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Parshat Mishpatim says of the 70 elders who went up on Har Sinai with Moshe and Aharon:

וַיִּרְאוּ, אֵת אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְתַחַת רַגְלָיו, כְּמַעֲשֵׂה לִבְנַת הַסַּפִּיר, וּכְעֶצֶם הַשָּׁמַיִם, לָטֹהַר. ‏
And they saw the God of Israel; and there was under His feet the like of a paved work of sapphire stone, and the like of the very heaven for clearness.

Later, Ki Tisa says, when Moshe asks to see God's glory:

וַיֹּאמֶר, לֹא תוּכַל לִרְאֹת אֶת-פָּנָי: כִּי לֹא-יִרְאַנִי הָאָדָם, וָחָי. ‏
And He said: 'Thou canst not see My face, for man shall not see Me and live.'

How do we reconcile these two passages? The verb ראה is the same in both places. If the 70 elders can "see" God, how is it that God is not able to let Moshe "see" him later?

Of course God is free to enact whatever rules he chooses, but is there another way to read these two passages?

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There is no "and" at the beginning of either pasuq. Vav hachibur would take a sheva. These are instances of vav hamehapeches. (Personally, I think the pedantic translation of וַיִּרְאוּ would be past tense, future taxis, IOW, sight that happened before the sentence was uttered but after the point in time in the story that we're up to. Genesius would render vav hahifuch as past tense imperfect aspect -- "they were seeing", but there has been computer surveys of biblical verb usage since his day. But the main point: וַ- doesn't mean "and".) – Micha Berger Feb 4 at 21:17
@MichaBerger thanks. I cut/pasted that from Mechon Mamre and I appreciate the education. – Monica Cellio Feb 4 at 21:32
We scj(m) expats gotta stick together! – Micha Berger Feb 4 at 21:48
Especially since we had further interactions -- scj(m) and beyond! – Monica Cellio Feb 4 at 22:27
up vote 3 down vote accepted

I just blogged about this at more length here http://www.aishdas.org/asp/what-did-the-elders-see . The most relevant bits:

Rashi says that they saw something like the Ma’aseh HaMerkavah, the chariot that Yechezkel saw. “And above the firmament which was over [the chayos’] heads looked like sapir stone, the image of a throne; and on the image of a throne was an image that looked like a person upon it above it.” (Yechezkel 1:26) And, in fact, Targum Onkelos on our verse inserts the word “yeqar” to say that they saw the “glory of the G-d of Israel”. This parallels Yechezkel’s description of seeing something that “looked like the image of Kevod Hashem, the glory of Hashem”. (Ibid v. 28)

According to Rav Sa’adia Gaon (Emunos VeDei’os 2:10), there is a kavod nivra – kavod as a created thing. The vision at Mount Sinai and that of Yechezkel were not of Hashem, as that is logically impossible. Rather, they saw this kavod. The Rambam’s approach (Moreh Nevuchim 1:64) is similar to Rav Saadia’s, except that he writes that the phrase “Kevod Hashem” is a synonym; it could refer to either Hashem Himself, in all His glory, or it could be used to refer to the kavod nivra. In our case, the text means that they saw the kavod nivra. However, in Moshe’s later request, he was asking to see Hashem Himself, which is why he was unable to have his desire granted.

Rav Sa’adia Gaon writes that the shechinah is indeed part of the physical world, but that it is a kavod nivra. In fact, Rav Sa’adia Gaon holds that the term “shechinah” refers to any miraculous thing that reminds the viewer that Hashem is shochein beqirbo, dwelling with him. Thus, the pillars of fire and of cloud were the shechinah, as were the vision of Mount Sinai and of the Merkavah. Rav Sa’adia Gaon’s notion of kavod nivra can be a physical object. Therefore this vision could occur through regular, physical sight.

This is where the Rambam’s opinion diverges. He holds (Ibid. 2:6) that the kavod nivrah could only be seen prophetically. It is different in kind to the pillars of fire and of smoke, which were physical entities created miraculously.

