May 17, 2024
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Mishpatim: The Sapphire King

One of the primary themes of Har Sinai was the absence of any images associated with God. The heavens reverberated with the fulminating Divine voice, yet no images were visible. The epic events at Har Sinai didn’t merely frame the delivery of the Divine will encompassed within Torah; the deafening but invisible experience also debunked the pagan myth that a Divine essence could be imagined or conjured in human terms.

Yet, despite the absence of imagery in portraying God Himself, the Jews did observe a colorful and clearly unusual image of Hashem’s “presence” in our world: “Under His feet was a pavement of sapphire (v’tachat raglav k’ma’aseh livnat hasapir).” Though Hashem Himself can’t be portrayed in imagery, His presence and intervention in this world is associated with this stunning image. Evidently, both the actual object—a paved platform—as well as the color scheme, sapphire, each possess iconic meaning.

The Midrash comments on the selection of a tiled surface to reflect Hashem’s descent into the human realm. The bricks or blocks comprising this platform were easily identifiable to the former slaves who had spent hundreds of years laboring in construction with these components. By imagining Hashem’s presence as “pivoted” upon these bricks, the Jews realized that God Himself had been present with them during their torturous sentence in Egypt. Hashem appears to us in different “forms” in different stages of Jewish history, and the “bricks” was a perfect image to capture His presence in Egypt. The same Midrash asserts that at the Red Sea crossing, God had appeared as a warrior defeating the seemingly unconquerable Egyptian forces: Hashem ish milchama Hashem shemo! At that stage the Jews were defenseless against the marauding chariots and steeds of the Egyptians. Imagining the Divine intervention as a military warrior lent confidence to a very anxious nation. Weeks later, after the elation of Har Sinai, the Jews would sense national shame and depression at their behavior during the egel disaster. At this stage the Jews required an entirely different metaphor for the Divine presence. The Midrash describes Hakadosh Baruch Hu appearing as a shaliach tzibbur gently instructing Moshe about the art of davening for penitence and national rehabilitation. This image assured the desperate Jews that their teshuvah was attainable. Within a span of a few weeks Hakadosh Baruch Hu’s presence was detected as a monarch perched upon a sapphire platform, a military warrior dueling with the Egyptians and a loving father leading them in tefillah. Hashem appears to His people in different manners within different historical circumstances and each revelation is contextually specific. We are meant to train our imaginations to constantly discern Him and His miracles within each distinct historical context. Sometimes these appearances are revelatory and manifest, while other times they are quiet and even camouflaged.

A recent revelation of Hakadosh Baruch Hu in Israel went relatively unnoticed—or at least wasn’t sufficiently appreciated as a Divine miracle. The events unfolding on our northern border have been nothing less than miraculous. Through Divine assistance our defense forces have repeatedly thwarted the advance of genocidal Iranian armies. This border remains volatile and we continue to pray for Divine intervention in our efforts of maintaining national security in a very complex and fragile situation.

Even more astonishingly, we have uncovered numerous terror tunnels whose sole purpose was the infiltration of Israel and ultimately the wholesale murder of innocent populations. This unprecedented campaign of discovering and neutralizing tunnels employed previously unavailable technology and, baruch Hashem, unspeakable danger was averted. Some people living overseas may not have been fully aware of just how dramatic these discoveries were and the immense peril these tunnels posed. In Israel, many have become so accustomed to these military feats that the enormity of this miracle wasn’t fully absorbed. The sapphire platform reminded the desert Jews to trace God’s miracles and His presence within each unique historical context. We are no less charged with tracking Hakadosh Baruch Hu’s miracles in our own context.

The sapphire platform was iconic not only for its latticed network of bricks and the memory of Egypt it evoked. This was the first encounter with the color techelet, which would ultimately be so essential in the Mikdash and would ultimately fringe our tzitzit. The color techelet, as Rabbi Soloveitchik noted, is the color we associate with mysteries that lie beyond comprehension. The gemara in Menachot highlights the ability of techelet to draw our vision to the sea and by association to the sky or atmosphere—each of which are techelet-like blue. Ultimately, our imagination drifts to the Kisei Hakavod, or the Divine Throne, which is situated in the Heavens above but that was perceived by the Jews as perched upon this blue/sapphire pavement. Of course, oceans aren’t blue and neither is the sky nor the Earth’s atmosphere. Each body is composed of colorless elements; however, visually each body emits a blue reflection. Ultimately, blue serves as the color of “mystery”—it is emitted by large abysses (the ocean and the sky) that humans beings cannot fully perceive nor penetrate with their sight or their ration.

By witnessing the blue pavement, the Jews were reminded that although we can sometimes discern Hakadosh Baruch Hu in various forms in history, His true essence remains a mystery. He operates in ways that still defy human imagination and oftentimes His intervention remains invisible even to the discerning religious eye. We try to trace Hakadosh Baruch Hu and His miracles, but we also realize we only perceive an extremely limited fragment of the Divine presence in our world.

By Moshe Taragin


Rabbi Moshe Taragin is a rebbe at Yeshivat Har Etzion located in Gush Etzion, where he resides.

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