Ki Tissa: Betsalel

See, I have singled out by name Betsalel, son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. I have endowed him with a divine spirit of wisdom, ability and knowledge in every kind of craft to make designs for work in gold, silver and copper, to cut stones for setting and to carve wood – to work in every kind of craft. (Shemot 31:1-5)

Amid the mud and heaps of straw
he pictured shapes and patterns,
his nimble hands enacted
the blue-prints of his mind.

He mastered mixing mortar
to the requisite consistency
and laid the bricks adeptly
in regulated lines.

He stared at soaring monuments
that towered in the skies
estimating angles
with his engineer’s eye.

From where, though, did he learn
to hammer silver, gold and bronze;
to fashion gems, and chisel wood;
embroider, spin and weave;
imbuing sacred objects
with a word-defying grace?

Alone, he stands, unmoving
in the shadow of God’s wings:
a vision floats before his eyes
and wisdom fills his heart.

As light rays are refracted
through a crystal’s many sides
he disperses God-sent knowledge,
to realize His design.


In Parashat Ki Tissa, we learn about Betsalel, a phenomenally gifted artist, who takes over from Moses in the building of the Mishkan – the Tabernacle. In the commentary of the JPS, the Etz Hayim notes on the phrase in which God tells Moses about Betsalel, “I have endowed him with a divine spirit” (Shemot 31:3) that Moses had supposed that he would have to build the sacred vessels for the Tabernacle himself. God now advises him that despite his own great spiritual endowment, there are other Israelites with the requisite skills who will fashion the sacred artifacts intended to draw the people close to God. Furthermore, to produce commonplace articles requires only the ability to follow instructions, but to construct holy vessels that will channel the mind towards the sacred, divine inspiration is also required.
We learn that Betsalel is multi-talented: he is knowledgeable about every type of craft: he works in silver, gold and copper; he can cut precious stones and carve wood; he designs, embroiders, weaves.
He seems to be a prodigy, as the Talmud in Sanhedrin 69b tells us that he became the master designer and builder of the Tabernacle at the precocious age of 13!
In a commentary on the parasha from 2014, http://learn.jtsa.edu/content/commentary/ki-tissa/5774/arts-and-crafts-commentary-parashat-ki-tissa, Dr Alan Cooper points out that there are two major aspects of the Torah’s account of the construction of the Mishkan that seem to defy explanation. The first is from where did this nomadic people, moving through the desert, acquire all the precious materials required to undertake the building of this ornate edifice. (Dr Cooper notes, “A conservative estimate of the material requirements would include an unspecified amount of acacia wood (what the Septuagint calls “wood that does not rot”), more than a ton of gold, more than three tons of silver, and at least two and a half tons of bronze, along with considerable quantities of dyed fabrics, animal hair, skins, hides, precious stones, oil, and spices.” And the second issue questions who among this band of erstwhile slaves and those who wandered with them, could possibly possess the requisite skills to fashion these materials into the Mishkan and its vessels?
Dr Cooper says that this week’s parasha answers the latter question when it announces the “divine appointment of the principal artisan who will carry out the grand project.”
The Ramban observes: “Ordinarily it would have been impossible for there to be an expert Israelite craftsman. The Israelites were enslaved in Egypt, consigned to hard labor, and experienced with bricks and mortar, so there hardly would have been anyone skilled in fine craftsmanship. They had neither observed it nor apprenticed in it, so no one was trained. Even someone skilled in a single craft would have forgotten it while preoccupied with the labor of bricks and mortar. How much more so one who had been perfectly skilled in all manner of craftsmanship, with precious metals, stone, wood, and textiles! Therefore, it was a wonder that there was found amongst them such a great wise-hearted man who knew how to work with silver and gold, and in cutting of stones and in carving of wood, a craftsman, an embroiderer, and a weaver. For even amongst those who study before the experts, you cannot find one who is proficient in all these crafts. And even those who know them and are used to doing them, if their hands are continually engaged in work with lime and mud, they lose the ability to do with them such artistic and delicate work.”
Rabbi Cooper continues that Rabbeinu Bahya observes that Betsalel’s creative gifts are of a particularly godly character: “The sages expounded (B. Berachot 55a): Bezalel knew how to combine the letters by which heaven and earth were created. Here it is written, “I have imbued him with the spirit of God, with wisdom (chochmah), insight (tevunah), and knowledge (da’at),” and elsewhere it is written, “The Lord founded the earth by wisdom (chochmah); He established the heavens by understanding (tevunah); by His knowledge (da’at) the depths burst apart, and the skies distilled dew” (Proverbs 3:19–20).
The artist who “creates” the Tabernacle — a world in microcosm — possesses the same metaphysical attributes by which God created the world (chochmah/tevunah/da’at, according to Proverbs). God’s gracious gift of those attributes to Bezalel effectively turns the artisan into a Creator, one who is “qualified to transform inert, profane matter into a semblance of the celestial.” ”

