resembling the essence of Heaven in purity (24:10).
The final part of the Parasha is a narrative, bringing detail of the Giving of the Torah. The events include the acceptance of G-d’s Covenant by the Israelites: through ceremonies of the animal offerings, the sprinkling of the blood on the Israelites, and their declaration that of ‘we will perform and listen to all that G-d says’. (24:7). When, straight afterwards, Moses, Aaron, Nadav, Avihu, and the seventy elders of Israel ascended Mount Sinai, ‘they saw the G-d of Israel. Under his feet was the likeness of sapphire brickwork, resembling the essence of Heaven in purity.’
The time of the above events is a dispute between the commentaries. Rashi, following the Talmud (Shabbat 88a) brings the tradition that these events took place before the Revelation at Mount Sinai and the Ten Commandments – on the fourth of Sivan. That means that this passage is placed in the Torah out of its chronological order. However, both the Ramban and Ibn Ezra hold that these events are recorded in the order that they actually happened. They took place after the Israelites received the Ten Commandments, and Moses had already taught them the more detailed laws and values stated in the previous three chapters.
The Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 23:8) explains that this vision of G-d showed how He related to the Israelites throughout the period of slavery in Egypt, and during the redemption from Egypt. During the period of slavery, G-d metaphorically kept a sapphire brick at His feet, as a constant reminder of Israel’s servitude with bricks and mortar. It was a sign that He was with them in the times of their great suffering. But when the Israelites were freed, His joy was as radiant as the very essence of Heaven. Indeed the Mechilta states that this is where G-d revealed Himself with the qualities of a wise old man full of mercy – they saw Him as an elderly, compassionate Father, Who had grieved over their suffering in Egypt (see Rashi to 20:2).
What can be learnt from G-d’s revealing Himself in this guise? It comes straight after the Israelites declared ‘we will perform and listen to all that G-d says’. What did G-d teach the Israelites by using an image of Israel’s past, rather than something in Israel’s future? And what is the connection between the their unconditional promise to obey His commandments, and the image of the sapphire bricks and the essence of Heaven in purity?
The Ramchal, in Mesilat Yesharim (Chapter 18), brings the following Torah insight that may be applied to giving a deeper meaning to the words: ‘we will perform and listen to all that G-d says’. He establishes the idea that ‘Chasidut’ – piety, is based on ‘Chesed’ – acts of loving-kindness. He explains the ‘Chesed’ involves doing things that bring pleasure to other people. Although that is where most people stop, according to the Ramchal, ‘Chesed’ goes beyond that. True ‘Chesed’ is expressed through love. Using the example of a son who loves his father, the Ramchal says that when the father asks his son to do something, the fact that the son does what his father asks does not necessarily qualify as an act of ‘Chesed’. The reason for this is because children have a Torah obligation to honor their parents and therefore they are required to do what their parents ask them to do. But the love that a son has for his father should make him take what the father wants a stage further.
For example, father asked his son to drive him to an important meeting. The son gives him a lift there and thus fulfills his father’s wishes. Having done this, he helped and brought pleasure to his father, and at the same time he fulfilled the precept of honoring his father. However, love would take this a stage further. It would cause the son to stop and think about his father’s other needs – his need to be taken home at the end of the meal. Dinner should be ready on the table when he re-enters the house. The house should be tidied and heated to the correct temperature. In other words he would do everything that he could to fulfill his father’s wishes over and above what his father actually expressed. Such actions are act of ‘Chesed’ – loving-kindness. This form of loving-kindness means taking the time to listen to what a person is really saying and being sensitive to the needs implied - even if he or she does not express them verbally. This ‘Chesed’ – doing more that what is specifically asked – is a great expression of love.
It was with that form of ‘Chesed’ that the Israelites declared their relationship with the Almighty. As the text states, ‘He took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people. They responded, ‘we will perform and listen to all that G-d says’. Like the son who is sensitive to ‘what father is really saying’ – namely, his real needs, the Israelites wanted to ‘listen’ to what G-d really wanted from them – what was behind the laws expounded, and how they could serve Him in a better way.
This explains the reason why G-d used the image of the servitude in Egypt and His own joy at their eventual release. G-d showed that He had been ‘listening’ to their real needs as a people – not just to be physically saved from bondage, but also to come close to Him as His Kingdom of Priests and as a Holy Nation (19:6). That is why the bricks were not of clay, but of sapphire – precious stones – indicating light and beauty – which reflected the Israelites’ deep desire to spiritually lead humanity according to the ideals of the Creator enshrined in the Torah. And that helps us understand the image of G-d described by the Mechilta as a ‘wise old man full of mercy’. As the Israelites showed ‘Chesed’ to G-d in saying ‘we will perform and listen to all that G-d says’, in the way explained above, He indicated that He would show them similar ‘Chesed’ – in acting to them in a compassionate way – in view that their real desire was to keep the Covenant not just according to the letter, but as discussed above, the full spirit of the Torah. The Israelites had shown their desire to keep the Torah out of love and not just out of a contractual covenant. He would show his love and mercy for them when they would transgress in the future…
This gives us an insight into the words of comfort G-d revealed to Jeremiah following the thunderous warnings to the Israelites prior to the Destruction of the First Temple:
‘So says G-d: “I recalled for you the kindness (‘Chesed’) of your youth…”’ (Jeremiah 2:2).
It was this ‘Chesed’ of keeping the Torah out of love and not just out of a covenantal contract in the way described above that He recalled at the time that the Israelites had sinned to such a degree as to be deserving of the First Exile.
Some ideas for this essay were from Herskovits S., ‘Rays of the Sun’ pp.160-3.
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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