Friday, February 12, 2010

Random Musing Before Shabbat – Mishpatim 5770 – Divine Picnic

Just three years ago I wrote a musing for parashat Mishpatim entitled  “To See, To Behold, To Eat, To Drink.” In it, I wrote this about the brief encounter with G”d that Moses, Aaron, and 70 elders had, in Chapter 24 vs 9-11:

Moshe, Aharon, Nadav and Avihu (we'll be hearing more about them in a while) AND seventy elders of Israel ascended the mountain. And they SAW (vayiru) G"d, and underneath G"d's feet a pavement of sapphire, as pure as the sky itself. Even though G"d had pretty much said earlier that only Moshe was to ascend the mountain, G"d does not strike down any of the others. So the seventy elders, Aharon, Nadav and Avihu BEHELD (vayekhezu) G"d, and THEY ATE and THEY DRANK.

They're in the presence of the almighty, and they make a picnic? Of course, the rabbis of the Talmud put a little spin on it, seeing it as an intellectual encounter with the Divine-that what they were eating and drinking was G"d's presence. A possible and acceptable interpretation. In the presence of G"d there is no need for earthly, quotidian things. G"d provides all that is necessary, and perhaps more. The rabbis say that the elders didn't really "see" (vayiru, from the root resh-aleph-hey, to see) G"d, they "beheld" (vayekhezu, from the root khet, zayin, hey, which also means to see, or perceive, but is cognate with other Hebrew and Arabic words that mean things like "seer" and "vision" and "inner vision") G"d. That is to say, they finally "got it." They understood that G"d was real, and truly could not be represented by idols." The food and drink are perhaps metaphor for "they perceived with all of their senses."

However, it could just as easily be telling us "even in the presence of G"d, you have to meet your basic human needs. It's easy, in the face of something awesome (or awful) to forget all about yourself and your needs. And, with all due respects to the mystics, G"d's presence isn't likely to provide your body with the necessary amino acids and proteins to enable you to survive.

Or think of the Grand Canyon scene in National Lampoon's vacation. "Oh, look, it's G"d. How impressive. OK, gotta go!" It's nice to encounter G"d, but we're hungry and thirsty after that climb.

Of course, it doesn't say who provided the food and drink. Was G"d being a good hostess, or did they bring they stuff with them?

Or maybe G"d had a plan after all. Keep the elders happy and sated, while Moshe comes up the mountain to get these tablets that G"d has inscribed.

To begin with, I left a thread hanging from that musing. After all, here are mentioned my two favorite Crispy Critters, Nadav and Avihu. What are they doing here? Well, they were Aaron’s eldest sons, and would soon become newly minted priests. Yet the Torah seems to be getting ahead of itself here. Leave it to Rashi to find an explanation: that by ascending the mountain, as they were instructed to not do, Nadav and Avihu incurred the death penalty, which was then later imposed when they made that un-asked-for extra sacrifice. So, Rashi, it wasn’t their misdeed in making an added sacrifice that warranted their being zotzed – it was just G”d’s justice  delayed? Then what happens to all the interpretation (including your own) surrounding the deaths of Nadav and Avihu in parashat Sh’mini? Why, you yourself, Rashi, blame their deaths on being intoxicated by wine when coming into the Sanctuary, and go on to suggest that Nadav and Avihu’s death were the means by which the Mishkan becomes sanctified. (Rashi also posits that the 70 elders received justice delayed--very much so--in Numbers 11:1. Talk about going out on a limb.)

Yes, the Torah is full of such foreshadowing. Had Joseph’s brothers not thrown him in a pit and then sold him off to traders, the whole Exodus thing might not have happened. Had Eve not been tempted by the serpent.  Had there been at least 10 good people in S’dom and Gomorrah. Had G”d not created the universe. There are dangers when we tread such a teleological path. Even Hiro Nakamura had to let go of his Charlie at some point. (If you don’t watch “Heroes”, ignore the reference.)