In a further commentary on Ki Tissa from 2012, http://ziegler.aju.edu/Default.aspx?id=8153, Rabbi Cheryl Peretz notes that as the Torah itself reports, Betsalel’s prodigious abilities are “not simply skills he has acquired along the way, but he has been singled out by God, endowed with natural talent which is nothing short of God’s spirit residing in him.” She adds that two Medieval commentators, Rashi and Ramban, advance this view.
Rashi teaches that each of the three words used to describe his gifts relates to another facet of his skill. Chochmah – wisdom, is the learning acquired from others. Rabbi Peretz says, “Wisdom is the plain, factual knowledge, the sort of stuff that one can find in encyclopedias, or in the case of the artisan, this is the mechanics of the artistry that one person can teach another: what tools to use, techniques for metals, and the like.” Tevunah, insight, is grasping something “through one’s own intelligence from within that which one has already learned. This is the original thinking that one has through learning from others. In other words, by learning the mechanics from others, Bezalel was able to add to that knowledge, innovating new skills and expertise inspired by that which he learned from others.” Da’at, or knowledge, however, is “ruach Elohim – the holy spirit of God. For the artist, this is what we usually refer to as inspiration, the indescribable, intangible spirit that moves the artist to fashion a unique creation.”
Dr Peretz too, relates to the improbability (as Ramban’s commentary reminds us) that Betsalel should have acquired such giftedness. She says, “No one would have expected Bezalel, a recently released slave, to possess such innate talent in crafts to which he had no exposure. But, says Ramban, he also possessed sacred knowledge that only Moses possessed up until this point in the life of the Jewish people: “Moreover, he [Bezalel] was a great sage in wisdom, and in ability, and in knowledge to understand the secret of the Tabernacle and all its vessels, why they were commanded and to what they hinted.” “Therefore,” Nachmanides concludes, “God said to Moses that when he sees this wonder he should know that, I filled him with the spirit of God (Exodus 31:3).” ”
She concludes, “Bezalel, it seems, understood that the highest aspiration for his God-given talent was to put it to good use in creating the tabernacle, and therefore, bring others closer to God. That is the truest sense of ruach Elohim – when the holy spirit of God inspires a person to share his or her talents, offering a gift to the world that would otherwise be missing. Such was the case with Bezalel…”

In another commentary on Ki Tissa from 2013, http://learn.jtsa.edu/content/commentary/ki-tissa/5773/art-torah, Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz suggests that too frequently, “the arts are underappreciated in the Jewish community.” He notes that “a common misperception…equates the visual arts with idolatrous practice.” But, he says, here, embedded in the parasha we learn of the individual who is responsible for fashioning the Mishkan and all its beautiful vessels.
Rabbi Berkowitz, too, highlights Rashi’s differentiation between wisdom, understanding, and knowledge. He says, though, that as one acquires wisdom from others, it requires that “…one must be in the midst of and connected to a community to be imbued with chochmah, wisdom. One may not be an island unto one’s self. Wisdom comes from shared experience and symbiotic interaction.” He continues, “Rashi explains understanding as a sense born of one’s own heart and soul. Understanding (tevunah) flows from the heart of a human being. Once a lesson is learned and internalized, understanding and insight follow.” And finally he addresses knowledge. “The gift of knowledge, Rashi asserts, is the result of God’s inspiration. Knowledge (da’at) reflects the sacred spirit at the heart of God. Horizontal experience then leads to vertical inspiration. That is to say, the wisdom of community leads to a deeper understanding of self and ultimately to knowledge of God’s Presence.”
Rabbi Berkowitz concludes, “Taken collectively, these three attributes (wisdom, understanding, and knowledge) also make up the spirit of the artist. Once these qualities meld, a tabernacle or, more literally, a dwelling place of God comes to fruition. In his timeless commentary, Rashi teaches us far more than solely about the building of the biblical Tabernacle. He teaches us about the unique soul of the artist and the endless potential to experience the divine through the handiwork of a human creator.”