The Ramban disagrees with both. In his commentary on the verse where Hashem promises Yaaqov that He will descend with him to Egypt (Bereishis 46:1), the Ramban says that “Sh-echinah” is a name of Hashem, not a created thing (nor a class of them). However, this does not mean that Mosheh and the elders actually saw Hashem in human form. The Ramban on our verse explains that the vision was prophetic. It would seem that in the Ramban’s view, a prophecy can be a vision of something that cannot truly exist.

This indicates that underlying our debate there must be a basic difference in how the Rambam and the Ramban understand prophecy. Even though the Rambam agrees that the vision was prophetic, he still argues that it could not have been of Hashem, because He has no body.

We find an instance of a similar debate in their understandings of the beginning of Parashas Vayeira. According to the Rambam, any narrative that involves people seeing mal’akhim must be the retelling of a prophecy. Mal'akhim do not have physical substance; they cannot be physically seen. Therefore, the Rambam holds that the parashah opens by telling us that Hashem visited Avraham, and then elaborates by telling us the substance of the visit, the prophecy that Avraham received. In other words, Avraham did not interrupt Hashem’s visit to welcome what he thought were three people. Rather, the visit itself was the vision in which Avraham hosted the three mal’akhim. (Moreh 2:42)

The Ramban takes issue with this understanding. After all, did these mal’akhim not then proceed to Sodom where they saved Lot? Was Lot not really saved? According to the Ramban, the story physically occurred. Avraham saw the mal'akhim in the regular sense, actually fed them food, etc… (Bereishis 18:2)

What does the Rambam do with the Ramban’s question? The Abarbanel, in his commentary on the Moreh Nevuchim, writes that according to the Rambam, things seen in prophecy really occur. They are visions of events happening in higher planes of reality. The prophet’s mind and pen may make sense of the vision by interpreting its contents as things familiar from normal sensory experience, but the event seen is both non-physical and real. This is consistent with the Rambam’s position on our verse in Mishpatim. They saw something real. And since G-d does not have a body in any plane of existence, mot even a metaphysical “body”, their vision had to be of kevod Hashem, something created to be a metaphor for them to see.

The Ramban, on the other hand, understands prophecy to be the relaying of a message by the medium of a metaphor. The message relays a truth, but the vision is not of something real, it is a kind of communication. He, therefore, is not bothered by the idea that the metaphor they were given the message in was an anthropomorphic one, that of Hashem sitting on a throne.

In neither case do they actually see G-d -- they either see a created entity that is His Kavod, or they watch a metaphor that relays a message, and in the message, G-d is represented by a man in a throne.

(The parts of the blog post I omitted relate this back to how we see Judaism in general, and the dispute between the Lithuanian schools [yeshiva and mussar] and Chassidus.)

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The gemara in Yevamos 49b asks a similar contradiction between that verse and the description of Yeshayahu (6:1) in which he states that he saw Hashem. The gemara says that this is no contradiction because Moshe had a clear lens through which he saw Hashem whereas Yeshayahu's was unclear. This is understood to mean that since Moshe's perception was so clear his would be too vivid a 'seeing' of Hashem which a mortal cannot handle, whereas Yeshayahu was not seeing with clarity and could handle the unclear 'vision' that he saw. The same could be said here.

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God is not physical and nobody can actually see him. Ideas such as "seeing God" are only in the Torah so that we can relate to what actually happened to some extent (Rambam Yesodei Torah Ch. 1). In each context, we have to understand what this "seeing" is referring to. This is the way I understand the difference:

Mishpatim- Seeing God represents seeing the actions done by God and how he is perfect. Even though the elders comprehended this idea, they still didn't act respectfully. (My personal understanding)

Ki Tisa- Seeing God represents understanding what God is. Moshe asks to comprehend God. God answers that nothing alive can comprehend Him. (Rambam ibid.)

