Parashat Mishpatim: "And They Beheld God, and Did Eat and Drink"

  • Rav Itamar Eldar
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

CHASSIDUT
by Rav Itamar Eldar

Yeshivat Har Etzion

 

ParAshat Mishpatim

 

"And They beheld GOd, and did eat and drink"

 

 

            Our parasha concludes with the wondrous event involving the covenant of the basins. God enters into a covenant with the people of Israel with respect to all of the laws and judgments, and following the covenant ceremony, Moshe is commanded to take Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, together with seventy of the elders of Israel, ascend the mountain, and bow down from afar. In the course of this ascent, the entire company, referred to as "the nobles of the children of Israel," merit to see a unique and exciting vision:

 

Then Moshe went up, and Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel; and they saw the God of Israel, and there was under his feet a kind of paved work of sapphire stone, and as it were the very heaven for clearness. And upon the nobles of the children of Israel he laid not His hand: and they beheld God, and did eat and drink. (Shemot 24:9-11)

 

            The closing words of this passage, "And they beheld God, and did eat and drink," require explanation, no less than the vision itself. On the one hand, "And they beheld God," is a difficult expression in and of itself, for surely, "no man shall see Me and live." On the other hand, along with this vision, we are told: "And they did eat and drink." How could they eat and drink while beholding God?

 

According to one approach found in Chazal, the verse's formulation comes to express condemnation of the band of nobles:

 

"And they beheld God." As a man looks upon his neighbour while in the act of eating and drinking. R. Yochanan said: They derived actual nourishment; as is proved by the citation: "In the light of the king's countenance is life" (Mishlei 16:15). R. Tanchuma said: The text teaches us that they uncovered their heads, became presumptuous and fed their eyes on the Shekhina. (Vayikra Rabba 20, 10)

 

R. Tanchuma sees in this expression a description of "presumptuousness," looking upon one's neighbor while in the act of eating.

 

Onkelos in his Targum understands these words in an entirely different manner:

 

And they rejoiced in the sacrifices that were accepted with favor, as if they were eating and drinking. (Onkelos, Shemot 24:11)

 

First of all, we are dealing here with joy connected to a mitzva, and second, we are dealing here not with actual eating and drinking, but rather with a metaphor: "as if they were eating and drinking."

 

            The Ramban goes one step further. He understands that in fact we are dealing here with actual eating and drinking, but no condemnation of the nobles of the children of Israel is intended:

 

The meaning of the expression "and they drank," is that they made it an occasion for rejoicing and festival, for such is one's duty to rejoice at the receiving of the Torah, just as He commanded when they finished writing all the words of the Torah upon the stones: "And you shall sacrifice peace-offerings, and shall eat there; and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God" (Devarim 27:7). And with reference to Shelomo it is written: "Wisdom and knowledge is granted unto you," (II Divrei ha-Yamim 1:12) and immediately after that, He came to Jerusalem, and made a feast for all the servants (I Melakhim 3:15). "Rabbi Elazar said: From here you learn that we make a feast at the finishing of the Torah." With reference to David, Shelomo's father, it is likewise said that when the people gave of their free-will towards the building of the Sancturay: "And they offered sacrifices unto the Lord, and offered burnt-offerings unto the Lord, etc. and they did eat and drink before the Lord on that day with great gladness" (I Divrei ha-Yamim 29:21-22). Similarly, here too on the day of the "wedding" of  the Torah, they did likewise. (Ramban, Shemot 24:11)

 

            According to the Ramban, we are dealing here with eating and drinking that constitutes a religious act, an expression of gratitude for having received the Torah and for the great vision which the nobles of Israel had merited to see.

 

            R. Tanchuma sees eating and drinking as the antithesis of beholding the face of God. The Ramban, in contrast, sees eating and drinking as a consequence of seeing the Divine countenance. We shall bring below the various approaches to this issue in the world of Chassidut.

