The Ethereal and the Material

Mishpatim By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Feb 17, 2007 / 5767

Parashat Mishpatim records the pinnacle of closeness between God and people. After the Ten Commandments (last week) and a catalogue of other civil and ethical laws, Moses affirms the covenant by sacrificing animals and dashing their blood against an altar. “Then Moses and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu (two of Aaron’s sons) and seventy elders of Israel ascended; and they saw the God of Israel; under his feet there was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity.” (Exodus 24:9—10). What do the people do immediately after experiencing this sublime revelation? They head for the bagels and whitefish! Seriously, they eat! “Yet He did not raise His hand against the leaders of the Israelites; they beheld God, and they ate and drank.” This unexpected juxtaposition of the ethereal and the material (in Hebrew ruchani and gashmi) puzzled commentators through the ages.

Some were extremely uncomfortable with it and sought to allegorize it: the Aramaic translator of the Torah, Onkelos, says it was “as if” they were eating and drinking, having been nourished by the Presence (God). Some took it as its context, saying it referred to partaking of the sacrifices Moses had made to seal the covenant, and found nothing unusual in this expression of commitment (Ibn Ezra). Others accept the eating as physical and natural: Maimonides, known for his insistence on the intellect as the path to God and Torah, here acknowledges the Torah’s illustration that experience of God “engaged all the senses” (Etz Hayyim, 479). Yehuda HaLevi emphasizes that the leaders ate “despite being nourished by the Presence.”

These comments lead us to a broader examination of Jewish views on food and eating. Modern commentators tend to follow the anti—ascetic streams in our tradition and to spiritualize and ennoble the physical world: “In the world—to—come, a person will be asked to give an account for that which, being excellent to eat, she gazed at and did not eat” (Jerusalem Talmud, Kiddushin).

And whatever he eats or drinks . his intention will be to keep the body and limbs healthy. … he will eat what is healthy, whether it is bitter or sweet. His practice will be to have as his intention that his body be healthy and strong so his soul will be fit and able to know God. For it is not possible to understand and become wise in Torah and mitzvot when you are hungry or sickly or when one of your limbs hurts. (Orhot Tzaddikim [an anonymous Hebrew ethical work from the fifteenth century], Gate 5, 39).

Thus the meal is an integral part of the simhah at a wedding, brit, baby naming, Shabbat, and festival. It is important to sanctify the occasion by serving kosher food, making blessings before and after the meal, eating with moderation and good manners (not pushing in line), and wherever possible giving the leftovers to a homeless shelter. May we come to an understanding where we do not compartmentalize the physical and the spiritual, but we are able to conceptualize and truly live both as seamless parts of an integrated, reverent, and celebratory life.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.