Mishpatim for Tweens

Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1−24:18

Parashat Mishpatim, which follows the Ten Commandments, continues the Torah's presentation of Divine legislation. The word mishpatim means "case laws" and many such rules are enumerated in these chapters, encompassing civil, criminal and cultic regulations. Many scholars have concluded that these laws may have at one time comprised a separate law code unto itself. The parashah concludes with a covenant ceremony on Mount Sinai. (This part of the Torah is sometimes called the "Covenant Code.")

Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel ascended; and they saw the God of Israel-under whose feet was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity. Yet [God] did not raise a hand against the leaders of the Israelites; they beheld God, and they ate and drank. (24:9-11)

Many passages in the Torah talk about "seeing God." The episode we have just read from Parashat Mishpatim differs from most others in two major respects: (1) Specific details are provided about God's appearance (God has feet!) and setting (the pavement of sapphire) and (2) the text states explicitly that no harm came to those who beheld God. This second point in particular distinguishes this text from many other passages about seeing God. Consider: when Moses encountered God for the first time at the burning bush, we read, Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. (Exodus 3:6) Later in Exodus, God will say to Moses, But you cannot see My face, for a human being may not see Me and live. (33:20) Similar motifs pop up throughout the Torah.

It seems that the religious beliefs of our Biblical ancestors incorporated a pervasive wariness, even fear, about seeing God (or even a lesser "divine being" or angel) with the naked eye. Samson's father Manoach reacts to a visit from an angel by exclaiming , "We shall surely die, for we have seen a divine being!" (Judges 13:22) But in Parashat Mishpatim, not only do Moses and his company see God, the text insists that no harm came to them. Instead of recoiling at the sight, they enjoyed a meal in God's presence!

Classical commentators found this passage deeply troubling, taking pains to assert that the Israelite leaders did not, in fact, see God with their eyes. Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089 - c.1164) teaches, "This was no vision of the eye, but rather by way of prophecy." Maimonides (1135-1204) strenuously opposed anthropomorphism, the tendency to portray God with human form. Found in his commentary on the Mishnah, Rambam's Thirteen Articles of Faith famously assert God's incorporeality. (Sanhedrin 10) In Maimonides' view, the Israelites "did not see an image or any form when [they] stood at Sinai because…God has no body nor power of the body." (Article III)

When it comes to imaging God, Jewish children may have a different perspective from adults. A child asked to "draw God" is likely to use images drawn from the physical world: often God is depicted as an old man with a long, white beard. Other children may draw a shining sun, a big red heart or a Torah scroll. The child grows up, and the picture changes. Many adults told to "draw God" will leave a blank page. Others use abstract lines, shapes or symbols to convey some aspect of the Divine as they perceive it. This spiritual evolution is appropriate; as we age, our thinking about God becomes more abstract. Letting go of the "Old Man in the Sky" image can help us cultivate new perceptions of God. However, too often we abandon the Old Man image of our childhood but find no suitable new images. Too often we discard our childhood images of God like we abandon the Tooth Fairy. As God loses corporeality, God becomes less real to us. Our relationship with God withers; our spiritual growth is stunted.

Here Judaism can not only instruct, but also offer new language and imagery for developing a meaningful, grown-up relationship with God. Maimonides insists that God cannot be seen. But he also says that whenever the Bible speaks of "seeing" or "beholding" God, these "must be understood as intellectual perception." (Childs, ed., The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary, 506) "Intellectual perception" is one path to a meaningful encounter with God. It is no wonder that Judaism so esteems the study of Torah and sacred literature. Rabbi Dr. Louis Finkelstein is often quoted as having said, "When I pray, I speak to God; and when I study, God speaks to me."

A second possibility comes from Nachmanides (1194-1270), who believed that growth in age, experience and moral stature privilege a person to experience a closer relationship with God. He points out that only the elders and nobles of Israel beheld God in Mishpatim. "The elders perceived more in this vision than did the rest of the people." As we grow older, the opportunity arises to develop our spirituality in tandem with our age. Many of us will perceive the lasting lessons and the significance of our lives only in hindsight, when we have had the chance to look back and see pattern and purpose in the journey. What once struck us as random chance may look more like the hand of God, if we have grown not only in years but in spirit. In Moses' first encounter on Sinai, when he was but a young man, he could not bring himself to look at God. But in the Torah's last verses, Moses is eulogized as having communicated with God "face to face."

A final pathway to perception of God beyond the eyes is found in relationship with others. Martin Buber (1878-1965) believed that the truest model for developing a relationship with God existed in the most deeply meaningful relationships that we share with other people. Esau's words to his brother Jacob upon their reunion after long estrangement are profound, Seeing your face is like seeing the face of God. (Genesis 33:10) Our human relationships can inform, indeed strengthen our spirituality. In relationship with other people we can develop all of the elements integral to a relationship with God-love, fairness, humility, moral courage, companionship, loyalty and forgiveness. The words of Les Miserables say it best, "To love another person is to see the face of God."

Table Talk

  1. In his book When Children Ask About God, Rabbi Harold Kushner invites us to reframe the oft-asked question, "Where is God?" with the question, "When is God?" Identify some times or episodes in your life when you perceived God's presence, or when your thinking about God or relationship with God underwent a significant development or change.
  2. Consider your relationship with someone very close to you. What specific qualities in this relationship would you wish to have in your ideal relationship with God? Why?
  3. The Reconstructionist Prayer Book Kol Haneshamah reflects the multitude of ways in which human beings can relate to God by ascribing to God many different names (or "epithets") throughout its pages. Just a few among them: THE INFINITE, THE OMNIPRESENT, WISE ONE, THE MAGNIFICENT, THE BOUNTIFUL, THE INVISIBLE, THE INVINCIBLE, and, fittingly, THE MANY-NAMED. Which are your favorites and why? What others could you add?

For Further Learning

This is an exercise as demonstrated by Rabbi Julie Schwartz, requiring only white paper and colored markers or crayons. Take a piece of paper and fold it so that you have four equal quadrants. Number them, one through four. In each quadrant, you will draw a different image.

  1. An illustration of God as you perceived God when you were a child.
  2. God as you imagine God today.
  3. Your perception of "The God of Judaism."
  4. An image of God as you would hope to perceive God later in your life.

Then reflect on these questions: Why did you draw each particular image? What do they reveal about your evolving relationship with God and Judaism? It can be particularly enriching to compare your own pictures with those of others.

Reference Materials

Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1-24:18
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 566-592; Revised Edition, pp. 511–538
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 427–450

Originally published: