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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.
QUESTIONS ON THE TEXT OF THE PARASHA, FOLLOWING RASHI'S COMMENTARY
Note: The nature of the text is such that reference to Rashi is vital to link it with its Halachic meanings.
1. Although the Torah permits an Israelite to acquire a Hebrew slave, it deeply frowns on the practice. Where may that be seen in (a) the text (b) Rashi's commentary to the Parasha?
2. How, according to the text and Rashi, is justice applied to manslaughter?
3. How are the words 'an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth' (21:24) legally interpreted by Rashi?
4. In which situation does the Torah give the individual an ownership of public property, and with what results?
5. Where Reuben's ox fatally attacks Shimon's ox, when does he pay half damages, and when does he pay full damages?
6. From where may it be learnt, following Rashi, that one may kill in self-defense?
7. Following the Talmud's understanding of the relevant verses of the Torah (quoted by Rashi), what are the differences in liabilities between the following:
(a) a person who looks after your goods for nothing.
8. What powers does the Torah give to the Courts to deal with the offences of (a) seduction and (b) rape of a completely single woman?
9. The text states that 'one must neither taunt (toneh) nor oppress (tichatzenu) the stranger' (22:20). What is the difference between those two words according to the sources brought by Rashi?
10. What is the difference, given by the sources quoted by Rashi, between the prohibition of taking bribes (23:8), and the prohibition of perverting justice (Deut. 16:19)?
11. When Moses and the leaders of the Israelites began the ascent of Mount Sinai, 'they saw the G-d of Israel, and under His feet was the likeness of sapphire brickwork, and it was the essence of the heavens in purity' (24:10). What is the meaning of this sentence according to Rashi?
12. What, according to Saadia Gaon (quoted by Rashi), is the relationship between the Ten Commandments and the 613 Mitzvot?
ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS ON THE TEXT OF THE PARASHA, FOLLOWING RASHI'S COMMENTARY
1. The fact that the laws of taking a Hebrew slave act against the interests of the owner would indicate that the Torah wishes to discourage the practice. Thus a person who entered slavery as a convicted thief (22:2) who was sold by the court to raise the funds to pay his victims (following Rashi) may only serve for six years. Furthermore, the Torah disdains the Hebrew slave who spurns his freedom and wishes to serve beyond the six year period. His ear is pierced with an awl at the door (21:6). As Rashi quotes from the Talmud, let it be the ear that heard 'you must not steal' at Sinai be the organ that is pierced (as theft caused the person to be sold into slavery). Let the Israelite ear be pierced, as it heard that Israelites are servants to G-d (Lev. 25:55) and not to other people. And it should be at the doorpost - as the doorpost symbolizes the freedom that the Hebrew slave rejected - and on which the Israelites put the blood of the freedom offering - the blood of the Passover offering in Egypt.
2. Where a person 'did not lie in ambush' (21:13), and killed accidentally, G-d would provide a place of refuge - in one of the 'cities of refuge' designated after the laws in Num. 35 and Deut. 19. However, in describing the case of an accidental murder, the Torah states that 'G-d had caused it to come to his hand.' (21:13). It is a fundamental principle of the Torah that events are not haphazard. If a person did kill someone by accident, he should realize that G-d caused it. He must have committed a sin that went unpunished, and his current victim must have been guilty of a capital offence that went undetected. (See Rashi to 21:13)
3. The meaning of the words 'an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth' is that the magnitude of the injury must be legally assessed and due financial compensation be paid.
4. The Torah gives the individual an ownership of public property when he digs pit in the street and does not adequately safeguard the public. It calls the person 'the owner of the pit' (21:34) - saying that even though it is in the public thoroughfare, he is treated as though 'he is the owner' and he is liable for any damages it causes.
5. He pays half damages when the ox was not known to be a dangerous beast - on the first and second attack. Once it is established as such, the owner is liable for full damages if he does not take full precautions in safeguarding it from the public.
6. The Torah states: 'If a thief is discovered when tunneling in, and he is struck and he dies, there is no blood guilt on his account'. (22:1) That is understood to mean that since the householder will fight to protect his property, it may be assumed that the thief would be prepared to overpower and if necessary, kill the owner. The wider legal application of this law is that killing is permitted in self-defense - if someone comes to kill you, act first to kill him - 'there is no blood guilt on his account'.
7. Following the verses as explained by the Talmud and quoted by Rashi:
(a) a person who looks after your goods for nothing: liable only for negligence or unauthorized use of the article.
8. In both cases it is a fifty-shekel fine. [Derived from Deut 22:29. It appears that the G-d, not the court, makes the distinction between seduction and rape, and He intervenes to settle the account, treating each case on its individual merits. Compare with the answer to #2, above.]
9. The word 'toneh' means to taunt him - verbally - to remind him of his previous murky background and past, or even generally insult hi. 'Tilchatzenu' oppressing - means extorting him financially.
10. Perverting justice involves taking bribes to decide the case in X's favor even though it may involve a miscarriage of justice. Taking bribes concerns taking money from a party to judge the case correctly. The Torah lays testimony that a judge that takes money from litigants cannot judge fairly even if he wants to: 'for the bribes blinds those who see and corrupts words that are just'. (23:8)
11. Rashi, citing the Midrash, interprets this passage as follows. They saw a vision of G-d throughout the period of slavery in Egypt. During that time, God kept a sapphire brick at His feet, as it were, as a constant reminder of Israel's servitude. But when the Israelites were freed, His joy was as radiant as the very essence of Heaven.
12. According to Saadia Gaon - quoted by Rashi - each one of the 613 mitzvot comes under the head of one of the Ten Commandments. Thus the Ten Commandments are the entire laws of the Torah in short. (See Rashi to 24:12)
OTHER COMMENTARIES ON THE PARASHA.
1. Why, on several occasions in the Parasha, is the term 'elokim' used for human judges? - according to (a) Ibn Ezra and (b) the Ramban.
2. Why, according to the Talmud (Bava Kamma 79b - quoted by Rashi) is the penalty for stealing, slaughtering, and selling a sheep less that doing the same thing things to an ox?
3. What is the meaning of G-d's declaring 'Do not execute the innocent and the righteous, for I will not acquit the wicked' (23:7), according to Ibn Ezra?
4. Why, according to Ibn Ezra, are the milk and meat prohibitions expressed by the Torah as 'You shall not cook a kid in its mother's milk?' (23:19)
5. G-d declared that He would 'send an angel' before the Israelites 'to protect' them 'on the way... to the place that I have prepared' (23:20). To what specific circumstances was G-d referring to according to (a) Rashi and (b) the Ramban?
6. When, according to (a) Rashi, and (b) the Ramban, did the Israelites declare: "All that G-d has said - we will do and we will obey"? (24:7)
7. The text states that after the elders of Israel saw the sacred vision of G-d 'they ate and they drank'. (24:11) How is their conduct viewed by (a) Rashi and (b) the Ramban?
ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS FROM OTHER COMMENTARIES ON THE PARASHA.
1. Both explanations emphasize the close connection between the work of the judges and the work of the Almighty. Thus the word 'elokim' for judges also can mean G-d. Ibn Ezra makes the connection in stressing that the court applies and carries out G-d's law on earth. The Ramban, however, focuses on the Divine Presence - namely, that His presence and influence rest upon the judges.
2. The Talmud gives two reasons. R. Yochanan ben Zakai says that it is because the Torah takes into account the humiliation suffered by the thief. The ox is merely led, but the act of stealing a sheep means that the thief has to suffer the embarrassment of carrying it on his shoulder as he makes his escape. This is an important lesson in showing how important it is to respect other people's feelings in everyday life. R. Meir holds that the theft of the ox is more serious because it deprives the owner of the loss of productive work in his field - implying the importance that the Torah attaches to honest labor.
3. Following Ibn Ezra, the words 'Do not execute the innocent and the righteous', refer to the accused being innocent of the offence for which he is charged. Even though the judge knows that this defendant is guilty and deserving of death because of other things he has done, the meaning of the above phrase is that it is forbidden to rid society of a menace by finding him guilty of a crime that he did not commit. The judge should rely on G-d's pledge that He will see to it that justice catches up with the criminal: 'for I (G-d) will not acquit the wicked'.
4. Ibn Ezra stresses that the prohibitions of meat and milk are recorded in this way to teach that a person should also show sensitivity to nature and the way in which he interacts with it. Not cooking a young goat in its mother's milk cultivates a degree of sensitivity. Although the Torah permits one to eat meat, and generally to partake of the Creation, one should do so in such a way as to promote sensitivity and refinement to all living things, and not callousness, indifference, and greed.
5. The angel that He would send before the Israelites 'to protect' them 'on the way... to the place that (He) has prepared' is referring to the future sin of the Golden Calf - according to Rashi. G-d told Moses (33:2) that He would withdraw His presence from the Israelites and, instead, send an angel to lead them into the Promised Land. The Ramban, however, holds that this prophecy was not fulfilled in Moses' lifetime - for G-d did relent and He agreed to lead the people Himself (33:15-17). This verse refers to the angel which appeared to Joshua and identified himself as the head of G-d's legion (Josh. 5:13-15) as he was making his preparations to conquer the Promised Land - starting with Jericho.
6. According to Rashi, the story of the covenant, containing the words "everything that G-d has said, we will do and we will obey" occurred before the Ten Commandments - and that this story is not in chronological order: 'ein mukdam u-meuchar ba-Torah'. The Ramban however accepts this maxim in very few cases - maintaining that this Parasha is in chronological order and that the events described in this chapter all took place after the Ten Commandments.
7. According to Rashi, following the Tanchuma, 'they ate and they drank' records that the Israelite elders did not accord due respect to the intensely revealed Divine Presence. Although they deserved to die, G-d did not 'stretch out His hand' (24:11) to harm them, so as not to bring grief to the joy of the Giving of the Torah. The Ramban, however, understands the conduct of the elders more favorably. He holds that they were able to eat and drink normally, not coming to any harm - even though they had a holy prophetic vision that normally would be beyond the human capacity to endure.
Why is the prohibition of taking bribes (23:8-9) put next to that of oppressing a stranger (23:10)?
My own attempts to deal with that issue may be found in the archives for 5761 respectively in Shema Yisrael - on Parashat Mishpatim.
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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