Finally, in a commentary on Vayakhel-Pikkudei from 2015, http://learn.jtsa.edu/content/commentary/vayak-hel-pekudei/5775/artist%E2%80%99s-insight, Rabbi Lilly Kaufman addresses the relationship between Betsalel and his mission. She says, “We tend to think of Bezalel as an obedient craftsman, rather than as an original artist. He did not originate the tabernacle design, he merely interpreted God’s plan and executed it with precision…” However, she cites a Midrash recounted in the Talmud, in Berachot 55a, “R. Samuel b. Nahmani said in the name of R. Johanan: Betsalel was so called on account of his wisdom. At the time when the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses; Go and tell Betsalel to make Me a tabernacle, an ark and vessels, Moses went and reversed the order, saying, Make an ark and vessels and a tabernacle. Betsalel said to him: “Moses, our Teacher, as a rule a man first builds a house and then brings vessels into it; but you say, Make me an ark and vessels and a tabernacle. Where shall I put the vessels that I am to make? Can it be that the Holy One, blessed be He, said to you, Make a tabernacle, an ark and vessels? Moses replied: Perhaps you were in the shadow of God and knew!”
Rabbi Kaufman suggests that Betsalel has a “spiritual artistic wisdom.” She says, “Moses himself acknowledges that Bezalel is close to God, noting that his very name is betzel El, in the shadow of God. Is there something about the artist which outshines our greatest law-giver at this moment, according to the rabbis?”
She continues, “A great artist, sublimely in tune with the Creator, senses a deep order and a great, joyous energy in Creation, and seeks to capture these in his own work. Bezalel knew that Moses could not be presenting God’s views correctly because he was an artist in tune with God….It is a little surprising that the midrash in Berakhot assigns scriptural accuracy to the artist Bezalel rather than to Moses. Perhaps its author was very fond of Bezalel, the meticulous craftsman, deeply acquainted with natural materials, with the artisans who shape them, and the people who bring them to God. Perhaps they [the rabbis] sensed that Bezalel parallels their own work, which engages the many gifts — of skill, wisdom, volunteer effort, and monetary contributions — brought with love by God’s people. Perhaps great art and great rabbinic thought are not so far apart after all.”

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Tetsaveh: Seeking answers

Aaron shall carry the names of the sons of Israel on the breastpiece of decision over his heart, when he enters the sanctuary, for remembrance before the Lord at all times. Inside the breastpiece of decision you shall place the Urim and Tumim, so that they are over Aaron’s heart when he comes before the Lord. Thus Aaron shall carry the instrument of decision for the Israelites over his heart before the Lord at all times. (Shemot 28: 29-30)

His eyes cannot detect the unrevealed
his ears cannot decipher hidden sounds
and secrets planted in Creation
can neither be unearthed.

Yet in the heights of yearning
to serve his people well
he lays the breast plate on his heart
and lovingly he holds their names

awaiting the illuminating glow.