 

DENYING THE INDEPENDENCE OF THE PLEASURE OF EATING

 

            This question brings us to a very important discussion regarding the material pleasures of this world. Thus writes R. Ya'akov Yosef of Polonneye:

 

What follows from this is that if a person wishes to enjoy pleasure for the sake of His name in order to cleave to Him, blessed be He, and the sadness of matter hinders him, and he must gladden it through eating and drinking, but he has no money, and he must borrow, and he does not want to accept a gift, as it is written: "He that hates gifts shall live" (Mishlei 15:27) – about him the Holy One, blessed be He, says: "Borrow for me, and I will pay back," which is not the case when this is not so. With this, one can understand: "And upon the nobles of the children of Israel he laid not His hand." As I have written above: "He will guide us in youth" (Tehilim 48:15). For the Holy One, blessed be He, sends out His hand to take hold of a person in order to guide Him that he should walk in the paths of God, blessed be He, and in His service. This is at the beginning, in the days of his adolescence and youth, but afterwards he lets go so that he may proceed on his own. But for the nobles of the children of Israel who were very important already in their youth, it was not necessary that He send out His hand. On their own they fortified themselves in cleaving to God, blessed be He, until they reached this level, "And they beheld God." They were also not hindered by the sadness of matter, for they ate and they drank to gladden their matter, as explained above, "Borrow for me, and I will pay back." As the Ramban writes that this eating and drinking was connected to a mitzva, for the joy over the Torah that they had received, etc.; see there.  (Toledot Ya'akov Yosef, Mishpatim 13)

 

            With these words, the Toledot Ya'kaov Yosef explains why the nobles of Israel ate when they beheld the great vision, and based on that he formulates what he regards as the proper approach toward material pleasures. We can explain what he says by way of another chassidic dictum that states that sometimes "one must bribe the body," so that it should not disturb the spirit.[1] The "sadness of matter" is what prevents the soul from rising, and so the pleasure of eating and drinking gladden matter and thus remove the hindrance that it imposes. The eating of the nobles of the children of Israel was intended to remove the material obstacle so that the spirit should be able to cleave to the noble vision that they were seeing. In this sense, their eating was "eating that is connected to a mitzva," as stated by the Ramban.

 

            This approach is reminiscent of that of the Rambam, for he too sees eating and drinking as a means to the service of God, as he writes:

 

Chapter Five: It is imperative for every man to make all his mental faculties serve his reason and to keep at all times one aim before him: to come as close to God as his limited human knowledge of God permits. All a man's actions, his movements and his rest, as well as all his speech must be geared toward that end. Finally, not even one vain movement should occur,  i.e. not one movement that does not lead to this one end. As an illustration, the intention in eating or drinking, in marital relations, in sleeping and in waking, in moving and in resting, must always be the health of his body for the purpose of providing the soul with the perfect and healthy instrument to acquire knowledge and moral and intellectual virtues. Thus this aim will be attained. (Shemona Perakim, chap. 5)

 

            The difference regarding this point between the Rambam and R. Ya'akov Yosef of Polonneye is that according to the Rambam we are dealing with a technical means on the physical plain that is meant to turn the body into an instrument fit to serve the spirit, whereas according to R. Ya'akov Yosef the act of eating relates more to the spiritual plain, and the feeling arising from and influenced by the material world. For this reason, R. Ya'akov Yosef's primary emphasis is upon the pleasure, whereas the Rambam stresses "health and perfection." R. Ya'akov Yosef deals with removing the spiritual obstacle created by the body, whereas the Rambam deals with the physical obstacle. Both, however, describe eating as a means, as a way to remove an obstacle in order to allow for the service of God.

 

            Both the Rambam and R. Ya'akov Yosef agree that eating in and of itself is void of value, and that its entire legitimacy stems from its being a "meal connected to a mitzva," that is to say, a means to a spiritual value. Were it possible, for a person to remain in good health by taking a pill every morning, according to the Rambam, or would he able to remove the sadness of his matter without the pleasure of eating and drinking, according to R. Ya'akov Yosef - the eating and its pleasure would be entirely void of meaning and it would be possible to give them up.

