This week’s Parsha, Parshat Mishpatim, depicts the climax of Am Yisrael’s Journey from Mitzrayim to Eretz Yisrael: Matan Torah. The nation, only recently freed from slavery in Egypt merits witnessing the greatest revelation in history. Shemot Perek 24:9-11 describes the revelation in detail:
Then Moshe went up, and Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel; and they saw the God of Israel, and there was under his feet a kind of paved work of sapphire stone, and as it were the very heaven for clearness. And upon the nobles of the children of Israel he laid not His hand: and they beheld God, and did eat and drink.
The conclusion of the passage rouses a clear question: A nation beholding God is hard to conceive, however, it is even more difficult to understand how Am Yisrael could witness revelation and find it appropriate to simultaneously sit down for a meal. Couldn’t they separate themselves from their animalistic desires at such a monumental time in Jewish history?
Several Parshanim come to address this dilemma:
Chazal is indeed critical of Bnei Yisrael. In Vayikra Rabba, they explain that Bnei Yisrael literally ate, while presumptuously and inappropriately feeding their eyes on the Shechina.
Onkelous explains these passukim in a metaphorical manner, positing that Bnei Yisrael rejoiced as if they were eating and drinking.
Ramban relates to Bnei Yisrael’s actions in a positive manner. He expounds that they were literally eating because eating is one’s way of fulfilling the commandment to rejoice at receiving the Torah. For Ramban, eating is a religious act, which celebrates and expresses gratitude for receiving the Torah.
Aside from the brachot we make, how can we understand eating as a religious act? The act of eating’s connection to Torah is in fact not all that surprising. The first mitzvah and averah of mankind, related to our basic desire for food, and the pleasure that accompanies it. Many mitzvoth in the Torah are accompanied by a mitzvah to eat. For example the Kohanim are obligated to eat certain Karbanot, we are obligated to eat karbon peasach, and have a mitzvah of seudah on Purim. What is it about eating that explains its connection to Mitzvot and why Bnei Yisrael feasted to express gratitude during the revelation at Siani.
Both Rambam and the Chassidic scholar R. Ya’akov Yosef of Polonneye discuss the role of food in our religious lives.
Rambam submits that all of man’s physical actions must be performed with the intention in mind of elevating the body so that the soul will have a healthy instrument from which to serve God. Especially with eating, where it is so tempting to fall to gluttony, one must always keep in mind that his eating should be to enable his body to serve Hashem, and then the eating in of itself is Avodat Hashem (Shemona Prakim, chap.5).
On the other hand, R. Ya’akov Yosef views eating as a method of satisfying the body’s material wants in order that the soul can express its full joy and cleave to Hashem. If the body is unsatisfied or melancholy, the soul is hindered from rising and connecting to Hashem. By eating and drinking Bnei Yisrael were able to “trick” the body and remove all obstacles preventing their spirit from rising. Only then could the soul cleave fully to God.
Whether one views eating as a way to elevate the body or the soul, it is evidently an action one must be especially thoughtful of. At the revelation at Sinai, the simplistic act of eating was not separated from the connection of God and reception of the Torah, instead it was used to enhance the experience. So too in our own lives, we should strive not to leave Torah in the classroom, but to bring it into our mundane acts in order to elevate our entire experience with God. Connection with God goes most deep, when one acts thoughtfully and with purpose in the mundane as well as the glamorous.
Student Studying in Nishmat