For whatever reason, even though G”d specifically told Moses to tell the people that no one should ascend the mountain, Moses brings Aaron, Nadav, Avihu, and 70 elders with him for a little picnic with G”d. For whatever reason, G”d decides to overlook this transgression, for, as the text tells us, G”d  did not send forth G”d’s hand (presumably to strike them or otherwise cause them harm.) No, they get to have a picnic.

So, back to our picnic. The text seems plain enough (if one can ever say that about Torah, the ultimate onion.) Moses and the gand ascend the mountain. Then, plain as day it says they SAW G”d. In fact, they saw G”d’s feet, and under them, a making in the form of a brick of sapphire, which looked as pure as the heavens.

They did not, as it says later, simply view/apprehend G”d. If the intent of the Torah was to suggest, as the rabbis and sages do, that the elders “got it” then why muddy the waters at first by clearly using a verb that means literally “to see?” Why have the elders, Aaron and his two oldest sons eating and drinking and viewing G”d? Why have this entire incident at all? Why not have Moses just go up the mountain and get the commandments?

Wait a minute. Hold your horses. How can we have overlooked the obvious. Just a few verses earlier (24:1) G”d instructs Moses to “Go up to Ad”nai, you, Aaron, Nadav, Avihu, and 70 elders of Israel, and you shall prostrate yourselves from a  distance. Um, Rashi, if G”d TOLD Moses to bring this group up a bit on the mountain (but not too high) then why this insistence that Nadav, Avihu, and the elders were later punished for ascending the mountain? Yes, earlier on that instruction is given-that no one is to ascend the mountain (save Moses.)  Yet it seems to be superseded by the instruction in 24:1.

OMG! G”d contradicting G”ds self? But G”d is not capricious, whimsical, and…oh wait, G”d is all those and more, if we can believe all that we’ve read so far in the Torah.

Guess Rashi et al believe that if they can jump ahead in the Torah to justify or rationalize something, they can just as easily jump backwards, past that inconvenient instruction from G”d to have the gang of 70 plus 4 ascend and have a picnic.

Of course, there’s an even easier “out” as it were. Look at the construction of 24:1. It doesn’t say “G”d said” it says “To Moses He said” and then this queer imperial self-reference:

To Moses He said “Go up to Ad”nai, you Aaron, Nadav, and Avihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and you shall prostrate yourselves from a distance.

We always assume that it’s G”d talking to Moses when there’s an ambiguous “He.” In context it makes sense since we’re coming off a continuing set of instructions from G”d to Moses. Still, maybe it was just some random guy who suggested that Moses and the gang go on up and have that picnic. Whaddaya think? Nyah, probably not. Nice way to get G”d and the Torah off the hook for seeming contradictions, but let’s not be too hasty.

Maybe G”d was taunting the people? Not sure you’re gonna believe in me, follow my laws, even though you just said you will do all that G”d has spoken. OK, I’ll give 74 of your elite a sneak peak (but only one of them, Moses, gets to really encounter me.)  I won’t really be showing them Me, after all, I’m incorporeal and simply can’t be apprehended by mere humans (even though I created them and could have given them that ability.) G”d, that capricious and whimsical? Never say never.

Of all things, a picnic? Why do they get to eat and drink and stare at (what they believe to be) G”d? Why not just have them come up, get a peek, and then maybe bow or pray or build an altar?  Nope, G”d knows the Jews. Even then, it took food to get and hold our attention. So, Jewish professionals, don’t be so cynical about how offering food seems to make attempts to get Jews involved more successful. If it was good enough for G”d…

Maybe that’s what we need. More picnics in the presence of the Divine. Why not have us all go to the buffet in G”ds presence? Boy, that would pack them in at the synagogues, JCCs, and elsewhere. Sure, they might be coming for the food, but maybe just a few of them might get interested in something more.

G”d may have faults, be whimsical, capricious, petulant, and more. Yet sometimes, even G”d has a good idea. Jews, food.

Have a nice picnic.

Shabbat Shalom,


©2010 by Adrian A. Durlester

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