What did the Elders see?

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I

It could be that this dispute between the rishonim speaks to a fundamental difference about what it is people are meant to accomplish in life. The Rambam’s navi is fully integrated on physical, intellectual and spiritual levels, and therefore can “see” the non-physical activity around him. The goal is wholeness. The Ramban’s navi is connected to G-d sufficiently to receive communications from Him. The goal is attachment. We are back to the fork in the hashkafic road, Mussar’s temimus vs. Chassidus’s deveiqus.

Toward the end of this week’s parashah, we are given a second look at Moshe Rabbeinu’s ascent up Har Sinai. The kohanim and the seventy elders follow him to the foot of the mountain, and there they all have a vision. “And they saw Elokei Yisrael, and under His Feet was something like sapir (sapphire or a blue marble) brick-work which was like the middle of heaven in purity.”1

What exactly did they see? We have a number of textual problems. Moshe later asked “Please show me your Kavod (Glory/Honor)”2 and is told, “a person can not see Me and live.”3 But if our verse were describing a vision of Hashem, Moshe already saw Him so why the request? Additionally, of course, none of those who went up the mountain died because of the vision. Furthermore, at the conclusion of the Torah we are told that no prophet other than Moshe ever encountered Hashem “face to Face.”4 Therefore, we cannot understand this vision in a way that the others who shared it actually did have such an encounter, thereby contradicting an explicit statement in Devarim.

And, of course, there is a fundamental problem in Jewish thought with this reading: G-d has no body, no feet, no image to be seen.

Rashi says that they saw something like the Ma’aseh HaMerkavah, the chariot that Yechezkel saw. “And above the firmament which was over [the chayos’] heads looked like sapir stone, the image of a throne; and on the image of a throne was an image that looked like a person upon it above it.”5 And, in fact, Targum Onkelos on our verse inserts the word “yeqar” to say that they saw the “glory of the G-d of Israel”. This parallels Yechezkel’s description of seeing something that “looked like the image of Kevod Hashem, the glory of Hashem”.6

According to Rav Sa’adia Gaon7, there is a kavod nivra – kavod as a created thing. The vision at Mount Sinai and that of Yechezkel were not of Hashem, as that is logically impossible. Rather, they saw this kavod. The Rambam’s approach is similar to Rav Saadia’s, except that he writes8 that the phrase “Kevod Hashem” is a synonym; it could refer to either Hashem Himself, in all His glory, or it could be used to refer to the kavod nivra. In our case, the text means that they saw the kavod nivra. However, in Moshe’s later request, he was asking to see Hashem Himself, which is why he was unable to have his desire granted.

Rav Sa’adia Gaon writes that the shechinah is indeed part of the physical world, but that it is a kavod nivra. In fact, Rav Sa’adia Gaon holds that the term “shechinah” refers to any miraculous thing that reminds the viewer that Hashem is shochein beqirbo, dwelling with him. Thus, the pillars of fire and of cloud were the shechinah, as were the vision of Mount Sinai and of the Merkavah. Rav Sa’adia Gaon’s notion of kavod nivra can be a physical object. Therefore this vision could occur through regular, physical sight.

This is where the Rambam’s opinion diverges. He holds9 that the kavod nivrah could only be seen prophetically. It is different in kind to the pillars of fire and of smoke, which were physical entities created miraculously.

The Ramban disagrees with both. In his commentary on the verse where Hashem promises Yaaqov that He will descend with him to Egypt10, the Ramban says that “Sh-echinah” is a name of Hashem, not a created thing (nor a class of them). However, this does not mean that Mosheh and the elders actually saw Hashem in human form. The Ramban on our verse explains that the vision was prophetic. It would seem that in the Ramban’s view, a prophecy can be a vision of something that cannot truly exist.

This indicates that underlying our debate there must be a basic difference in how the Rambam and the Ramban understand prophecy. Even though the Rambam agrees that the vision was prophetic, he still argues that it could not have been of Hashem, because He has no body.

