The last section of this week’s Torah portion of Mishpatim goes into more detail about what took place around the time of Matan Torah, the giving of the Torah.
There are a few obscure pesukim in this week’s Torah portion. After the Jewish people said in unison, “naaseh vinishmah,” “we will do and we will listen,” the Torah records, “And Moshe and Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel ascended, and they perceived the G-D of Israel, and beneath His feet was like the forming of a sapphire brick and like the appearance of the heavens for clarity. And upon the nobles of the children of Israel He did not lay His hand, and they perceived G-D, and they ate and drank. And Hashem said to Moshe, ‘Come up to Me to the mountain and remain there, and I will give you the stone tablets, the Law and the commandments, which I have written to instruct them’” (Shemos 24:9-12).
One of the opinions brought in the Tur Hashalem is that these pesukim are simply comparing Moshe to the seventy elders, Nadav and Avihu. “’They ate and they drank’ in order to differentiate them from Moshe. For Moshe ‘saw Hashem’ just as they did but he did not eat for 40 days and 40 nights but they saw and ate immediately.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
We must put into perspective what Moshe was doing and what the elders and Nadav and Avihu were doing. The Tur says they ate the peace offering that was just sacrificed, at the bottom of the mountain, because a peace offering is normally eaten within the walls of Jerusalem by the Beis Hamikdash. Similarly, they ate the offering right next to the alter they had burned it upon, and not in the camp. They also drank wine because there was a great celebration made on the day of receiving the Torah, as it writes, “And you shall slaughter peace offerings, and you shall eat there, and you shall rejoice before Hashem, your G-D” (Devarim 27:7), referring to a mitzvah of rejoicing over the covenant with the Torah. It would seem that they were eating and drinking purely for the sake of Heaven, as a mitzvah, to rejoice upon receiving the Torah. This is also done by a siyum, upon concluding the Torah or a tractate of Mishnah or Talmud, and they were eating from offerings sacrificed to Hashem.
The Mesilas Yesharim in fact says in his last chapter, the chapter of Holiness, that it is the highest wrung of spirituality, right before the level of prophesy, which they were on: “The matter of holiness is dual. Its beginning is service [of G-d] while its end is reward; its beginning is exertion while its end is a [divine] gift. That is, its beginning is that which a man sanctifies himself, while its end is his being sanctified…The exertion is that which a man completely detaches and removes himself from the physical, and clings always, at all periods and times to his G-D…Even when he is engaged in physical actions required for his bodily side, his soul will not budge from its clinging on high…However, it is impossible for a man to place himself in such a state. For it is beyond his ability. He is after all a physical creature, of flesh and blood. Thus I said that the end of Holiness is a gift. For that which is in man’s ability to do is the initial exertion, pursuing true knowledge and continual thought on the sanctification of deed…Behold, for the man sanctified with the holiness of his Creator, even his physical deeds become actual matters of holiness. A sign of this is in “the eating of temple offerings”, which our sages of blessed memory said: “the priests eat and the owners obtain atonement” (Pesachim 59b)… But for the Holy man who constantly clings to his G-D, whose soul treads freely among true thoughts in love of his Creator and fear of Him, behold, it is considered as if he is walking before G-D in the Land of the Living, while still here in this world…Such a man is himself considered as a tabernacle, a temple and an altar. This is as our sages said (Breishis Rabba 62:6): ‘and G-D went up from him(Breishis 35:13) – the forefathers are the divine chariot.’ Likewise, they said: ‘the righteous are the divine chariot’…For the Shechina (Divine Presence) dwells within them just as it dwelled in the Temple. Due to this, the food they eat is like a sacrifice offered upon the fire of the altar, for certainly it was a great elevation for those things to be offered on the altar, since they were offered before the Shechina. The elevation was to such an extent that its kind, all over the world, was blessed, as our sages stated in a Midrash. So too, the food and drink which the holy man eats elevates that food or drink as if it had actually been offered on the altar…In this way was all use they made of the things of this world. Since they were clinging to G-D’s holiness, blessed be He, behold, it was an elevation and an enhancement for that thing which merited to be of use to a Tzadik (righteous person)…”
This is certainly at least the level the Elders and Nadav and Avihu were on, if not a bit higher. Yet Moshe’s level transcended theirs to the point that he went up to Heaven for forty days and forty nights to receive the Torah without eating or drinking. In fact, the Moshav Zekeinim says that when the Torah says in pasuk 1 and 2 “And to Moshe He said, ‘Come up to Hashem, you and Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and prostrate yourselves from afar. And Moshe alone shall approach Hashem but they shall not approach, and the people shall not ascend with him,’” Hashem sent the angel Michoel to be the guide to bring Moshe up to Heaven to receive the Torah. It would have been Matatron, the minister of all the angels, but he is very strict in judgement and Moshe asked for someone more merciful to guide him to the Throne of Glory. And in pasuk 16 it says, “And the glory of Hashem rested on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days, and He called to Moshe on the seventh day from within the cloud,” the Moshav Zekeinim says there that the gemara in Yoma 4b says that for those six days when Moshe was already on the mountain, before he ascended to Heaven to receive the Torah, he was being emptied of all food from his innards. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
