Parashas Mishpatim

The end of this week’s parashah relates the events leading up to Moshe’s forty-day stay in heaven to receive the full Torah from Hashem, while the Jewish People encamped at Mount Sinai. It is written (Shemos 24:9-11): “Moshe, Aharon, Nadav, Avihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel ascended [Mount Sinai]. And they beheld God …. And against the eminent men of the Children of Israel, He did not send forth His hand – they gazed at God, and they ate and drank.” Here, they phrase “they ate and drank” means that they imbibed the Divine Presence at Sinai as if they were eating and drinking. The Midrash remarks (Bamidbar Rabbah 15:24):
It was like a servant snatching bites of his master’s food out of the master’s hand. These men deserved to die instantly, but the Holy One Blessed Be He did not wish to disrupt the joy of the Giving of the Torah. So, instead, Nadav and Abivu died on the day the Mishkan was dedicated [after offering a foreign fire – Vayikra 10:1-2], and the remainder of the group died along with the craving throng [who complained about the manna and clamored for more delectable food – Bamidbar 11:4-34].
The Maggid explains the Midrash as follows. Certain activities involve both pleasure and spiritual benefit. One example is partaking of delicacies on Shabbos, which we have discussed in a previous piece – this activity involves both the pleasure of enjoying the food and the spiritual benefit associated with the mitzvah of honoring Shabbos. The way Hashem judges the activity depends on the motive the person had for engaging in it. If the person is motivated by a desire to gain spiritual benefit, Hashem views the activity favorably, while if he is motivated by a desire for pleasure, Hashem views the activity neutrally or unfavorably.
Now, beholding the Divine Presence involves both pleasure and spiritual benefit. Indeed, wondrous though it may sound, beholding the Divine Presence is the greatest of all pleasures. In the upper worlds, the radiance of the Divine Presence is like nourishment; all the angels and other heavenly beings are sustained through it. At the same time, beholding the Divine Presence is the most powerful means of elevating the soul. The Jews who beheld the Divine Presence at Sinai should have focused solely on the spiritual benefit. Those elders who imbibed the Divine Presence out of pleasure committed an affront against Hashem’s honor. It was just like partaking of delicacies on Shabbos for the sake of pleasure rather than for the sake of the mitzvah. The Midrash compares these elders to a servant who snatched bites of his master’s food out of the master’s hand. The servant gained nourishment thereby, yet he committed an act of great brazenness. Similarly, the conduct of these elders was like that of the throng in the wilderness who brazenly clamored for delectable foods – the sin was of a similar character. Hence, when Hashem struck down the craving throng, He struck down these elders as well.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

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