Toward the end of Parashat Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18), we are told that Moses, Aaron and the 70 elders of Israel “saw the God of Israel” (Exodus 24:10). Following the descriptions of the fire and smoke on Mount Sinai, when God granted the Torah to Israel, the text reports in a straightforward manner on the vision beheld by the group headed by Moses. Readers who aspire to see God, to get a glimpse of him close at hand, can now envision him – at least to the extent that the words allow them to do so.
However, the second half of this verse shifts from factual reporting to revealing two complex images: “and there was under his feet the like of a paved work of sapphire stone, and the like of the very heaven for clearness” (Exod. 24:10). In the same breath that the Torah allows readers to catch a glimpse of God, as it were, it then tries to conceal him from their eyes. These images – which describe not the Almighty, but what lies under his feet – distance readers from any possibility of imagining what he looks like. Indeed, the verse clarifies the limits of divine revelation that readers are allowed to reach; they are allowed to know that it is possible to see God, but they are forbidden from knowing what he looks like.
For the sages, the vague image of what lies under God’s feet serves as the basis for an allegorical reading of the biblical text, in the following midrash: “Whenever Israel is enslaved, it is as if God himself is also enslaved together with them, as it is written, ‘and they saw the God of Israel [and there was under his feet the like of a paved work of sapphire stone]’” (Sifre, Numbers 84).
The idea that God is enslaved with his people, Israel, appears frequently in the sages’ homilies, although the link in this particular verse seems rather strange. What connection is there between God’s enslavement and the sapphire stone?
Citing Rabad’s interpretation of the verse, Talmud scholar Menahem Kahana proposes that we note the “midrashic charge” that the verse carries with it – which appears, for example, in a homily on the verse in Sifre Zuta: “It is written, ‘the like of a paved work of sapphire stone’ and this term ‘paved work of livnat hasapir [sapphire stone]’ recalls livenim [the bricks] God’s children made in Egypt” (Sifre Zuta, Numbers 10:35).
The connection the homily draws between the “paved work of sapphire stone” and the bricks made in Egypt underscores the concept that God was with Israel during their bondage in that country, when they worked with “mortar and brick” (Exod. 1:14). Citing this “midrashic link,” the homilist regards the term “paved work of sapphire stone” as proof that God enslaved himself together with Israel in the very bricks they fashioned in Egypt.
The homilist cites other examples from the text, supporting the concept of God being present with his people throughout their difficult periods. Three are presented: one from Isaiah, relating to God joining Israel during times of national suffering, and two from Genesis, describing how he is with his people even when individuals among them (for example, the author of Psalms and Joseph, respectively) suffer.
“It is written, ‘In all their affliction he was afflicted’ [Isaiah 63:9]. This verse talks about times when the entire nation suffers, but what about instances where individual members of that nation suffer? We read the following verse in the Bible, ‘He shall call upon me, and I will answer him[; I will be with him in trouble]’ [Psalms 91:15]. And there is also this verse: ‘And Joseph’s master took him [and put him into the prison ... But the Lord was with Joseph]’ [Genesis 39:20-21]” (Sifre Zuta, Numbers 10:35).
The above tractate goes on to discuss far-reaching theological ramifications that lead the homilist to a virtuosic peak of interpretation. The last verse in this homily comes from 2 Samuel 7, where David turns to God, blessing him and recalling the wonders the Almighty has performed for his people. Inter alia, David describes to God how God himself took Israel out of Egypt in the Exodus.
The finale of the same homily in Sifre revolves around this verse: “It is written, ‘from before Thy people, whom thou didst redeem [lit., to thee, or, with thyself] out of Egypt, the nations and their gods’ [2 Samuel 7:23]. Rabbi Eliezer says: Israel took their idol worship with them when they left Egypt and when they crossed the Red Sea. What idol worship did they take? The statue of Micha. Rabbi Akiva says: Were this verse not written in the Bible, one could not make such a statement, namely, that it is as if Israel is telling God, ‘[Thy people,] whom thou didst redeem with thyself [out of Egypt].’”
Rabbi Eliezer thus explains that the term “the nations and their gods” refers to Israel and the false gods they had become attached to. In a slightly anachronistic touch, the false gods are represented in his view by the statue of Micha.
Rabbi Akiva disagrees. He reads this term differently, interpreting it as a reference to Israel and the God of Israel. According to scholar Kahana, Rabbi Akiva is interpreting “[Thy people,] whom thou didst redeem with thyself [out of Egypt]” in accordance with the rules of Aramaic grammar and the customary phraseology of the sages. Thus, Rabbi Akiva interprets the word lecha, which literally means “to thyself or for thyself,” as “with thyself.” However, he prefaces this reading by saying, “Were this verse not written in the Bible, one could not make such a statement.” In other words, “The Bible makes a statement that I as a commentator would never dare make.”
According to noted philosopher Moshe Halbertal, classical rabbinical homilists took the same approach when expressing ideas that were not completely congruent with a literal reading of the biblical text – especially, anthropomorphic ideas. In line with Rabbi Akiva’s reading of 2 Samuel 7, God willingly goes into bondage and redeems himself together with Israel in the Exodus; thus, the relationship between God and Israel takes on an unusually intimate character.
This concept, argues Halbertal, undermines the hierarchical relationship between the Almighty and his mortal creations. The homilist, the philosopher explains, must therefore use the above “indirect” formula to express this radical idea, and to present a purportedly authoritative source that in fact undermines authority.
Actually, the homilist’s surprising conclusion is not out of step with the working assumption expressed in the midrash from Sifre: “Whenever Israel is enslaved, it is as if God himself is also enslaved together with them.” If God willingly binds himself to Israel in Egypt, he redeems himself together with his people during the Exodus.
The image of God in this week’s Torah reading is thus one of a deity who goes into exile with Israel and then liberates himself when he liberates them. Readers who seek God will know from the above verses from this reading that God can be seen. Although such readers cannot know what he looks like, they do know that the vague image described here provides us with a critical detail in God’s “biography” – explaining that he is a dynamic deity who willingly exiles himself during a period when his face is apparently concealed, and liberates himself from that exile together with his readers.