The Medrish Kitapuach Bi’Atzei HaYa’ar, an obscure medrish which relates Moshe’s first encounter by the burning bush and certainly should apply also when receiving the Torah, says that after Moshe complained that he did not deserve to be leader, Hashem promised he would honor him and said, “’I will give all the ministers into your hands and I will bring you up to Heaven to see My throne of glory, and I will show you all the angels in Heaven.’ At that moment Hashem commanded Matatron, the Internal Minister of Heaven and said to him, ‘Go and bring Moshe my servant up to Heaven and take with you 15,000 angels on you right side and 15,000 angels on your left side with joy, song, drums and trumpets. And you all should sing praises to Moshe my servant. Matatron then said to Hashem, ‘Moshe can’t go up amongst the angels because there are angels who are made of fire and he is flesh and blood!’ Afterwards Hashem instructed Matatron and said to him, ‘Go and change his flesh into torches of fire and strength the might of the angel Gavriel.’ Matatron came to Moshe and when Moshe saw him he was immediately afraid of him and asked, ‘Who are you?’ [Matatron] said back to him, ‘I am Chanoch ben Yered, your great grandfather. Hashem has sent me to bring you up to His throne of honor.’ Moshe said back to Matatron, ‘I am flesh and blood and I can’t gaze at angels!’ Immediately he turned his flesh into torches of fire, and his eyes into balls of stars, and gave him the strength of the might of angels, and his tongue turned into a flame, and then he brought Moshe up to Heaven and with him 15,000 angels on his right, 15,000 angels on his left and Matatron and Moshe in the middle.” This was the awesome greatness of Moshe Rabbeinu which clearly amassed a very great level of closeness to Hashem, more than anyone one else can even truly fathom! So, we clearly see that as great and close to Hashem as the Elders, Nadav and Avihu were, Moshe Rabbeinu was much, much greater. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
However, Rashi has a different opinion of what happened to the Elders Nadav and Avihu. They clearly were on the level described above, for if not they could not have intellectually seen what they saw. But Rashi says on pasuk 10, and they perceived the G-D of Israel: “They gazed and peered and [because of this] were doomed to die, but the Holy One, blessed is He, did not want to disturb the rejoicing of [this moment of the giving of] the Torah. So He waited for Nadav and Avihu [i.e., to kill them,] until the day of the dedication of the Mishkan, and for [destroying] the elders until [the following incident:] “And the people were as if seeking complaints… and a fire of Hashem broke out against them and devoured at the edge (בִּקְצֵה) of the camp” (Bamidbar 11:1). [בִקְצֵה denotes] the officers (בִקְצִינִים) of the camp [i.e., the elders]. -[From Midrash Tanchuma Beha’alosecha 16]. In the next pasuk, 11, Rashi comments, “And upon the nobles: They are Nadav and Avihu and the elders. -[From Midrash Tanchuma Beha’alosecha 16] He did not lay His hand: This indicates that they deserved that a hand be laid upon them. and they perceived G-D: They gazed at Him with levity, while [they were] eating and drinking. So is the [interpretation of] Midrash Tanchuma (Beha’alosecha 16).”
What was the pinpoint error they had done wrong that deserved death, and how could such great people, of such a high spiritual stature, make such a mistake?
Rashi on Bamidbar 11:16 says “They perceived G-D” (Shemos 24:11), behaving irreverently, like someone munching his bread while speaking to the king, and this is the meaning of “they ate and drank” (ibid.).
The Mizrachi, a commentary on Rashi, says on pasuk 10 that the staring they did was a vision in their hearts, not physically staring with their eyes, but that they had this vision while eating and drinking, which was rude (and maybe even a bit haughty). The Mizrachi goes on to say that this staring was just a vision in their heart , not physical, for eyes cannot even perceive demons which eat and drink like humans and are mere mortals but they can only see but not be seen as Chazal say in Chagiga and Brachos, and many other places, therefore certainly in spiritual matters, and all the more so in terms of the Shechina (Holy Presence) itself. Since that is the case, they deserved to die because they entered within the inner walls. And from here Chaza”l learns that one should not ask what is above, below, within, or on the other side. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
Rashi and the Mizrachi are teaching us that the exact sin of the Elders, Nadav and Avihu is that they decided to look too closely into something which they were not on a level to perceive. Though they were on a very high level of spirituality to the point that they were fit to have prophecy, they went too far and crossed boundaries that only Moshe, who was totally void of physicality at the time, was allowed to perceive and engage in. We see in fact that Moshe did ask to “Show me Your glory” (Shemos 33:18), while beseeching mercy on the Children of Israel after the sin of the golden calf. Rashi there says, Moses perceived that it was a time of [God’s] good will, and his words were accepted, so he continued to ask that He show him the appearance of His glory. Moshe was not punished for this request and Hashem compromised and said, “’You will not be able to see My face, for man shall not see Me and live.’ And Hashem said: ‘Behold, there is a place with Me, and you shall stand on the rock. And it shall be that when My glory passes by, I will place you into the cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove My hand, and you will see My back but My face shall not be seen’ (Shemos 33:18-23 see Rashi there).”
We learn a very important lesson from here, that we have to know ourselves and know what level we are holding on, and must not try to jump the gun and attempt to understand or perceive things which we aren’t ready for or deserving of understanding yet. For example, I have a tradition from my rebbeim that a person should not even think about learning kabbala until he is at least forty years old and knows all of Shas. It takes knowledge and experience to start learning the depths of Torah that are extremely complex and esoteric. To start learning about it beforehand could be dangerous and devastating. Also to expect to find answers to questions like what exactly did the world look like before creation, or what will happen after 6000 years, or by the resurrection of the dead, or what does Gan Eden or Gehenim really look like are things that one might ponder but cannot and should not expect to get clear and precise answers about. One has to be on an extremely high level, like Yaakov Avinu was at the end of his life, to know what will be at the end of days, or before creation, and beyond this physical world in the seven Heavens.
One cannot just demand answers and expect to understand things which are beyond one’s scope of understanding and to pretend one can be on the level when they aren’t can be devastating physically and spiritually.