Parasha Mishpatim: With body and soul

If you want to gauge people’s sanctity, look at them when they are eating at the table with their family and friends.

picture from the parasha_521 (photo credit: (
picture from the parasha_521
(photo credit: (
“And He did not stretch out His hand against the aristocrats of the children of Israel; and they gazed at God and they ate and drank” (Exodus 24: 11).
What is the best way to worship God? Does God prefer ascetic fasts and physical deprivation or celebration through food, wine, song and dance? A difficult sequence of verses in this week’s portion gives rise to this debate among the commentators.
The Israelites have experienced the revelation at Sinai, with its climactic sealing of the Covenant. “And [Moses] sent out the young men of the children of Israel, and they offered whole burnt offerings and sacrificed bulls to the Lord as peace offerings to God” (24:5).
Moses concludes the Covenant with all the Israelites, who cry out: “Whatever the Lord says, we shall do and we shall internalize.”
And then Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu and the 70 elders begin to climb Mount Sinai, “And they saw the Lord of Israel, and under His feet was the likeness of sapphire brickwork, like the essence of the Heavens for purity. And He did not stretch out His hand against the aristocrats of the children of Israel; and they gazed at God and they ate and dran.” (24:10, 11).
This representation of the sight beheld by the greatest leaders of Israel describes a vision of the heavenly realm surrounding the invisible Divine Being. The young men of Israel respond to this experience with celebrations: eating the sacrificial meats and drinking the wine libations.
Rashi comments that these young men looked, perhaps trying to see the Divine form, and for this, together with their vulgar behavior – eating and drinking at the height of an ethereal, spiritual experience – they were worthy of punishment; but God, in His infinite compassion, did not harm them.
Perhaps this episode was a precursor to the idolatrous worship of the Golden Calf, which took place only 40 days later. Then, the people “offered whole burnt offerings and brought peace offerings. The people sat to eat and drink, after which they rose up for an orgiastic celebration.”
From the beginning of this chapter, the emphasis in Hebrew is on “seeing” because in the absence of Moses’s physical presence, the nation was desperately seeking a God they could see.
This is one of the rare instances in which Rashi’s commentary departs from the Targum Onkelos (the only authorized translation of the Bible). Rashi criticizes these young men for eating and drinking at the height of their spiritual experience. The Targum, on the other hand, sees such a celebration as a worthy and noble reaction to the Divine acceptance of the sacrifices: “There was no harm done to the aristocrats of the children of Israel; they saw the glory of the Lord and rejoiced in their animal offerings, which were received with satisfaction by the Lord.”
I would argue that Targum is closer to the straightforward reading of the text. Rashi is uncomfortable with people trying to see God and then giving physical expression to their celebrations. For the Targum, so long as there is no physical representation of God and as long as God shows no displeasure with the actions of the young men, what they did was perfectly in order.
God is pure Spirit, but we human beings are not disembodied intellects or non-corporeal souls. Just as we were each created with a body, so must we celebrate God’s gifts with our bodies. The worship of the Golden Calf was a very different story. Then, the Israelites became obsessed with a god that could be seen, and so they created a physical god, a molten calf. Ultimately, they not only ate and drank from their sacrificial offerings; they rose up to orgiastic excess, hence they were then punished.
One final observation. It is relatively easy to worship God when fasting in synagogue; it is far harder to transform eating and drinking into a religious experience of thanksgiving. But I believe this is the great contribution that Judaism makes to the religious experience. We sanctify the body with the commandment of circumcision for men and mikve (ritual bath) for women. We attempt to sanctify our Shabbat table with wine and bread as a replica of God’s altar in the Holy Temple, which was always replete with the showbread and the wine libation.
The real test of the truly religious personality is not whether one can deny the physical, but whether one can sanctify it. And so the hassidim explain the adage in the Talmud: “There is no kiddush [sanctification of the wine], except in a place where an entire meal is being eaten” not only to refer to any specific commandment to connect the kiddush on Shabbat to a meal but also to refer to the whole of life.
If you want to gauge people’s sanctity, don’t examine them praying in the synagogue, look at them when they are eating at the table with their family and friends.