 

            A much more far-reaching position, that not only wipes out the independent value of eating and drinking, but also tries to ignore it, finds expression in the following passage:

 

Even though the world-to-come has no eating or drinking, people will achieve satiety and good health through the vision of God, like a person who eats and drinks, as the verse states: "And they beheld God, and did eat and drink." And Chazal have explained (Berakhot 17a; see Rashi ad loc.) that through the vision of God they derived pleasure and felt in good health and satiated, like a person who eats and drinks. We have explained this [idea] in our work, Sidduro shel Shabbat (root 8, branch 3) (see inside. With this everything has been properly explained, with the help of God, blessed be He. (Be'er Mayyim Chayyim, Bereishit 2).

 

            R. Chayyim of Czernowitz, disciple of R. Yechiel Michel of Zolochev, absolutely rejects the possibility that the nobles of the children of Israel were occupied in physical eating and drinking. He argues that eating and drinking is a metaphor that comes to describe satiety from the Godly vision.

 

            R. Tzadok ha-Kohen of Lublin expresses the same idea:

 

Like food that sustains the body, and through which a person gains strength and vigor, and without which he becomes weak, so too is the apprehension of the glory [of God], blessed be He, for the soul, as it is written: "And they beheld God, and did eat and drink." For this was eating and drinking for their soul. (Peri Tzedek,[2] Ma'amar Kedushat ha-Shabbat, 7)

 

            The words of R. Tzadok sharpen the novelty in the words of R. Chayyim of Czernowitz. According to R. Tzadok, just as there is eating and drinking of the body, so too there is eating and drinking of the soul. The whole purpose of the verse is to inform us that on that sublime occasion the nobles of the children of Israel merited the eating and drinking of the soul. In contrast, R. Chayyim of Czernowitz does not speak of the satiety of the soul, but rather of the satiety and good health that may be felt through the vision of God, having the aspect of the world-to-come. According to R. Chayyim of Czernowitz, one who cleaves to God does not require material sustenance, for the cleaving itself provides him with good health and satiety, even in the physical sense. R. Tzadok speaks about satiety of the soul resulting from cleaving to God, whereas R. Chayyim, if we are precise in our reading of him, describes satiety of the body.

 

            R. Chayyim of Czernowitz's approach is similar to the approach of those cited earlier in this lecture, who do not attach independent value to eating. While according to the others physical eating is nevertheless a necessity, according to R. Chayyim, one who cleaves to God can free himself, at least in part, from this need. The nobles of the children of Israel, who ate and drank as they beheld the vision of God, had reached this level, and thus were not in need of material food and drink.

 

INDENDENT VALUE GIVEN TO THE PLEASURE OF EATING

 

            In contrast to the aforementioned approaches that absolutely or at least partially deny the independent value of the pleasure of eating, whether because it is a physical means, as argued by the Rambam, or a spiritual means, as contended by R. Ya'akov Yosef, or as a necessity from which one who cleaves to God can free himself in full or in part, as proposed by R. Chayyim of Czernowitz – in contrast to all these approaches, there are attitudes that give legitimacy and independence to the pleasure of eating, in part or in full. We shall try to present these approaches one by one, starting with the words of R. Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk:

 

R. Recanati concludes: Know that the purpose of eating is not to consume the thing that is eaten, but to add strength, delight and life to the eater. This is called eating, the delight being the essence of the eating. They too had gladness of the soul and delight in the splendor of the Shekhina, as it is stated (Yeshaya 58:14): "Then you shall delight yourself in the Lord." These are the words of R. Recanati, of blessed memory. Like this must be all matters of the body and uses of this world. For man must only derive pleasure from the inner essence, the form, and root of the thing and its existence, from which the matter emanates and issues forth. He is, however, forbidden to derive pleasure from the matter of the place from which it issued. But only to cleave to the form through its emanation, to the Infinite, blessed be he, to be aroused to Him, blessed be He, through the delight that he receives from that thing. (Peri ha-Aretz, [3] Vayigash)

 

            R. Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk follows in the path of R. Recanati on a very thin rope, for on the one hand, he denies the pleasure of matter, for "like this must be all matters of the body and uses of this world. For man must only derive pleasure from the inner essence, the form, and root of the thing and its existence." On the other hand, he asserts that the way to cleave to the form and be aroused to God is through the pleasure that he receives from the thing.

