Mishpatim: Heaven and Earth

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Mishpatim

Shalom from snowy Swampscott! It’s a delight and a blessing to be back in
familiar quarters after two months of traveling, although it takes a bit of
adjustment to go from shirt sleeve in San Diego to snow banks in

It’s also a pleasure to be writing Torah thoughts in my office; there are
commentaries that I’ve been wishing to consult that are to find in an Internet
cafe (although cafe latte makes it a trade-off). One such commentary is that of
R. Ovadiah Sforno (Italy, 1500’s), which covers most of the Torah and often
brings a beautiful, spiritual perspective to the text. In this week’s parsha,
Sforno helps us understand what it might mean to have a “spiritual
experience,” a vision of the heavens, while living right here on earth.

First, a bit of background. Most of this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, deals
with laws: civil, criminal, financial, liability, religious, and so on. Then
asks the assembled Israelites to affirm the covenant, which they just received
at Sinai, and they accept it with joy. After all the people affirm the covenant,
Moshe takes his brother, his nephews, and 70 elders back up the mountain,
where they have a vision of the Divine Presence itself:

“Moshe and Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, and seventy of the elders of Yisrael
ascended, and they perceived the Holy One of Yisrael, and beneath God’s
feet was like a brickwork of sapphire and like the appearance of the heavens
for purity.” (Shmot/ Exodus 24:9-10)

These verses aren’t so simple to understand: did Moshe and his companions
see God directly, or only what was “beneath God’s feet,” as it were? (My
assumption is that anthropomorphic imagery, like God having “feet,” is
metaphorical or symbolic, even in Biblical times.) Yet a little later on, in the
portion Ki Tisa, Moshe is told “no man may see Me and live,” and is allowed
only an obscured vision of the Divine Presence. (Shmot 33:20). So it’s not
clear what exactly these men saw or experienced, although it seems to have
been awesome and inspiring.

Various commentators discuss the meaning of the “brickwork of sapphire,”
and how the “appearance of the heavens” might be similar to other Biblical
images, but only Sforno (among the commentaries I consulted) understands
this experience as one of perceiving God as Creator. Sforno brings a verse
from the prophet Isaiah to connect the “brickwork of sapphire” to the Earth

“beneath God’s feet”. . .[This means]: on the earth, which is the lowest of all,
it says: “and the Earth is My footstool.” (This last quote is from Isaiah 66:1)

Sforno seems to be saying that the “brickwork of sapphire,” which was
beautiful and pure, was in fact the Earth itself, which was viewed as God’s
“footstool,” as it were. Earth is not separate from God, nor God from Earth, but
instead, a vision of God leads to perceiving the Earth as Divine and luminous,
as holy and beautiful. Spirituality, in this view, is not “heavenly” and distant
from earthly life, but is a matter of seeing the Earth as the heavens, as the
place from which we can discern the Divine Presence as close and real.

Taken this way, it’s quite a powerful model of spiritual awareness: spiritual
awe- depicted here as a vision of the Divine- brings forth a deep perception of
the kedusha, or holiness, of Earth itself. To imagine that “the Earth is God’s
footstool” is, for us, to imagine a kind of mutual sustaining, whereby Creator
and Creation are not the same thing, but impossible to imagine except in
relation to each other.

We cannot become aware of God without becoming aware of God’s Presence
in the natural world. Reverence for one is inseparable from reverence for the
other, because there is, in truth, no strict dividing line between Creator and
Creation. Moshe and his friends came down from the mountain seeing the
Earth as a holy jewel; isn’t it time we did the same?


PS: We’ll look at Rashi’s view of these verses Shabbat morning at Temple
Israel- consider yourself invited.

Also, for more on the scholar Sforno, see here:


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