Parashat Mishpatim: Seeing is not believing

“And they saw the God of Israel…. They had a vision of the Divine and they ate and drank” (Exodus 24:10, 11).

“And they saw the God of Israel…. They had a vision of the Divine and they ate and drank” (Exodus 24:10, 11).
Towards the conclusion of the portion Mishpatim, immediately following God’s establishment of His covenant with Israel, we find a mystical vision of God which gives rise to a fascinating difference of opinion between Targum Onkelos (second century CE) and Rashi (1040-1105). The numinous character of the story deserves a careful reading.
“Moses then went up, along with Aaron, Nadab and Abihu and 70 of Israel’s elders. They saw the God of Israel, and under His feet was the likeness of sapphire brickwork, like the essence of the heavens in purity.  And [God] did not send forth His hand against these great men of the Israelites. They had a vision of the Divine and they ate and drank” (Exodus 24:9-11).
The Targum sees this incident in a very positive light. Having experienced the Revelation at the foot of the mountain, the leaders went up to the top and “saw, had a vision of” the Divine. “They suffered no damage” from this mystical experience, even though, in the talmudic recording of a much later “journey into the ‘Pardes,’” Elisha ben Abuya, Ben Azzai and Ben Zoma were seriously maimed by the experience, and only Rabbi Akiva emerged “whole.” “These [great men] saw the glory of God, and they rejoiced in their sacrifices which had been willingly accepted as if [they themselves] had eaten and drunk from them” (Targum ad loc).
Rashi takes the story much more literally, and is far more critical of the leaders’ actions. He maintains that when the Bible reports that God did not “send forth His hand” against these leaders, the Bible is hinting that they were worthy of  punishment. He cites the Midrash Tanhuma that they gazed upon God “with a vulgar and materialistic heart,” eating and drinking in the Divine Presence (Rashi, ad loc).
I believe that Rashi is “put off” by the words “and they saw” and “and they had a vision” – verbs of seeing rather than of hearing. In previous commentaries, I have contrasted “seeing” – which is merely external – with “hearing,” from the word shema, which means to internalize, to take into one’s being  (me’a is intestine) and to become internally transformed.
This is precisely how our sages understood the central maxim of our faith: “Shema Yisrael, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” Despite the legitimacy of interpretations of “your ears must hear what you express with your mouth” (you yourself must hear every word of the three paragraphs which you are reciting; you dare not sight read) and “shema – in any language which you understand,” the normative Halacha derives from shema that the one who recites it must internally accept upon himself the yoke of the Kingship of heaven (B.T. Brachot 13a). And it is this third interpretation which would translate shema as “internalize.”
The tragedy of the Israelites is that they experienced the Exodus through a superficial “seeing” rather than a more internal “hearing.” Just before the Revelation, God chides them: “You have seen what I have done to Egypt, how I carried you on eagles’ wings; but now if you will internalize, yes internalize [shamo’a, tishme’u] My voice and guard My covenant, only then will you be to Me a treasure…” (Exodus 19:4-6).
But the Israelites were not yet at the level of internalizing. They only “see” the sounds of the Revelation (ibid 20:15), and God re-states His problem at the end of the portion of Yitro: “You have [merely] seen that I spoke to you from the heavens” (ibid 20:19). Indeed, it is only when, toward the end of our portion of Mishpatim, the Israelites declare “na’aseh v’nishma,” we will perform [the commandments] and internalize [them], that God enters into the covenant with Israel.
And then, at the climax of the covenant, our aristocratic leadersregress into “seeing” – a superficial encounter which enables them tocrassly eat and drink in the presence of the Divine. God even attemptsto teach them with a vision of sapphire (sapir),from the verb to tell, to communicate a narrative. The story of theExodus from Egypt, and the Ten Commandments of morality is to be toldand heard from generation to generation in order to inform and etchwithin the very DNA of the nation the twin ideals of freedom andmorality.
But, alas, to no avail. This “seeing” of the aristocrats leads in astraight line to the worship of the Golden Calf, which turns aspiritual and soul-transforming ideal into a paltry and limited“image.”
We must wait for the portion of Ki Tisa (Ex. 30:11–34:35) to understand how God will teach the Israelites how to internalize.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.