At the end of this week’s Parsha we return to the events of מתן תורה. There is the description of the Bris between HaShem and Klal Yisroel, the acceptance of the Torah with Na’aseh V’Nishma, and Moshe going up to Har Sinai for forty days. The distribution of the events of Matan Torah between Yisro, Mishpotim, and Ki Tisa leads to many discussions among the Meforshim of the exact sequence of these events.
But I would like to specifically discuss the Pesukim of the ascent of Moshe, Aharon and the other leaders of Klal Yisroel, their Seudah, and the vision of the Livnas HaSapir. According to the Seforno, this was a fulfillment of the Pasuk earlier to go up to Har Sinai. Rashi learns that this was on the fourth of Sivan, before Matan Torah. The Ramban disagrees and says this was after Matan Torah. This is actually a Machlokes in the Mechilta. But what was the Livnas HaSapir- which in its translation is a brick of sapphire? And why is it ‘beneath’ the throne of HaShem, and that is what they see at this time?
The Pesukim say that Moshe, Aharon, Nadav, Avihu, and seventy of the leaders of the nation went up Har Sinai. They saw a vison of HaShem, and beneath His feet was a brick of sapphire, and the essence of the heavens in their purity. And the nobles of Yisroel were not punished for this, and they ate and drank as they gazed on HaShem.
Rashi explains the Pasuk in the following way. During the time of the Galus there was a brick of sapphire to remind Him of the subjugation of the Jewish people. Once they were redeemed, there was light and joy before Him. Thus according to Rashi, it seems that the view of the brick was a Nevuah going back to the time of the Galus. The Nachalas Yakov explains as such and says that was the sin, that they peered beyond what they should into what was during the Galus. But that also requires explanation.
Many other Mefarshim explain differently. They say the brick itself changed. There is a chilling Midrash that says that during the oppression, a pregnant woman was forced to enter into the mixing trough of the cement. From the effort to trample with her feet the cement she gave birth to the baby who was drowned in the cement and was formed into the brick. The angel Michael, took that brick up to HaShem and placed it beneath His feet. When the Jews left Egypt, the brick became a shining light of sapphire. The brick of the child is a sign of how HaShem is with us in our troubles. The metamorphosis is the understanding that the trials and tribulations are the process to reach the connection to HaShem. As the Gemarra says, three thigs are acquired through trials; Torah, Eretz Yisroel, and Olam HaBa. The precursor to Torah was the Galus in Egypt.
This can be seen in a Drasha in Chazal. It says earlier that the Egyptians subjugated us with Chomer and Levanim – clay and bricks. The Zohar learns Chomer is referring to Kal Va’Chomer, and Levanim is the clarification of Halacha. In Halacha there is what seems to be an inherent contradiction. On the one hand, there is correct and incorrect opinion. We decide the Halacha, one way or the other. But at the same time we say Elu V’Elu- both opinions are correct. How can that be?
There is a place in Shamayim, which is complete white. Rabbeinu Bachya calls it the perfect white of the newborn lamb. There we are not permitted to look. It is the place from which all of the creation comes, even that which seems wrong and incorrect. That is the part of the world which we are told in Chagigah that one is not allowed to ask what is above, below, before, and after. That can only be seen when the world reaches completion. That is the place of Elu V’Elu.
According to the opinion that the sapphire brick and the purity of the sky were seen at the same time, possibly the explanation is that what they were trying to see was the reconciliation of this apparent contradiction. How can there be the purity and the trials that lead from a brick of subjugation to a brick of sapphire?
This idea fits with the fact that the sapphire is also found on the Choshen. There it is the gemstone of Yissachar. Yissachar is the tribe with are the masters of Torah, specifically the ones who know the secret of the leap years. A leap year is the ability to reconcile two seemingly contradictory systems; that of the solar year and the lunar month. The solar year has no beginning or end, and the lunar month waxes and wanes. The ability to reconcile them is a microcosm of the ability to reconcile seemingly contradictory aspects of HaShem’s direction of the world. The sapphire ‘beneath HaShem’s feet’ represents the reconciliation of that contradiction, but it cannot yet be seen in this world.
This was their mistake and why they are punished.