In Parashat Tetzaveh we learn about the elaborate priestly garments that consecrated the Kohen Gadol – the High Priest, for service. Included among the sacred vestments was a breastplate, the choshen mishpat with twelve precious stones of different hues, arranged in four rows of three, upon which the names of the tribes were engraved: “The stones shall be with the names of the children of Israel, twelve in their names, engraved, each person with his name on it, for the twelve tribes” (Shemot 28:21). Inside the breastplate of judgment were placed some sort of oracular objects, the urim ve’tumim. Thus they would overlie Aaron’s heart when he came before God. Commentators speculate greatly on what the urim ve’tumim were and how they worked to seemingly channel God’s will. The Torah seems to assume that its reader knows what they are and gives neither instructions for the manufacture of the urim ve’tumim, nor an elaboration on how they work. They are mentioned in the Torah in only one further place: “So the Lord said to Moses, “Take Joshua son of Nun, a man in whom is the spirit of leadership,and lay your hand on him. Have him stand before Eleazar the priest and the entire assembly and commission him in their presence. Give him some of your authority so the whole Israelite community will obey him. He is to stand before Eleazar the priest, who will obtain decisions for him by inquiring of the Urim before the Lord. At his command he and the entire community of the Israelites will go out, and at his command they will come in.” (Bamidbar 27:18-21)
In an article on the urim ve’tumim, http://thetorah.com/the-urim-vetumim/, there is a summary of some commentators’ theories: firstly the view promulgated by the Talmudists (Yoma 73b) and expanded by Rashi (1041-1105) and the Ramban (1194-c.1270) on Shemot 28:30, that the urim ve’tumim was a piece of parchment on which the holy tetragrammaton was inscribed. The name is derived from “urim” related to “or – light”, implying shedding light on something obscure, and “tumim” being linked to “tam – whole”, implying that through this the truth would be ascertained. The urim ve’tumim were inserted inside the breastplate, and consulted in order to clarify the Divine will, when there were momentous issues to resolve. The letters on the stones, charged with the power of God’s holy name, would glow and relay the answer. The High Priest then had to assemble the letters into something meaningful, which resolved the dilemma. According to another view in the Talmud, mentioned further on, the letters actually jumped up and created the words themselves. The Ramban on Shemot 28:30) suggests that the urim ve’tumim correspond to two components of the answers; the letters lit up, and then they were combined in a complete and meaningful manner. According to him, there were separate divine names called Urim and Tumim, which were designated for each function, respectively, unlike Rashi’s view that only the tetragrammaton was inscribed on the urim ve’tumim.
Next is the Rambam’s view, in which the concept of magical amulets is inadmissible. The Rambam’s very detailed description attributes to the urim ve’tumim a mysterious Divine provenance. He maintains that the tumim were holy appellations by whose power the letters on the stones of the breastplate would glow and the priest would then decipher the message. Rabbi Menachem Kasher (1895-1983) notes that this view is also found in at least one Midrash and in the writings of several Geonim.
Then there is the rationalistic and practical explanation offered by Rabbi Joseph ben Isaac Bechor Shor of Orleans (12th century) who says that behind the name of each tribe on the Choshen Mishpat was placed a piece of paper on which was written the exact boundaries of the territories allotted to this specific tribe. Whenever a conflict would arise between the tribes over their precise boundaries, the high priest would easily solve the disputation by looking up the original boundaries recorded in the urim ve’tumim.
Ibn Ezra (1089-1164) a proficient astrologer, proposes an explanation, seen through the prism of his own expertise. He suggests that the urim ve’tumim were made of many gold and silver pieces, representing the universe and endowed with astrological powers – a form of astrolabe*. His view was accepted by other medieval rationalist scholars, but they clarified that this biblical astrolabe was much more powerful than contemporary astrolabes due to its Divine empowerment.
Finally, the urim ve’tumim were thought in more modern times to be a form of casting lots, which is a familiar procedure in the Tanach used to render decisions on complex matters, such as deciding which goat should be sent to Azazel and which should be sacrificed for God on Yom Kippur, or for dividing the portions of the land to the tribes of Israel. The decisions resulting from casting lots were considered divine messages, as we find in Proverbs (16:33) “We may cast lots in our lap, but  God determines how they fall.”

In an article on the Parasha http://ziegler.aju.edu/Default.aspx?id=5373, Rabbi Cheryl Peretz says “This level of divine inspiration [the urim ve’tumim] was one that was often consulted throughout Biblical times helping to illumine God’s will…Prophets were not always able to receive prophecy, yet the urim and tumim guaranteed revelation to the high priest, no matter who he was or what he did. In each such case, the reading of the urim and tumim led our ancestors to act on account of the findings and to change their lives in substantial and impactful ways.” She concludes, “Imagine, if like the priests, we too placed God’s mystery in the folds of our breastplate, so close to our heart… What would it be like if we too could hope to find God’s revelatory messages and truth emanating from our breastpiece; if we too could see the light of the letters and unscramble the words of God’s message to find inspiration?”

