The Significance of Strange Visions: Mishpatim 5776

One my strangest experiences came during my last visit with my grandmother Belle Nevins, z”l. She was dying, and although conscious it was not clear that she was aware of us. Suddenly she looked to the empty chair in the corner of the room and addressed her husband, my Papa Sam, who had died many years before. “Wait for me, Sam, I’m coming,” she said. And so she did. It turns out that this story is not so strange after all, if strange means unusual. A new study reported this week by Jan Hoffman in the NY Times proclaimed “New Vision for for Dreams of the Dying.” Many dying people report seeing deceased relatives as they themselves prepare to die. For most, such visions are comforting, though there are exceptions. Medical researchers are beginning to examine the dreams and waking visions of dying patients and their role in bringing comfort or distress to them and their loved ones. It is not easy for physicians to take such “deliriums” seriously, but these researchers make the compelling case that the experiences reported by patients are always relevant to their care. Moreover, many of the dreams of the dying do not come across as delirious. They have narrative coherence and enduring meaning for the patients and for those who know them. And so they are worthy of respectful attention. 

Treating unusual and even improbably visions with respect is not so difficult for religious people. Even the most critical reader can appreciate the power of a narrative that shares an intense and miraculous vision. We cherish our sacred scriptures in part because they periodically depart from the realm of ordinary experience and give us a glimpse of a different reality. We cannot prove anything about these visions other than that they have had enormous power for millennia, and continue to move us. When our texts slip between normal and extraordinary modes and back again, they make an implicit claim about the blended nature of reality. 

Parashat Mishpatim exemplifies this switching in states of consciousness. It opens with rules and regulations, but ends with an extraordinary theophany. After the people of Israel are entered into the covenant with a literal blood-bath, Moses, Aaron, Nadav, Avihu and the seventy elders ascend (what, exactly?), “And they saw the God of Israel: under His feet was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity. Yet He did not raise His hand against the leaders of the Israelites; they beheld God, and they ate and drank.” (Ex. 24:9-11; NJPS). 

The Torah here ventures well beyond the “consuming fire” that was seen by the people on the mountain top. This is an unusually graphic description of God, and modern scholars associate it with the “J” tradition, which is characterized by anthropomorphic imagery (see Baruch Schwartz’s “What Really Happened at Mt. Sinai?). This image of God has made many Jewish interpreters squeamish. The Targum Onqeles, usually quite literal, interpolates the word “yakra” (=kavod-glory) so that the leaders saw not the divine body, but just God’s glory, perhaps the brilliant light described by other passages nearby. Maimonides understands all references to the divine body as metaphors, and attributes this perception to prophecy, which is not captured in ordinary language (Guide I:4). 

And yet, not all Jewish interpretations shy away from the graphic vision of this text. In b. Sotah 17a Rabbi Meir explains the significance of the color blue in the tassels (tzitzit) by reference to the sapphire pavement in our verse, as well as to a verse, Ezekiel 1:26 which describes the sapphire hue of heaven and proceeds to depict God “as the image of a man sitting on a throne.” Midrash Pesikta Rabbati reports Rabbi Yitzhak describing God like a gazelle that skips from place to place—since Israel saw God in Egypt, at the Reed Sea, and again at Sinai. There is no suggestion here that these divine appearances were metaphorical. While modern Jewish thinkers have almost always followed Maimonides in fleeing from such anthropomorphic descriptions, mystical sources delight in describing the divine body—the beard, the nose and more. These too are likely metaphors, but the images themselves have significance and power. 

Hasidic thinkers such as Kedushat HaLevi build on the sefirotic system, with the ineffable essence of God described as “Ein Sof” and clearly neither corporeal nor directly perceivable by any mortal. However, there are emanations of the divine that can indeed be experienced visibly and directly. This is how the Berditchever seems to understand our verse—as a projection of eternity into the material realm. Such a theology can help us relate to graphic visions reported by others that we cannot experience directly. Whether it is a narrative like Exodus 24, or the testimony of a person who has seen something extraordinary, we can simultaneously hold on to a theology of transcendence and one that grants the reality or at  least the importance of such visions.