 

            The way to do this according to the Peri ha-Aretz is by cleaving to the root of the thing.[4] In order to be able to cleave to the root of something, one must first and foremost be able to recognize it and its uniqueness.

 

            The author of the Peri ha-Aretz mentions two concepts, form and matter, the source of which is Aristotle.

 

            Put differently, it may be said that form is the essence of a thing, and matter is its garment, emanating from it. Thus, the only way to reach the essence and the root is through the garment, that is, through the matter. Pleasure need not be summed up by or stop at matter, but it must pass through it, because only pleasure can open a window to a thing's essence. Eating in particular and all matters of this world in general constitute a window to the essences and forms found in the root of the world. Anyone who wishes to cleave to them must pass through the material world and recognize its various distinctions.

 

            The ideas cited in the name of R. Simcha Bunim of Przysucha sharpen the matter further:

 

In the name of our holy Rabbi, my father Rabbi Bunim of Przysucha, of blessed memory: The main purpose of eating is chewing well. This seems to mean that a person should grind [his food] well before swallowing, when he reaches the primary pleasure of eating, in order to clarify the root of the taste which issues forth from the mouth of God. This is as it is stated regarding the giving of the Torah: "And they beheld God, and did eat and drink," and Onkelos translates: "And they rejoiced… as if they were eating and drinking." For it is true that it is precisely from the pleasure of eating that one can clarify Divine revelation. About this it was stated: "And they beheld," for it is like a mirror, in which a person sees a reflection of himself. The same is true regarding the pleasure of eating, taking from it a reflection of what is above, the root of the taste. As is known from the holy Zohar on the verse, "From my flesh I see God." From my flesh, literally, which is the ultimate pleasure of this world. And precisely from it can one reach a vision of God. [Torat Emet Lublin, 2nd day of Shavu'ot 1873]. (Kol Mevaser, pt. 3, Eating and Tasting Foods)

 

            R. Simcha Bunim's daring and astonishing assertion is already apparent in the first line: "The main purpose of eating is chewing well"!

 

            According to R. Simcha, the most important and most sanctified moment with respect to eating is the time of chewing that comes BEFORE swallowing. Thus, R. Simcha moves the focus from the nutrition to the pleasure.[5] Let us try to understand what he is saying.

 

            At the beginning of the passage, R. Simcha follows R. Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk in search for the spiritual root of the taste. Here, too, the emphasis is upon the contemplative process. Thus, he says that that focusing on the chewing is meant to clarify the taste of the food, so that we will be able to elevate it to its root.

 

The difference between one taste and another is the difference between one essence and another, between one root and another. Bitterness is a garment and emanation of Divine governance that dresses in a bitter taste. And similarly regarding sweetness. In Chassidic terms we might say that we are dealing with raising sparks from the eating. From this perspective, eating becomes sanctified not only because it is a means to human survival, but also because it is a goal in and of itself, having its own independent meaning. Thus writes Rav Kook, ztz"l:

 

What simple appetite for eating does for all animals, and for ordinary people, drawing a person to eat in order to fortify his life and powers, is done in a noble and elevated manner for those great in intellect, the righteous foundations of the world, by the desire to join with all the holy sparks concealed within the food, which arouse spiritual joy in the person who eats of it, to receive them in his soul, to add light and eternal happiness, and they themselves grow in strength and joy even before eating. During the time of eating the joy already shines in the depths, and through the eating itself, it rises to a more elevated level. "And Boaz ate and drank, and his heart was merry" (Rut 3:7), his heart was merry through the words of Torah, which are eating and drinking themselves [6] for those who have entered into the council of God. (Orot ha-Kodesh, III, p. 292)

 

Rav Kook distinguishes between eating in order to live which is merely a means, and eating that has its own essence, elevating the sparks that are concealed in the food that is eaten.