In a commentary on Tetsaveh http://limmud.org/publications/limmudononeleg/5772/tetzaveh/ Rabbi Dr Eliezer Shore also addresses the urim ve’tumim. He wonders why the breastplate and thus the urim ve’tumim were designed to sit over Aaron’s heart, as opposed to in his hands to enable him to read the letters, or over his head perhaps to symbolize the intuition required to decipher the message? Rabbi Shore brings a teaching by Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen Rabinowitz of Lublin (1823 – 1900), one of the great Chasidic masters of the 19th century: “The world we live in is filled with deep and profound secrets. “The eye does not know what it sees nor the ears know what they hear,” said the Baal Shem Tov. There are secrets of the creation all around us – secrets of the soul, and of the presence of G-d lying beneath the surface of this world, waiting to be revealed.” Rabbi Shore adds that the Torah contains deep secrets: “On this, R. Tzadok writes: “If a person loves the Torah, the Torah loves him back and reveals to him all of her secrets, just as lovers do” (Tzidkat HaTzadik 198). When a person loves the Torah and commits himself to her wholeheartedly, pouring his entire heart and soul into its study, so, the Torah loves that person back, and reveals to him or her all of her secrets. Indeed, R. Kalonymus Kalman Shapira – the Piasetzener Rebbe – spoke of the Torah itself as a type of urim v’tumim, a prophetic text whose words and letters shine into a person’s heart the deepest secrets of creation.”

Rabbi Shore continues that, as with the Torah and the world itself, each human being carries deep secrets within the heart. Each “carries within him or herself a profound, though at times hidden, connection to G-d – a vision of a perfect world, dreams and pains and myriad unshared insights into life and truth.” He adds that Aaron the High Priest, who so loved his people, was cognizant of their most hidden secrets. “Thus, he carried the names of Israel upon his chest – that is, upon his heart. When he needed to discern a concealed matter relevant to the Jewish people, he would meditate upon the names of Israel and the letters would swell up. As R. Tzadok explains, Aaron’s heart would literally swell in love when thinking about the Jewish people, and the letters on the stone would enlarge in response, thus revealing G-d’s hidden will for the nation.”
Rabbi Shore concludes, “May Hashem help us to see, hear and perceive the deeper dimension of those around us; our families, friends and coworkers, and may we open our hearts in love, to find in all these places the hidden presence of G-d.”

*The astrolabe is a very ancient astronomical device for solving problems relating to time and the position of the Sun and stars in the sky.

Terumah: Cherubs

Make two cherubim of gold…at the two ends of the cover… Make one cherub at one end and the other cherub at the other end…The cherubim shall have their wings spread out above, shielding the cover with their wings. They shall face each other, the faces of the cherubim being turned toward the cover. Place the cover on top of the Ark, after depositing inside the Ark the Pact that I will give you. There I will meet with you, and I will impart [speak] to you — from above the cover, from between the two cherubim that are on top of the Ark of the Pact — all that I will command you concerning the Israelite people. (Shemot 25: 18 – 22)

Cherubs,
childlike features
soft and gentle,
receive each other
face to face,
wings spread forth
creating shelter.

And from that loving space
God’s voice is heard.