We do a disservice to the natural spirituality of many people when we seek to cover up their graphic visions with our abstract theologies. Asking people to describe their vision of God, and respecting their responses even when they veer into anthropomorphism, can be a more productive approach. Instead of correcting or even mocking them, perhaps we ought to listen and ask open-ended questions about the source and significance of these images in their life. If our purpose is to invest life with meaning, we cannot afford to dismiss the most vivid and overwhelming experiences that our people report of the divine realm. This does not mean that we should endorse a primitive theology of God as an old man in the sky. After listening and inquiring and appreciating the experience of others, we can share our own understanding, which may respect the value of graphic images while nevertheless understanding these as the projections of a mortal mind as it seeks to grapple with eternity. 

שמות פרק כד, ט-יא

(ט) וַיַּעַל מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא וְשִׁבְעִים מִזִּקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל: (י) וַיִּרְאוּ אֵת אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְתַחַת רַגְלָיו כְּמַעֲשֵׂה לִבְנַת הַסַּפִּיר וּכְעֶצֶם הַשָּׁמַיִם לָטֹהַר: (יא) וְאֶל אֲצִילֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא שָׁלַח יָדוֹ וַיֶּחֱזוּ אֶת הָאֱלֹהִים וַיֹּאכְלוּ וַיִּשְׁתּוּ: 

תרגום אונקלוס שמות פרק כד פסוק י

(י) וחזו ית יקר אלהא דישראל ותחות כורסי יקריה כעובד אבן טבא וכמחזי שמיא לברירו:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת סוטה דף יז עמוד א

היה ר”מ אומר: מה נשתנה תכלת מכל מיני צבעונין? מפני שהתכלת דומה לים, וים דומה לרקיע, ורקיע דומה לכסא הכבוד, שנאמר: ויראו את אלהי ישראל ותחת רגליו כמעשה לבנת הספיר וכעצם השמים לטהר, וכתיב: כמראה אבן ספיר דמות כסא. 

יחזקאל פרק א פסוק כו

וּמִמַּעַל לָרָקִיעַ אֲשֶׁר עַל רֹאשָׁם כְּמַרְאֵה אֶבֶן סַפִּיר דְּמוּת כִּסֵּא וְעַל דְּמוּת הַכִּסֵּא דְּמוּת כְּמַרְאֵה אָדָם עָלָיו מִלְמָעְלָה: 

פסיקתא רבתי (איש שלום) פיסקא טו – החודש ד”ה דומה דודי לצבי

[לצבי] א”ר יצחק מה הצבי הזה מדלג ומקפץ מאילן לאילן ומסוכה לסוכה ומגדר לגדר כך הקדוש ברוך הוא מדלג מן מצרים לים ומן הים לסיני, במצרים ראו אותו ועברתי בארץ מצרים בלילה הזה (שמות י”ב י”ב), בים ראו אותו וירא ישראל את היד הגדולה (שם /שמות/ י”ד ל”א), בסיני ראו אותו שנאמר ויראו (אלהים) [את אלהי] ישראל (שם /שמות/ כ”ד י’), בסיני ראו אותו ויאמר ה’ מסיני בא [וגו’] (דברים ל”ג ב’). 

קדושת לוי שמות פרשת משפטים ד”ה ותחת רגליו

ותחת רגליו כמעשה לבנת הספיר (כד, י). הכלל, כי כל ניצוץ ואבר ותנועה ומלאך צריכין לעבוד את הבורא ברוך הוא, כי הוא יחיד ומיוחד ואין סוף, והעובד אותו מקבל תענוג אין סוף, מה שאי אפשר לשום נברא להשיגן. והנה נודע ששם באין סוף אין שייך מספר ומדה ומנין, רק כשהשפע בא בתוך העולמות אז מוכרח האין סוף לצמצם לכל אחד כפי מדריגתו, והיה כמה צמצומים, אז כביכול שייך שפיר מספר ומדה אצל האין סוף, בחינות האי”ן שבתוך העולמות (עי’ זוה”ק ח”ג רנז, ב).