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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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4 Answers 4

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

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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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 where 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
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@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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If my answer is in some way deficient please tell me how I could improve it. –  Baby Seal Feb 7 at 0:19

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