In a commentary on Parashat Teruma from 2003, http://ziegler.aju.edu/Default.aspx?id=5360, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson examines the significance of the cherubs. This commandment appears to violate the injunction against making graven images. He notes that cherubim were actually familiar images in the Ancient Near East. He says, “The Akkadian word ‘kuribu,’ originally meaning “to pray,” was used to describe creatures which were part human, part beast, and part bird. At pagan temples, statues and portraits of these cherubim would guard the entrance and petition the deities on behalf of the worshipers.” He notes that their presence in the Tabernacle perplexes the Rabbis throughout the generations. Rashi teaches that when Moses entered the Tabernacle to speak to God, a voice fell from Heaven to the place on the cover [of the ark] which was between the cherubs…”
Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson, cites the Talmud saying that these cherubs had faces like children (ke-rabbiya). Rabbi Artson suggests that they might symbolize “a purity, goodness and trust of the world found primarily in young children.”
In a blogpost from 2014, http://parshathoughtsmore.blogspot.co.il/2014/01/parashat-terumah-where-god-dwells.html, Dr Rachel Anisfeld observes that this parasha contains the instruction, “Ve’asu li mikdash veshachanti betocham – Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” (Shemot 25:8)
So she suggests that we are being directed to a way to draw God down to dwell among us. She notes that God’s voice would emanate from between this pair of child-like cherubs who faced each other and whose wings were stretched out creating a shelter – and she notes that the phrase for this position of their wings “sochechim bechanfeihem – shielding… with their wings” employs the same root as “sukkah” which denotes shelter.
So Dr Anisfeld asks, “Where does God dwell?” and responds, “He dwells in the places where we can turn to each other with the innocence and pure-heartedness of children, really deeply turn to each other, like a child before she is covered over by social concerns and self-consciousness. See each other in this deep, pure, whole-hearted way and create together a space of shelter, a container of love.
“God dwells in the containers of love that we create together. God is both the container, the One who holds us in love and shelter – who is Himself “pores sukkat shalom aleinu – spreading a sukkah of peace over us” – and also the One who is held by our container, by our love. He enters into the spaces where we create such containers, and Himself provides such a container, such a feeling of protection and love, for us to dwell in.”

In her book Kitchen Table Wisdom, Dr Rachel Naomi Remen is perhaps hinting at this creation of shelter when she talks about listening. She says, “Listening is the oldest and perhaps the most powerful tool of healing. It is often through the quality of our listening and not the wisdom of our words that we are able to effect the most profound changes in the people around us. When we listen, we offer with our attention an opportunity for wholeness. Our listening creates sanctuary for the homeless parts within the other person. That which has been denied, unloved, devalued by themselves and others. That which is hidden.”
She continues, “In this culture the soul and the heart too often go homeless. Listening creates a holy silence. When you listen generously to people, they can hear the truth in themselves, often for the first time. And in the silence of listening, you can know yourself in everyone. Eventually you may be able to hear, in everyone and beyond everyone, the unseen singing softly to itself and to you.”

Mishpatim: Where heaven and earth converge

“And these are the rules that you shall set before them…” (Shemot 21:1)

So this is where heaven and earth converge:
not at the peak of the mountain
but on the rock-strewn ground below;
not in the drama of thunder and lightning;
but in the tableau of day-to-day life –
in the passion and rage that tear at its fabric
and the safeguards that keep it intact;
in the ox that gores and the open pit
and the fire that withers the field;
in the care for the stranger, the orphan and widow;
in the quest for the presence of God.


