In previous years, we have shown in this week’s parshah examples of Moshe Rabbeinu’s greatness. Specifically, the story at the end of the parshah where Moshe and Aharon are joined on Har Sinai by Aharon’s oldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, and the nation’s seventy elders is the example we have used. The Torah relates how Nadav, Avihu and the Elders followed Moshe a little ways up the mountain and were able to observe the Shechinah of Hashem. The very next pasuk says, “וְאֶל אֲצִילֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא שָׁלַח יָדוֹ וַיֶּחֱזוּ אֶת הָאֱלֹהִים וַיֹּאכְלוּ וַיִּשְׁתּוּ” “And to the nobles of the Children of Yisrael, He did not send forth his hand—they viewed God, and they ate and drank” (Shemos 24:11).
Rashi explains in pasuk 10 that when they gazed upon the Shechinah, they saw a level of Hashem which they were not deserving of seeing. Normally, this results in instant death, as the physical body is only able to perceive so much spirituality; but in order to not subdue the overall rejoicing surrounding the giving of the Torah, Hashem waited till later on to carry out their sentence. This is what is meant in pasuk 11 when it says “He did not send forth his hand”, that Hashem refrained from killing them. Rashi goes on to say that we see clearly from the fact that they followed up this revelation by eating and drinking that they hadn’t taken this experience with the proper humility and were deserving of death.
The Ohr HaChaim takes a different approach to this. He asks three questions on the wording of the pasuk. First off, why does the pasuk need to tell me that we are talking about, “אֲצִילֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל”, the “nobles of Yisrael”? We already mentioned in pasuk 9 all the people pasuk 10 is referring to and we have no reason to assume that those terms have changed. Secondly, why does the pasuk 10 say, “וַיֶּחֱזוּ אֶת הָאֱלֹהִים” “They viewed God”, the Torah already told us “וַיִּרְאוּ אֵת אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל” “They saw the God of Yisrael”, in pasuk 10? Finally, the entire pasuk 11 appears to be written backwards. The pasuk first tells us the result of their action, that Hashem did not kill them, and then tells us what they had done to warrant such a reaction, that they saw Hashem and ate and drank?
Later on in Parshas Ki Sisa, Moshe asks Hashem to be able to see his essence. Hashem places Moshe in a rock, places his palm over the rock, and as he passes by, lifts his hand off the rock and allows Moshe to see his back. (Obviously, this is not to be taken literally as Hashem has no body.) The purpose of covering Moshe’s view was to prevent him from seeing a level of Hashem that he was not deserving of experiencing until the part he was deserving of was the only part visible.
The Ohr HaChaim answers his questions by using this same idea. Hashem allowed the “אֲצִילֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל” to view a certain degree of his Shechinah, and the pasuk tells us that “לֹא שָׁלַח יָדוֹ”, that he did not send forth his hand, meaning that while he prevented Moshe from seeing something he was not deserving of, he did not prevent them from seeing above their level. The pasuk repeats the fact that they were nobleman to tell us that this is the reason why.
This seems to say that these noblemen were allowed to see more than Moshe! The Ohr HaChaim explains how this is not true. When Hashem covered Moshe and didn’t allow him to see him, that level of the Shechinah which he was not allowed to see was still there in Moshe’s presence, it just was not visible to him. However, when Hashem revealed himself to the noblemen, while they were viewing Hashem at a degree beyond their level, the level of presence that was there was all visible to them. And says the Ohr HaChaim, the level they saw now was what Moshe was used to seeing all the time! Therefore, the pasuk does not have to mention that Hashem did not cover Moshe at this time together with everyone else; for Moshe, this experience was not anything new!
From this we gain another insight into Moshe’s greatness. These were the greatest men in the entire nation, and yet, what for them was an once-in-a-lifetime experience, far beyond what they actually deserved, for Moshe it was his normal perception of Hashem.
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