In the Torah portion of Mishpatim we read of an astounding account:
And Moses and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel ascended, and they perceived the G-d of Israel, and beneath His feet was like the forming of a sapphire brick and like the appearance of the heavens for clarity.. And upon the nobles of the children of Israel He did not lay His hand, and they perceived God, and they ate and drank. ( Exodus 24:9-11)
In the midst of this incredible vision, they “ate and drank” !?!
Some of our commentaters were disturbed by these actions and Rashi states that these elders were later punished for their “arrogant heart”.
The Malbim says that the text teaches us that “they saw the Divine, but they could still eat and drink” That is to say they continued their physical existence in spite of the great spiritual heights they had reached. The Zohar explains that the vision of the Ultimate Divinity nourished them in the same way that food and water would have
The Ramban simply declares: “They saw what was appropriate for them…and the understanding of the words ‘and they drank’ that they made a happy and good day for so are we obligated to be happy at the receiving of the Torah…” In a similar vein Rav Shimshon Rephael Hirsch states that they felt the closeness of HaShem by eating from the sacrifices. That is they actually shared a meal with G-d
The deep impact of these latter views is that G-d does not want us to separate from the physicality of this world. He wants us to elevate it. HaShem , in fact, wants us to take our physical existence and yearn to raise it up in glorification of the Divine. It all depends on our starting point and on our purpose. It is all a function of how we approach the physicality of our existence. Is it a means or an end?
We see this issue with the laws relating to the man making a Nazirite vow.
Rashi explains: “the Torah places the passage of the Sotah ( Numbers 5:12-31) next to the passage of man making the Nazirite vow ( ibid 6:1-21) because, ” he who sees the Sotah in her wantonness will desist from wine since it can lead to sin”
In spite of this we read that after a successful completion of the Nazirite period of abstinence he must bring certain sacrifices to the temple:
“and the Priest will make one as a sin offering, and one as a burnt offering and he will provide him atonement for having sinned regarding the soul, and he will sanctify his head on that day. ” (ibid: 11)
Here was a man who yearned to become more sanctified by separating himself from the things that could lead him away from G-d, yet he brings a sin offering. What was his sin?
Maimonides offers the view “that a person should not say to himself: “Since material desires lead a person to sin, I will avoid these physical pleasures ” and that a person should only withdraw from those things that the torah itself explicitly forbids .The sin-offering is brought because he has sinned by separating from the world and forbidding upon himself that which the torah has permitted.
How then are we to contend with these seemingly opposing forces represented by the physicality of the world? We do not want them to guide us away from G-d. Yet we are bidden to seize exactly those things and bring them back up to G-d, like the wine libations on the altar.
It all depends on our starting point and our goal.If we begin with the physical and it becomes both the means and the end, we are bound to fail . This is what we saw during the sin of the golden calf, when Moshe did not come down when the people expected him to arrive.
” And they rose up early on the morrow, and offered burnt-offerings, and brought peace-offerings; and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to be frivolous. ‘” (ibid 32:6)
We saw the same issue with Esav selling his spiritual future and birthright:
“And Ya’akov gave Esav bread and pottage of lentils, and he ate and drank and got up and left; and Esav despised the birthright.” (Bereshit 25:29-34)
On the other hand if our focus remains on the Divine and the physical becomes a means to that end then G-d’s name truly becomes sanctified. On Mount Sinai the focus was clearly upon beholding and experiencing the Presence of G-d .The eating and the drinking were simply a method to celebrate and enhance that encounter. As a result G-d’s name was glorified..
And upon the nobles of the children of Israel He did not lay His hand, and they beheld G-d, and they ate and drank. ( ibid 24:11)
We are commanded then to take the world and its physicality and elevate them to their ultimate Divine purpose and role.This is the underlying theme of all our mitzvoth. By so doing even our food becomes a form of prayer