II

We find an instance of a similar debate in their understandings of the beginning of Parashas Vayeira. According to the Rambam, any narrative that involves people seeing mal’akhim must be the retelling of a prophecy. Mal’akhim do not have physical substance; they cannot be physically seen. Therefore, the Rambam holds that the parashah opens by telling us that Hashem visited Avraham, and then elaborates by telling us the substance of the visit, the prophecy that Avraham received. In other words, Avraham did not interrupt Hashem’s visit to welcome what he thought were three people. Rather, the visit itself was the vision in which Avraham hosted the three mal’akhim.11

The Ramban takes issue with this understanding. After all, did these mal’akhim not then proceed to Sodom where they saved Lot? Was Lot not really saved? According to the Ramban, the story physically occurred. Avraham saw the mal’akhim in the regular sense, actually fed them food, etc…12

What does the Rambam do with the Ramban’s question? The Abarbanel, in his commentary on the Moreh Nevuchim, writes that according to the Rambam, things seen in prophecy really occur. They are visions of events happening in higher planes of reality. The prophet’s mind and pen may make sense of the vision by interpreting its contents as things familiar from normal sensory experience, but the event seen is both non-physical and real. This is consistent with the Rambam’s position on our verse in Mishpatim. They saw something real. And since G-d does not have a body in any plane of existence, mot even a metaphysical “body”, their vision had to be of kevod Hashem, something created to be a metaphor for them to see.

The Ramban, on the other hand, understands prophecy to be the relaying of a message by the medium of a metaphor. The message relays a truth, but the vision is not of something real, it is a kind of communication. He, therefore, is not bothered by the idea that the metaphor they were given the message in was an anthropomorphic one, that of Hashem sitting on a throne.

The common point, though, is that the description in the verse is a metaphor. Rav Sa’adia Gaon and the Rambam write that the metaphor was a created object for the prophet to experience. The Ramban says that it was revealed within their minds as a means to communicate deeper truths.

Rav Eliyahu Dessler’s approach is a synthesis of these two. He writes that there is no objective reality; each person is given the world that fits his level and what he needs to experience. This is his explanation of the “nature” of miracles; see this discussion in relation to last week’s parashah. Existence itself is perception. He quotes the Ramchal who says that prophecy is communication through metaphor. However, that metaphor is a perception of a higher reality. Therefore, it exists just as much as things we perceive through our regular senses.13

III

This dispute may be reflected (sorry!) in that of translating the word “aspaqlaria”.  The gemara contrasts Moshe’s prophecy as being as though he saw through an “aspqalaria hame’irah” (a lit aspaqlaria), while those of other prophets was as through an “aspaqlaria she’einah me’irah” (an aspaqlaria that is not lit). Similarly, levels of wisdom between the earlier generations and the later are likened to the “aspqalaria hame’irah” and “aspaqlaria she’einah me’irah”. In a third usage, the gemara uses this contrast to describe different levels of experiencing the Divine Presence amongst the deceased in heaven

According to Rashi on Tr. Sukkah14 the “me’irah” here refers to a mirror. And the standard commentaries on mishnah Keilim15 define the word  “aspaqlaria” to refer a mirror, and  the word “hame’irah” would be “well lit”. The contrasts are being compared to having a clear view vs. a murky view.

However, the Arukh defines “aspaqlaria” as lapis specularis, a relatively transparent mineral used in ancient times for windows. It’s a loan word whose root is the same as the English “spectacles” or “spectator” — to see. Not a mirror reflecting back, but a means of seeing out.

It could be that this dispute between the rishonim speaks to a fundamental difference about what it is people are meant to accomplish in life.

It seems to me Rashi’s position is that of the Rambam’s. To be a good prophet requires posessing a mirror, being in self-command. The Rambam’s navi is fully integrated on physical, intellectual and spiritual levels, and therefore can “see” the non-physical activity around him. The goal is wholeness.

The Ramban’s navi is someone whose soul has an open window; he is connected to G-d sufficiently to receive communications from Him. The goal is attachment.

We are back to the fork in the hashkafic road, Mussar’s temimus vs. Chassidus’s deveiqus.

  1. Shemos 24:10 []
  2. Ibid 33:18 []
  3. Ibid v. 20 []
  4. Devarim 34:10 []
  5. Yechezkel 1:26 []
  6. Ibid v. 28 []
  7. Emunos VeDei’os 2:10 []
  8. Moreh Nevuchim 1:64 []
  9. Ibid. 2:6 []
  10. Bereishis 46:1 []
  11. Moreh Nevuchim 2:42 []
  12. Bereishis 18:2 []
  13. Michtav meiEliyahu vol. 1 pp. 310-312. See also Mesukim miDevash on Beshalach, pp. 1-2. []
  14. 45b []
  15. 30:2, the Bartenura, Tif’eres Yisrael and Tosafos Yom Tov []

And your thoughts...?