This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (Ex. 21:1 – 24:18) outlines God’s rules that Moses is to set before the Israelites. They are a compendium of civil and criminal laws and social and religious precepts that will have to be obeyed in order that Israel remain God’s covenant people. After Moses repeats these laws to the people, they declare, “All that God has spoken, we will hear, and we will do!”.
Following this acceptance, a strange ritual takes place. Moses, Aaron, Aaron’s sons Nadav and Abihu and seventy of the elders of Israel , “And they saw the God of Israel; and there was under His feet the like of a paved work of sapphire stone, and the like of the very heaven for clearness. And upon the nobles of the children of Israel He laid not His hand; and they beheld God, and did eat and drink” (Ex. 24:10-11). This same God, a few chapters from now, will tell Moses that no human can see God’s face and live. ). God, who has placed such emphasis on being incorporeal, not only allows Moses and the elders to see Him, but to eat and drink before Him!
Modern academic commentators explain this passage by comparing it to ancient suzerainty treaties in which the vassal people ate a meal with the king to seal the treaty. Rabbinic commentaries on the Torah generally understand that Moses and the leaders experienced a prophetic vision, rather than actually “seeing God”. What I love about it is that a long list of very earth-bound laws and precepts, of concrete and understandable rules about daily life comes a powerful other-worldly experience of the ineffable Presence.