February 11, 2015
In this weeks Sedra, the Netziv, in his unique way, deals with one of the many anthropomorphisms ascribed to Hashem. In 24:11 we read:
To the great men of the Bnei Yisrael He did not stretch out His hand. They gazed upon G-d and they ate and drank.
“Hand” here means power or strength. The power that the pasuk speaks of is the strength to endure one of the most intense experiences known to Man.
We sometimes unconsciously make the mistake of thinking of the material world and its experiences as real, concrete and substantive. Spirituality, we think, is ethereal. We associate it with dreamy clouds. We see it as vapor-like and airy. In truth, however, an actual spiritual episode can be crushing and suffocating to a person not prepared to deal with its overwhelming power.
If a person is fortunate enough to be treated to authentic visions of Divinity, two consequences can follow along. The first is that Hashem grants him not only the experience, but a Divine influence that gives him clarity and understanding. Through it, he can decipher and process the encounter, not just experience it. He also gives the person the ability to withstand the power of that experience, which might otherwise overwhelm him. Instead, he is helped to become a vehicle for the Shechinah.
When a person endures such an episode, and gains the insight and enlightenment that flows from it, he feels incredible joy – the high of basking in the light of the King.
The “great people” of our pasuk, on the other hand, pushed beyond the limits set for them. They contemplated more than was appropriate for them, more than they were allowed to comprehend. Hashem therefore did not “stretch out His hand” to support them, or to give them the insight to comprehend what they beheld. Without that special support, they should have been grievously injured by the experience. In fact, they would have been, had it not been for the merit of that special day. They were nonetheless punished. Even though they experienced what they did, they did not emerge with great insight or enlightenment. They were not sated by the encounter, but were left with a spiritual void. There was still room within them to eat and drink, unlike others who experienced revelatory visions, whose thoughts would not and could not turn to mundane affairs like dining.
Alternatively, the effect of a strong dose of Divine presence upon an unprepared person can be devastating. It can even be fatal. In this case, Hashem did not want to spoil the joyousness of the occasion, and their punishment was suspended. The experience did leave its mark, however. It weakened and exhausted them to the point that they required food and drink to restore their equilibrium.