In a commentary on Parashat Mishpatim from 2005, http://learn.jtsa.edu/content/commentary/shabbat-shekalimmishpatim/5765/reverence-contradictory-texts Dr Ismar Schorsch notes that the parasha commences with the letter “vav” meaning “and” which is regarded by most translations to be insignificant – the sentence is usually rendered as “These are the rules…” However, as Dr Schorsch points out, no letter in the Torah is regarded as irrelevant, and this one is no exception, so Rabbi Yishmael teaches that the word “and” links this parasha with the previous one. So this is a direct continuation of Parashat Yitro in which the people received the Torah at Mount Sinai.
In a commentary from 2011, http://learn.jtsa.edu/content/commentary/mishpatim/5771/routine-and-profound, Dr Barry Holtz takes up the theme, pointing out that the transition is very sharp, from the spiritual heights of Revelation, to “the nitty-gritty of daily life, the laws of slave and slaveholder, the details of petty feuds, of accidental death and injury, of the goring ox, the fires in the vineyard, and the thief in the night. We are, in other words, back in the midst of our existence, facing all its cares and concerns, both the fateful and the mundane.”
Dr Holtz continues, “I sometimes think of Parashat Mishpatim as a vast picture — painted by Pieter Brueghel the Elder perhaps — with life teeming and pulsating, spreading across a canvas dotted with little scenes of horror and triumph. What lies behind all of this is the Torah’s desperate plea for justice, for a world in which the Revelation at Sinai gets worked out in terms that make sense in real life. Parashat Mishpatim is an attempt to make the impossible equation of the variety of human experience — with all its energy, desire, selfishness, sacrifice, nobility, and more — somehow balance out. To find, in the end, equity and compassion.”
However, Dr Holtz notes that although Mishpatim is replete with laws regulating daily human existence, it closes with perhaps the most mystical episode in the entire Torah  in which Moses and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu and the seventy elders ascend Mount Sinai and and see God! “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” (Shemot 24:10). Dr Holtz says, “This is truly an extraordinary passage; particularly because we know from slightly later in the Torah that Moses is told that no one can see God and live (Shemot 33:20). In fact, in Parashat Mishpatim, immediately after the vision of God and the pavement of sapphire, the text says, “Yet He did not raise His hand against the leaders of the Israelites…” (Shemot 24:11), telling us, in other words, how remarkable an event this was: they saw God, but God allowed them to live nonetheless.”
Dr Holtz concludes, “So, in the end, Parashat Mishpatim is not so simple: it is not only the return to the common experience of day-to-day life after the Revelation at Sinai. It describes a mixture of both the routine and the profound after all—the human dilemmas of everyday life and the divine sapphire pavement. Rudolph Otto, the great scholar of religion in the early part of the 20th century, wrote about the “numinous,” the nonrational, mysterious dimension of existence that, on rare occasions, we are able to glimpse. Moses, Aaron, and the elders were granted that insight. But perhaps what we come to see here, in the juxtaposition of that story on the mountain and the many more ordinary cases brought earlier in the parashah, is the possibility that these two domains of existence are ever intertwined—and that both are holy.”
In a commentary that also addresses the mystical episode on the mountaintop, http://learn.jtsa.edu/content/commentary/shabbat-shekalimmishpatim/5772/standing-moses-mountaintop, Professor Arnold Eisen also notes the striking contrast between the “dry case law” and the other-worldly encounter that follows it. He says, “Scholars and commentators long asked why chapters devoted to the nuts and bolts of social order in the world as we know it are followed by an account of mystical encounter with the God Whom we can never fully know, the God Who transcends every order.” Professor Eisen asks, “How do the extraordinary events at the top of the mountain relate to what is meant to happen routinely down below?”
Professor Eisen submits that we may not have a vision of God like the one described, and in any event language cannot ever adequately portray what Moses and the others saw, and so he says, “You cannot “know” God in this way, the Torah says at many points, but you can know what God wants of you. Follow the mishpatim (laws) and other mitzvot, lead a life marked by justice and compassion, work to construct a society marked by these virtues, and you will, at the very least, know you are spending your days wisely, doing God’s will. You may even encounter God at various points along this Way of Torah, as Moses and the elders encountered God at the outset of the Way.
Readers of Torah get to stand right up there with Moses on the mountaintop, thanks to the dramatic account at the conclusion of Mishpatim. And we can be with him right down here too, as we follow the Torah’s directions to justice.”
In his book Hazmana LaParasha – Invitation to the Parasha, in a commentary on Mishpatim, Rabbi Noam Perl also comments on the extraordinarily abrupt transition from the elevated heights of Mount Sinai and the Revelation, to the depths of the mundane laws of day-to-day life, with its collateral injuries and damages. “This very sharp transition” he contends, “epitomises the uniqueness and essence of Torah, which deals concomitantly with both the elevated and the lowly aspects of life. It demands of those who follow the Torah to live concurrently in the world of nobility and lofty ideals on the one hand, and to deal with blemishes in the lung of an animal…on the other.” He concludes, “The very juxtaposition of these mundane-seeming laws with the peak of Divine Revelation on Mount Sinai, is indeed the root of the Giving of the Torah – the fusion between heaven and earth and the bringing down of the Godly ideal into the midst of the material world, with both its strengths and complexities, in order to repair the world and render it God’s kingdom.”