 

In the continuation, in a different passage,[7] Rav Kook explains that the eating of the righteous repairs the sin of the earth which issued forth trees the taste of which is not the same as the taste of its fruit.[8] Eating merely as a means is an expression of the defective situation in which the taste of the tree is not the same as the taste of the fruit. Thus the means does not have a taste, and it is subordinate to the objective. The same applies to eating solely for the sake of one's health, which tries to deny the legitimacy of "the taste" of food. However, with the eating of the righteous that gives independent value to the taste of food, the taste of the tree is once again like the taste of the fruit, the means assumes significance, and thus the sparks concealed therein are redeemed.

 

Eating solely as a means, without focusing on the taste, asserts Rav Kook, is the readiness to become reconciled with the fact that the taste of the tree, that is, the means, is not the same as the taste of the fruit, that is, it has no independent importance. Therefore, eating that assigns independent value to the taste itself and to the pleasure derived therefrom once again sanctifies the "tree" and the means and provides it once again with its taste, and thus there is redemption for the world and for the sparks concealed within it.

 

At the end of the passage, Rav Kook speaks of joy, and this brings us back to the second half of the passage from R. Simcha Bunim that relates to the delight caused by taste. Here already the great amount of chewing comes not only to sharpen the taste and clarify it in order to elevate it to its root, but also to create delight. The taste and delight are "a reflection," in the words of R. Simcha, of the delight in holiness. Here already we are dealing with a less rational process that does not require excessive contemplation regarding the taste of the food, but merely delight in it. Delight, asserts R. Simcha - and Rav Kook also expresses a similar idea - elevates a person's soul and fashions within him a climate that is fit for taking delight in the word of God.

 

We spread honey over the letters of the Torah and allow a three-year old child to lick them and taste that the words of the Torah are as sweet as honey. Thus, we try to create a connection between the taste of sweetness and the accompanying delight, on the one hand, and the Torah in which delight should be taken, on the other. Here already we are raising to its root not the taste in the food, but the delight caused a person, or in the words of the Peri ha-Aretz: "Know that the purpose of eating is not to consume the thing that is eaten, but to add strength, delight and life to the eater."

 

The focus here is not upon the food but upon the person eating it and upon the delight that elevates his soul to the root of the delight – delight in the word of God, as R. Simcha Bunim said: "From the pleasure of eating one can clarify Divine revelation." Eating leads to communion with God.[9]

 

The action here is not rational, and it provides full legitimacy to the pleasure and delight themselves, which create for the fitting and able person the mirror through which delight in God is reflected. Material pleasure is a metaphor for spiritual delight, and through the former one may reach the latter.[10]

 

We opened this lecture with the Toledot Ya'akov Yosef, who sees pleasure as a means to "quiet the body," so that it not interfere with communion, and we conclude with R. Simcha Bunim who sees pleasure as a means, not to quiet the body, but to create the highest spiritual experience that man can attain, the experience of delight, which is the aspect of the world-to-come. When a person is worthy and he has the emotional and spiritual strength to elevate this experience of delight to its root, then the pleasant taste of the food turns into the sweetness of God that a person merits to see. At that very moment all the sparks within the food and within the person gather together and are elevated with it to the place of the nobles of the children of Israel, close to the top of the mountain, where the awesome contradiction and radical paradox exist in perfect harmony: "And they beheld God, and did eat and drink." O that we should so merit!

