Mishpatim – A Way to Live in the Presence of the Lord

This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, can feel like a bit of a letdown following the sacred drama at Mount Sinai recorded for posterity in Parashat Yitro. At the conclusion of last week’s parasha, Israel is given immortality with its designation as a “Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation” (Exod 19:6). Mishpatim, literally “ordinances,” on the other hand is often thought of as a law book pronouncing mundane rules that deal with a plethora of subjects, such as slavery, economic equality, the sacredness of life, animal welfare, the role of women, and it even begins with what are essentially labor laws. But it is through these diverse mundane ordinances that the opportunity is afforded Israel, and by extension the entire world, to work toward Gamar HaTikkun, the final repair of the created order.

It is not until the end of the portion, though, that we get a glimpse of this glorious destiny!

Circling back to an event that many commentators believe took place before Moses ascended the mountain to receive the Torah, we are presented with an extraordinary vision witnessed by Moses, Aaron, Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders (Exod 24:1–11). These Israelites had a vision of the light of the Creator. What they appear to see is a brick of sapphire resting beneath the feet of God under Kisei Hakavod, the holy throne. The vision of God sitting on a throne (kisei) is described by several prophets, among them Micah (I Kings 22:19), Isaiah (Isa. 6), Ezekiel (Ezek. 1), and Daniel (Dan. 7:9). The Hekhalot tracts of the early centuries of the common era, speak of the throne as the merkavah, or “chariot” which can carry us to the loftier place of presence before the Holy Blessing One. Though the Hekhalot tractates are extremely esoteric and generally considered unreliable, they do offer a window into the historical thinking of Jewish mystical traditions. But what is unique is this brick of sapphire under God’s feet!

A midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 23:8) interprets this strange vision as an image from the past. Before His people were redeemed from Egypt, God kept before Him this “brick,” symbolizing the bricks and mortar to which they were enslaved; it was a visual expression of the idea that God was with them in their suffering. After their release from slavery, however, this brickwork was cast away and no longer seen in the heavens. But is this just a mere remembrance?

Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up.  They saw the God of Israel, and under His feet was something like a pavement of sapphire, as clear as the very heavens.  Yet He did not raise His hand against the nobles of Bnei-Yisrael. So, they beheld God, and ate and drank. (Shemot 24:9-10)

From a Messianic Jewish perspective it is noteworthy that the Holy One is not merely incarnate in a pillar of smoke or a pillar of fire, but He is fully corporeal (apologies to the Rambam)!  Not only does the King have feet, but He is sitting upon a throne . . . so He has a posterior!

Rather than viewing this as an exclusively retrospective image, perhaps it has an anticipatory significance as well. This strange vision has the capacity to create connections between conflicting events of incredible magnitude and intention. In Egypt, the people were previously slaves of Pharaoh, forced to build cities of bricks made from straw; however, at Sinai they have become a people who want to serve God. The brick of sapphire contains within it the residue of an earlier period, but the same image also points towards the glorious future. The brick shines like the purest heavens. The choice seems clear, do you wish to build tombs for Pharaoh or a Kingdom with the Holy Creator!

So Mishpatim is not simply about legal details and minutia; rather it is the building block of a just society, a world under the rule of the rightful King. There is not King without a kingdom, and no kingdom without a King.  God’s highest standards return us to a world where we understandably see the King on His Kisei HaKavod, and when the King is on His throne, we do not have to bear the weight of the world on our shoulders. So, the world will be repaired, one heavenly brick at a time—and we are destined to be more than spectators, as we dwell in the presence of the Lord.



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