The haftorah for the first day of שבועות is the first perek of יחזקאל. It’s a very strange vision, about the cherubs installing wheels on the throne of G-d, so it can be moved out of the בית המקדש into exile. Because of the wheeled chair thing, the halachic literature calls this מעשה מרכבה, even though that word never appears in יחזקאל. It’s so strange and mystical that חז״ל said not to talk about it.
I always say that’s why we read this haftorah today: everyone has been up all night, and by the time we get to the haftorah, we’re all asleep. So no problem with reading it in public; no one is paying attention.
I’m going to look at one part of that perek.
What does he mean, ואראה מראות אלקים? We are not corporealists!
So this is not so much a metaphor, but a way for the human brain to process the ineffable experience of נבואה. It has to be into something comprehensible, but if you take it literally, I will send Oona the bugbear of metaphor writers after you.
So what do I do with this image of G-d on a throne of sapphire, surrounded by a rainbow glow?
I could just ignore it and take a nap. Or I could do the Jewish thing and answer a question with another question: What does this have to do with שבועות?
It’s more than “both were a revelation”. This very image appears in the story of מעמד הר סיני.
Same “seeing” G-d, same sapphire, but a little different—here the sapphire is a brick, לבנת הספיר, rather than a stone, אבן ספיר. And here they don’t see the כסא, but תחת רגליו.
The Malbim tries to understand this sapphire (note that sapphires can be any color (technically not red, because then it’s called a ruby) or transparent. It is כעצם השמים לטהר, ”pure as the sky“, and a הנגה that is כמראה הקשת אשר יהיה בענן ביום הגשם. Malbim says it is a prism:
He’s getting very kabbalistic here. The idea is that ה׳ is infinite and unknowable but manifests in the world in perceptible ways. We can see the created world, we experience joy and tragedy and understand them all as gifts of G-d. These various ways that we experience the presence of G-d are called the ספירות, which I will leave untranslated, but we know what they are: חסד, גבורה, תפארת, נצח, הוד, יסוד, מלכות. These categories help us think about theological concepts; ה׳ doesn’t have “parts”—ה׳ אחד. This is “word picture, for making understanding”. The image is of ה׳'s manifestation in the world as a Divine “light”, or שפע, that comes from where ה׳ ”sits“:
This is Malbim’s עולם הכסא, or אצילות (”next-to-ness“, adjacency). But we can’t experience that; the light is refracted into a spectrum of colors. Malbim says the ספיר is named for the ספירות; I think the etymology is backward; ספירות in later kabbalah is taken from the ספיר here.
I like that image; it helps me think about some very deep things. But really, why do I care? It’s all far too “woo woo” for me.
The Malbim says there are two parts of this prism: כסא and תחת רגליו.
G-d manifests in the world in two ways, in the created universe, and in the social world that we create by our actions. Human beings create the ספיר by which the Divine light is refracted in the world. That’s what it means when Yeshaya says that the earth is G-d’s footstool:
We just completed the ספירת העומר, and we all know how that ספירה is connected to the ספירות we mentioned above. Every week represents a different ספירה, and every day is a different aspect of that ספירה. But those ספירות aren’t about seeing G-d in the world. They are about improving ourselves and our relationship with others, as we approach the anniversary of the giving of the Torah.
That is the vision that the זקנים were given. For all the pomp and glory, all the incredible special effects of מעמד הר סיני, this is the message: תחת רגליו כמעשה לבנת הספיר. G-d’s presence in the world depends on our actions. As Rav Soloveitchik puts it,