Mishpatim

By Dr Leya Landau, February 18, 2009
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“They saw the God of Israel, and under His feet was that which had the form of a sapphire brick, and was like the appearance of the heavens in purity” Exodus 24:10

The final chapter of Mishpatim — a parashah that, after the high drama at Sinai, deals mainly with the civil laws necessary for creating and maintaining a just society — concerns the ratification of the covenant between God and His people.

Circling back to an earlier event that took place before Moses ascended the mountain to receive the Torah, we are presented with an extraordinary vision witnessed by Moses, Aaron, Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders. What they appear to see is a brick of sapphire resting beneath the feet of God.

The Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 23:8) interprets this strange vision as an image from the past. Before His people were redeemed from Egypt, God kept before Him this “brick”, symbolising the bricks and mortar to which they were enslaved; it was a visual expression of the idea that God was with them in their suffering. After their release from slavery, however, this brickwork was cast away and no longer seen in the heavens.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Germany 1808-1888) expands on this idea: he also sees in the sapphire brick a reminder of the building and construction performed under the harshest conditions of slavery. But rather than viewing this as an exclusively retrospective image, he suggests an anticipatory significance, too.

For Rabbi Hirsch, this strange vision has the capacity to create connections between events of the greatest magnitude. In Egypt, the people were previously slaves of Pharaoh, forced to build cities of bricks made from straw; however, at Sinai they have become a people who want to serve God. The brick of sapphire contains within it the residue of an earlier period, but the same image also points towards the future. Rabbi Hirsch explains that the unconditional acceptance of the Torah — encapsulated by the words “We will do and we will hear” (Exodus: 24:7) — becomes the first brick in the Covenant, and establishes the nature of a new relationship between God and His people.

    Last updated: 5:22pm, February 18 2009