Parashat Mishpatim

Under God's Feet

How do we reconcile our desire to see God with God's statement that no one can see God and live?

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Provided by the Union for Reform Judaism, the central body of Reform Judaism in North America.

Parashah Overview

  • Interpersonal laws ranging from the treatment of slaves to the exhibition of kindness to strangers are listed. (Exodus 21:1-23:9)

  • Cultic laws follow, including the commandment to observe the Sabbatical Year, a repetition of the Sabbath injunction, the first mention of the Three Pilgrimage Festivals, rules of sacrificial offerings, and the prohibition against boiling a kid in its mother's milk. (Exodus 23:10-19)

  • The people assent to the covenant. Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel ascend the mountain and see God. Moses goes on alone and spends forty days on the mountain. (Exodus 24:1-18)

Focal Point

Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel ascended; and they saw the God of Israel: Under God's feet there was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity. Yet God did not raise God's hand against the leaders of the Israelites; they beheld God, and they ate and drank." (Exodus 24:9-11)

Your Guide

Compare the verses "And they saw the God of Israel" (Exodus 24:10) with "God said, 'You cannot see My face.'" (Exodus 33:20) What aspect of God do you think they saw?

Read the following verses as a compressed narrative: "For man may not see Me and live." (Exodus 33:20); "And they saw the God of Israel." (Exodus 24:10); "Yet God did not raise God's hand against the leaders of the Israelites." (Exodus 24:11); and "They beheld God, and they ate and drank." (Exodus 24:11) Do you think that they actually did see God and live?

Today we continue to accept that anthropomorphic images of God are meant as metaphors. What are some of the opportunities we have today to see God and live? How do we reconcile these with the teaching that we cannot see God and live?

Although seventy-four people presumably could agree on seeing the pavement below God, they did not have a consensus on what it was like to behold God. Therefore, the pavement was included in the text, but what they saw of God was not. Consider a moment when you believe you "saw God" (literally or metaphorically). How was your vision unique? Did the experience leave you feeling grateful for life or awed that you had survived?

By the Way…

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Rabbi Vered L Harris

Rabbi Vered L. Harris is the educator at Congregation Beth Torah, Overland Park, KS.