Torah Portion of the Week: Mixed Signals

Parashat Mishpatim.

'Moses Breaks the Tablets of the Law,' by Gustav Doré (from 'Doré's English Bible,' 1866).
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Parashat Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18) contains the codex laws God transmits to Moses. According to one of the narrative threads in the chapters on the granting of the Torah, God announces the Ten Commandments to all Israel, to establish Moses’ status as mediator between the people and God. According to the plan, Moses will return to the Israelites and convey to them the laws in detail. These commandments will be the heart of the covenant between God and Israel. That covenant will be based on the initial consent of Israel, but will require ratification after the commandments’ are transmitted.

This indeed happens at the end of the portion: “Moses went and repeated to the people all the commands of the Lord and all the people answered with one voice, saying, ‘All the things that the Lord has commanded we will do!’” (Exod. 24:3). Moses builds an altar, positioning at the foot of the mount 12 pillars to represent the “twelve tribes of Israel” (Exod. 24:4), performs a typical covenantal ritual that includes the offering of sacrifices and a meal – “and they ate and drank” (Exod. 24:11). Moses throws half the blood from the sacrifices on the altar, which represents God, and half on Israel, declaring, “This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord now makes with you concerning all these commands” (Exod. 24:8). The story includes the writing down of God’s words in the “record of the covenant” (Exod. 24:7) by Moses and subsequently by God on the stone tablets.

However, the anticipated sequence of events whereby Moses hears God’s laws and then conveys them to Israel, is interrupted by another commandment, which apparently belongs to another story: “Then he said to Moses, ‘Come up to the Lord, with Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel, and bow low from afar’” (Exod. 24:1).

Why does God summon Israel’s leaders to ascend the mountain? This seems to be the continuation of the conversation between Moses and God from Parashat Yitro last week, where, alongside the story of the auditory divine revelation preceding the oral transmission of the commandments, another story emerges, describing the visual revelation of God, “in the sight of all the people, on Mount Sinai” (Exod. 19:11).

This other story deals extensively with the question of who is authorized to see God and from what proximity. After establishing restrictions and prohibitions concerning the ascension of Mount Sinai, God summons Moses to go up. Once Moses does so, God demands that he descend and again warn Israel: “Go down, warn the people not to break through to the Lord to gaze, lest many of them perish” (Exod. 19:21). Moses reminds God that he has already warned Israel: “But Moses said to the Lord, ‘The people cannot come up to Mount Sinai, for you warned us saying, ‘Set bounds about the mountain and sanctify it’” (Exod. 19:23). God, nonetheless, insists and Moses must descend and again warn Israel.

In contrast with the repeated warnings against Israel’s ascending, we read in Parashat Mishpatim: “Then he said to Moses, ‘Come up to the Lord.’” The usual order of words in the Torah is, however, reversed here in the original Hebrew text, so that it reads: “And to Moses he said,” indicating a contrast. The real syntactic meaning is, “But to Moses he said.” Unlike Israel, warned time and time again not to draw too near to God, Moses is thus invited to approach, with a select group of Israel’s leaders. Even within this group there is a specific hierarchy: “Moses alone shall come near the Lord; but the others shall not come near” (Exod. 24:2). Although they may ascend the mount together with Moses, they must not view God at close hand. Unlike the leaders, “the people [shall not even] come up with him” (Exod. 24:2).

As is the Torah’s usual practice, the various depictions of God’s revelation alternate. After the establishment of the covenant, which apparently belongs to the auditory story, but before the continuation of the auditory story concerning God’s writing his words on the stone tablets – we encounter the implementation of the command from the visual story: “Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel ascended; and they saw the God of Israel: under his feet there was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity. Yet he did not raise his hand against the leaders of the Israelites; they beheld God” (Exod. 24:9-11).

The “leaders of the Israelites” are an elite, distinguished from the rest of Israel. God does not “raise his hand” against them, despite the sweeping warning – “Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death: no hand shall touch him, but he shall be either stoned or shot; beast or man, he shall not live” (Exod. 19:12-13) – because God explicitly invited them to ascend the mount. The biblical God has a body and there are descriptions of his being viewed. Also in our story, viewing God is not impossible but it is prohibited or considered dangerous. Through the warnings and limitations, God seeks to protect Israel, while its leaders are immune to this danger.

The continuation of the visual story in future Torah readings cannot be fully reconstructed: It includes confrontation with a grievous sin whose description is missing. In his book “Oracular Law and Priestly Historiography in the Torah,” Simeon Chavel hypothesizes that the sin is the unauthorized ascent of Mount Sinai. This is paradoxical literary logic, which appears elsewhere in the Pentateuch: If the question of proximity to the mountain and viewing God is the heart of the story, and if the story repeatedly mentions restrictions, prohibitions and warnings – one can logically assume the story will also describe the violation of the command.

Unlike the auditory tale, the visual one does concern law. God’s revelation before Israel is presented as an end in itself, not as a means for authorizing Moses as mediator or as a preparatory stage preceding the transmission of commandments. Moses receives unique status here – but as one who may approach God, not as legislator. His authorization to approach God later enables Moses, as we will see in future stories in the Torah, to deal with God’s rage and to protect Israel; it will also ensure God’s nearness to Israel. According to this story, God’s revelation at Mount Sinai leads to God’s proximity to Israel as expressed in the latter’s ability to see him; it also stresses the dangers of this closeness and establishes its boundaries.

All biblical quotations are taken from the JPS Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures, published 1985.