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I understand that God isn't physical. The same verb is used in both places, so on what basis does Rambam interpret them differently? (I'm not fluent enough to understand it on my own.) How do we know that the elders didn't act respectfully? Thanks. – Monica Cellio Feb 16 '12 at 4:03
Fails to compare the use of the word "see" to correspond to one definition, which is what the question was inquiring about. – Baal Shemot Tovot Mar 15 '12 at 1:48

Rashi on the verse, quoting the Midrash Tanchumah, says that they were supposed to die, but G-d postponed it:

and they perceived the God of Israel: They gazed and peered and [because of this] were doomed to die, but the Holy One, blessed is He, did not want to disturb the rejoicing of [this moment of the giving of] the Torah. So He waited for Nadab and Abihu [i.e., to kill them,] until the day of the dedication of the Mishkan, and for [destroying] the elders until [the following incident:] “And the people were as if seeking complaints… and a fire of the Lord broke out against them and devoured at the edge (בִּקְצֵה) of the camp” (Num. 11:1). [בִקְצֵה denotes] the officers (בִקְצִינִים) of the camp [i.e., the elders]. -[From Midrash Tanchuma Beha’alothecha 16]

However, as @avi points out in the comments, just because it says "ראה" by both places, doesn't mean both seeings refer to the same thing. There is no indication in the verse that the elders saw G-d's face.

If so, why were they punished? Because they looked in a disrespectful manner (see 24:11 and Rashi's interpretation).

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Okay, but that sort of sidesteps the question, ISTM. Why couldn't Hashem have given the same dispensation to Moshe? "You can see Me, but if you do, you will have to die. However, I'll postpone your death until I decide that it's time for it." – Alex Feb 15 '12 at 19:27
@Alex: I'm not so sure it sidesteps the question. G-d told Moshe that he can't see G-d's face and live, he would however show him his back. The questioner asked, "but didn't the elders and nadav and avihu see G-d (we're assuming they saw His Face)?" My answer says that they should have died right then, but G-d postponed it so as not to mar the Jews' happiness. Such an excuse wouldn't apply in Moshe's case. [The only question I'm left with why postpone it for so long, they were alive for a while after that?] – Menachem Feb 16 '12 at 4:04
@Menachem the elders did not see Gd's face, but saw the kise Hakavod and the saphire brickworks. There are strong parralels between this section here and Ezekiel's vision of the merkava. – avi Feb 16 '12 at 7:52
@avi: then the whole question is moot. It's true both places say "see", but it also describes different things to see. – Menachem Feb 16 '12 at 15:28
@Menachem that is true. – avi Feb 16 '12 at 15:29

In Ezekiel's experience of the Merkabah. The introductory phrase, "and I saw visions of the Lord" reads as follows in Hebrew: ואראה ‏מראות אלקים.

  • On the word מראות‏, Minhat Shai cites a Zohar that likens the rest of the prophets opposite Moses to women opposite men (I assume referring to physical strength). Numbers 12:6-8, where Gd describes other prophets as experiencing Gd במראה‏ in a vision as opposed to Moses who speaks to Gd and has visions (ומראה‏) Moses' מראה‏ is unadorned, other than by the inclusive 'and', which suggests immediacy and clarity. the conclusion is that Ezekiel certainly experience a weaker prophecy, due to the construct of the word vision. Rashi discusses this as well.

Another example can be seen by Moses earlier in Numbers, 11:15, where Moses says 'If so you shall do to me', in Hebrew: ואם ככה את עשה לי‏.

  • Moses addresses Gd with the feminine form of 'you'. Rashi says that Moses' strength was weakened when he saw the punishment that awaited Israel. It seems to have affected his prophecy here.

So it seems that we cannot surmise a level of prophecy from the verb ראה‏ alone. There is much more to it. I would argue that Nadab Abihu and the Elders certainly had a diminished experience of Gd, as the other prophets only have one letter describing a muddling of their visions, whereas here there is an entire word: ויראו את אלקי ישראל‏.

(Interestingly enough, when Gd speaks to Moses about His incomprehensible face, what word do we see? לא תוכל לראת את פני‏.)

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