 

FOOTNOTES:

 

[1] The Besht is reported to have expressed a similar idea in a different context by way of a parable: It once happened that a certain Jew lived in a town, the rest of whose inhabitants were non-Jews. One day he received wonderful news from his son. Wishing to celebrate, but having nobody to celebrate with, he went to the local tavern, where he announced that all the drinks that night were on him. The non-Jewish drunks jumped at the opportunity, ordered another round of drinks and broke out in a wild dance. The Jew joined them in their dancing, and, concludes the Besht, while all the other drunks danced because of the wine, he danced because of his good news.

There are times, contends the Besht, that we too must gladden the body in ways appropriate to it, so that it not disturb the soul, and even join with it in its spiritual joy.

 

[2] R. Tzadok ha-Kohen Rabinowitz of Lublin (1823-1900), disciple of the Admor of Izbica, authored many books.

 

[3] R. Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk (1710-1788), who in his youth knew the Besht, was brought by R. Aharon the Elder of Karlin to the Maggid and became one of his most important disciples.

 

[4] We related to the idea of "raising something to its source" with respect to alien thoughts (in our lecture on Parashat Shemot). We shall try to apply what we said there to the present discussion.

 

[5] I heard about a certain philosopher who pointed out the absurdity of the great attempts made to improve the taste of food. He noted the fact that a long time passes from the moment that food enters a person's mouth until it is digested. The food come into contact with the taste buds for only a few short seconds, but for these few seconds of pleasure the world invests a great deal of time and money. This argument diminishes the value of a food's taste, and emphasizes its nutritional and health-related benefits. Without a doubt, the Rambam would have affirmed this approach, but this is not true about R. Simcha Bunim who focuses on the few seconds that relate to the food's taste, and even tries to drag them out to the extent possible through thorough chewing.

 

[6] Earlier, we saw the tendency to turn "And they did eat and drink" into an abstract spiritual idea. Here is just the opposite – turning "his heart was merry through the words of Torah" into a material idea relating to eating: "they are eating and drinking themselves."

 

[7] Ibid. p. 294.

 

[8] See also Orot ha-Teshuva 6, 7; Orot ha-Kodesh III, pp. 140-141.

 

[9] R. Efrayim of Sudylkow says as follows: "'And upon the nobles of the children of Israel he laid not His hand: and they beheld God, and did eat and drink.' As the Or ha-Chayyim writes on (Shemot 33:23): 'And I will take away My hand' and then 'you shall see.' That is, placing of the hand is covering, concealment and prevention of apprehension, whereas removal of the hand is followed by 'and you shall see,' that he will be able to apprehend. And it is known (Mishlei 3:6): 'In all your ways know Him,' that is, a person should cleave and connect himself to the Holy One, blessed be He, in everything that he does. And this it may be proposed is the meaning of: 'And upon the nobles of the children of Israel' –those who are worthy of elevation. 'He laid not His hand' – that is, the aspect of preventing apprehension by way of placing a hand. For 'they beheld God, and did eat and drink,' that is, they clung to the Holy One, blessed be he, so that even during eating and drinking they would see God. Therefore, there was no curtain separating between them that would prevent their apprehension. Understand this" (Degel Machane Efrayim, Mishpatim).

 

[10] R. Efrayim does not explain how the nobles of the children of Israel merited to see God even while eating and drinking. Two completely contradictory explanations may be offered: He may be expressing the position of the Peri ha-Aretz, that it was through the eating that they merited to cleave to God. Or he may be saying the exact opposite. The nobles of the children of Israel ate because they had to eat, but they were totally unaware of their eating because they clung to God the entire time. This understanding is similar to the other approaches that deny the spiritual value of eating; it asserts that while a person cleaves to God, he is totally unaware of the physical actions in which he is engaged. This contradicts the position of R. Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk and R. Simcha Bunim. For while they try to focus man on the taste of the food, in order to elevate him, R. Efrayim of Sudylkow, according to this interpretation, nullifies the value of tasting food, and even argues that one who is in an elevated state does not experience the taste at all.

 

(Translated by David Strauss)