Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Spirit and the Flesh

"And to the princes of the Children of Israel He laid not his hand.And they beheld G-d and they ate and drank."

The close of this week's parsha of Mishpatim speaks to the events at Sinai. According to some commentaries it adds to already talked about events prior to the giving of the Ten Commandments. According to others it refers to what happened directly after. In either case the verse quoted above is intriguing. Who are these "princes" and why did G-d have reason to "lay his hand"?

Rashi in his commentary says the verse is referring to Nadav and Avihu, the two chidlren of Aharon, who later died in the Temple.
Their sin here was one of arrogance. They experienced the prophetic at Sinai while still immersed in the mundane of their lives.
G-d spared the consequence of their 'chutzpa' here, not to compromise the festivities of the Giving of the Law.
Other commentaries see no sin here at all. And do not agree that the subject of the verse is Nadav and Avihu.

The Or Ha'Chayim presents a compelling interpretation. He explains, the literal meaning of the words is "And G-d did not send out His hand." The Or Ha'Chayim explains that means G-d did not hold back the fullness of his revelation, as He did when Moshe asked to see His face and G-d, in response, revealed Himself but covered His face with His palm. Here at Sinai the princes saw G-d without filters. G-d did not "send out His hand" to cover Himself. According to the Or Ha'Chayim the verse is speaking of the blessing of Sinai. G-d here revealed Himself without obfuscation. What does it mean then that "they ate and drank"? The Or Ha'Chayim explained that it means the spiritual satisfied them as if they ate and drank.

I found the interpretation of the Or Ha'Chayim convincing, at least in so far as understanding that the verse is referring to the quality of G-d's revelation. However I see something different with reference to verse's close. For me, when the 'pasuk' concludes "and they saw G-d and they ate and drank", it is telling us something not about them and then but rather about us and now!

Most of us live our lives influenced by the idea that the spirit and the flesh are antithetical to each other. We assume that if we are to be spiritual people we must surrender physical pleasure and indulgence in the world. And we assume, that the contrary is equally true, to embrace the pleasures of the world means to forswear the spiritual. The message at Sinai is very much the opposite. The princes saw G-d in the most compelling revelation. Yet they did not have to become angels, withdraw from the world. On the contrary they could have the best of this world and its pleasure too, they could "eat and drink".

Immediately after the events at Sinai, the most holy of encounters the Torah gives us the 'mishpatim' the civil laws of damages and property.
In tradition these laws were taught to the Israelites the day after the revelation. If one reviews the details here one is struck by how earthy these statutes are. They are about the material and physical aspirations. Yet they are not only not in antithetical to the spirit of Sinai, they are in concert with it. They belong here in the shadow of the mountain and the revelation.

Indeed Judaism encourages us to experience the gifts of G-d's world. Our sages tell us we will be held accountable in the after-life for any pleasure permitted us and available in the world that we did not partake of. G-d loves us. He created this world for us to enjoy, albeit with conditions. It is a sin to abstain. True, our primary yearning should be for G-d and the attachment to Him. Yet we do that not only through spiritual acts like prayer and Torah study, but through experiencing G-d through the magnificence of His creation. Oneg Shabbat, having material pleasure on the Sabbath, is a mitzvah. We cannot fulfill the mitzvah without having pleasure! The blessings to G-d we make on eating and on experiencing sensual pleasure we cannot make unless we feel the pleasure! And the more the pleasure we experience in the physical act the more true will be our appreciation and the more real the blessing!

Those who separate themselves from the world thinking this is the Divine intent miss the mark. G-d wants us to enter His world, and with gusto. He provides the mitzvot to show us how we can enter and enjoy safely. Withdrawal is not the ideal. Moreover those who make abstanence the goal surrender the opportunity to perfect G-d's world, preferring instead to perfect themselves. How can one truly love Eretz Yisrael and Am Yisrael, foundations of our work in this world, if one is bent on withdrawal from the material.

No, we are not meant to vilify the flesh so as to embrace the spirit. This is not a situation of either or. We are challenged to live full
lives engaged in both the spirit and the flesh meaningfully. It is not spirit or flesh, but rather spirit and flesh. We need to be able to enjoy both and deeply! Both are gateways to the Divine!

Shabbat Shalom

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