Through the Thick Cloud

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion


PARASHAT MISHPATIM

 

SICHA OF HARAV AHARON LICHTENSTEIN SHLIT"A

Through the Thick Cloud

Adapted by Dov Karoll

Then Moshe and Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, went up [the mountain]. And they saw the God of Israel… And upon the nobles of the children of Israel He did not lay His hand, and they beheld God, and they did eat and drink. (Shemot 24:8-11)

 

The commentaries dispute the meaning of these verses. Rashi (24:10, s.v. va-yir'u) explains that this "seeing" and "beholding" was inappropriate, and they were all deserving of death. However, God delayed their punishments until later, punishing Nadav and Avihu at the consecration of the mishkan (Vayikra 10:1) and the elders at Tav'era (Bemidbar 11:1). Rashbam (24:11 s.v. ve-el) also believes that the nobles were deserving of death.

However, there is another approach, hinted at by Rashi (24:11, s.v. va-yechezu), who notes the translation of Onkelos. Onkelos explains this in a positive light: they rejoiced over the acceptance of their offerings as one who eats and drinks. Ramban also explains this episode as an appropriate revelation, with the end of the verse emphasizing that the prohibition against ascending the mountain did not apply in this case, for they ascended in the context of revelation rather than boundary violation.

If one assumes, like Rashi and Rashbam, that the "seeing" and "beholding" were inappropriate, then one may ask: Why were Moshe and Aharon not punished for it?

To answer this question, we need to analyze the violation discussed here. According to this approach, the elders sinned on two levels. First, their actions expressed elitism. In Parashat Yitro, God explained to Moshe that only he and Aharon were to go up, "but let not the kohanim and the people break through to come up to God, lest He break forth upon them [and punish them]" (Shemot 19:22). These men assumed that such boundaries were meant only for the ordinary people, and not for men of such significance as themselves. They considered themselves to share the unique status of Moshe and Aharon, whereas they were really subject to the same regulations as the rest of the people.

Continuing with Rashi's understanding, the elders committed a second wrongdoing as well. They severely misunderstood how one is to come close to God. They may have had only the purest motivations, but they apparently assumed that they could approach God as they saw fit. Not allowing the boundaries that were in place to hamper the immediacy of their encounter, they sought to relate to God in a very direct manner. They failed to recognize the infinite, unbridgeable gap between man and God.

The notion that even when God comes close, so to speak, He still remains unapproachable, is a theme that runs throughout Sefer Shemot. It is highlighted at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end of the Sefer. At the moments of most intense revelation, man's inability to perceive God fully is emphasized. At the beginning of the Sefer, at the burning bush, the Torah tells us that "Moshe hid his face, for he was afraid to look upon God" (3:6). While there is a disagreement in the Midrash (Shemot Rabba 3:1) as to whether Moshe took the correct approach in that case, the Torah emphasizes that at this initial moment of revelation, Moshe did not see God.

In the middle of the Sefer, when God tells Moshe that He will appear to him and to the entire people at Sinai, He says, "Behold, I come to you IN A THICK CLOUD…"(19:9). Even at the Sinai revelation, God appears only through a thick cloud.

The Sefer ends with the Divine Presence filling the newly constructed mishkan, such that no one could enter it. "And Moshe was not able to enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud rested on it, and the Glory of God filled the mishkan" (40:35).

Thus, Sefer Shemot emphasizes throughout that even when God "comes down" (as in 19:20, 34:5), revealing Himself to man in various ways, He remains utterly apart and unapproachable, Wholly Other.

Another example of this phenomenon comes in Melakhim (I 8:10-11), at the dedication of the First Temple. After the ark of the covenant had been placed in the Temple, "It came to pass, when the Kohanim were out of the holy place [the Kodesh], that the cloud filled the house of God, so that the Kohanim could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the Glory of God had filled the house of God." At this moment of most intense closeness to God, when God's Presence descends to the Temple, no one can enter.

This is true despite the very unique relationship prevailing between God and Israel in the context of the Temple. The Gemara (Yoma 54a) describes the poles of the ark protruding into the curtain as resembling the breasts of a woman. The Gemara adds that it was customary on the festivals to pull back the curtains so that the people would see the keruvim (cherubs) embracing. The Kohanim would tell the people, "See how beloved you are before God, like the love of a man for a woman." What can be closer than that? The Torah describes the relationship between husband and wife as "becom[ing] one flesh" (Bereishit 2:24). Nonetheless, even in this context God emphasizes that there remains an unbridgeable gap.

This holds true even when Moshe asks God, "Show me Your glory" (Shemot 33:18). God's responds, "You shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen" (33:23).

Anyone who thinks he can come closer to God than this, that he can bridge those gaps, has a deeply misconstrued conception of God. He is really coming close to a false god rather than to God Himself.

The Rambam (Hil. Yesodei ha-Torah 2:1-2), in describing the mitzvot of loving and fearing God, says that when one comprehends His greatness, one will yearn to come close to Him. But the natural consequence of this closeness itself is to leap back in fear and awe, recognizing that one is a lowly being standing before the all-powerful, all-knowing Deity. True love for God comes hand in hand with recognition of the awe and fear that needs to accompany that love.

There has been much discussion in recent years regarding the appropriateness of viewing Biblical characters "at eye level," i.e. through a normal human perspective. This is an important issue in its own right, and it is based on different approaches among the sages, going back centuries. Regardless of what one thinks about viewing Biblical characters in ordinary human terms, relating to God "at eye level" is clearly problematic. The idea that one can relate to God on an "even plane" is inconceivable. Rather, we can hope and pray for God to relate to us "through the thick cloud," and we need to strive to relate to Him "through the thick cloud."

[Originally delivered at Se'uda Shelishit, Parashat Mishpatim 5762 (2002).]

 

 


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