At the end of this week’s parsha, there is a very strange story:
To give it some context, this trip up הר סיני is part of the ברית ceremony. Rashi and Ramban argue when, exactly, it happened. Ramban reads it in chronological order, so the ברית was after מעמד הר סיני, while Rashi reads “אל משה אמר” as “He had said to Moshe” and this story is a flashback to before מעמד הר סיני:
Everyone agrees that Moshe’s going up the mountain for 40 days was after מעמד הר סיני.
Now, we are not corporealists, so we will not take ויראו את אלקי ישראל; ותחת רגליו כמעשה לבנת הספיר literally. If you do, I will send Oona the bugbear of metaphor writers after you.
I don’t pretend to understand the prophetic experience but I imagine that it is a synesthetic phenomenon; it doesn’t involve the senses but our primate brains have to interpret it somehow, so it gets experienced as though it were being sensed.
So the prophets “see” “something”. And what they see is remarkably consistent:
The image is always of G-d on a throne, surrounded by angels. The most obvious similarity to our story is to the image in יחזקאל, and its אבן ספיר. But there are important differences between the two metaphors. יחזקאל only sees the כמראה אדם through the קרח הנורא; the זקנים are “closer”; ויחזו את האלקים. יחזקאל sees the ספיר as an אבן ספיר, a rock, while the זקנים see it as לבנת הספיר, a brick. And יחזקאל sees the כסא, while the זקנים see תחת רגליו, which has a very different implication:
I’m not going to touch the מראה אדם. But ספיר is interesting. It’s always translated “sapphire”, but that may be a coincidence.
And even if it is sapphire, we don’t know what it looks like; actual sapphire comes in many colors, including transparent. And the pasuk describing כעצם השמים לטוהר isn’t talking about the ספיר; it’s talking about the רקיע:
So Onkelos doesn’t commit to a definition and just calls it אֶבֶן טָבָא:
The Malbim looks at יחזקאל's description of כמראה הקשת and says it is a prism:
(Though I think the etymology is backward; ספירות in later kabbalah is taken from the ספיר here).
אין לנו עסק בנסתרים, but we can put the word pictures together, for making understanding. The כסא הכבוד, also called the מרכבה, represents the manifestation of הקב״ה in the world of creation. ה׳, as it were, “sits” here.
That כסא is made of ספיר, that refracts the light of creation into a spectrum called the ספירות, the manifold ways that ה׳ manifests in the world. But the כסא has two parts: the “throne” itself, and the הדם רגליו, the “footstool”, the הארץ. It’s ספיר is different from that of the כסא.
The ספירות on earth is ה׳'s manifestation through our behavior.
That’s very nice, but why have this vision now?And especially according to Rashi, who says it happened before מעמד הר סיני?
Abarbanel answers that in this vision, the זקנים do not see the hosts of מלאכים that the other נביאים saw. And they are called אצילי בני ישראל. That expression is used in a later prophetic experience:
I think the מלאך he is referring to is Moshe himself:
So part of the preparation for Moshe’s going up הר סיני for 40 days is this lesson to the leaders of בני ישראל who would function in Moshe’s absence: Moshe is not G-d. You have just experienced a taste of what Moshe is going to do for the next month plus. He is as human as the rest of you, and all of you are part of bringing the message of the תורה down to earth.
It is a lesson they will tragically forget in the next weeks.