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“They saw a vision of the G-d of Israel and under His feet was like the brickwork of sapphire and like the essence of the heavens for its purity.” (Shmot 24:10). This remarkable verse from our parsha, Mishpatim, describes the amazing vision which was seen by Moshe, Aharon, Aharon’s sons and the seventy elders on Mount Sinai at the time of the giving of the Torah. One of the Thirteen Principles of Faith is that G-d has no body and any reference in the Torah to indicate physical form of Hashem is purely allegorical. Thus, the commentators describe this vision as a prophetic vision, because one cannot actually see G-d. We learn about this in Parshat Ki Tisa, which we will read in a few weeks time, when G-d says, ki lo yirani ha’adam vachai “no man can see Me and live.” We can never see G-d in this world because we are in physical bodies; Hashem is beyond anything we can comprehend and certainly beyond anything that we can see.
What, then, is the message of this prophetic vision of the “brickwork of sapphire?
G-d feels and shares our pain
Rashi quotes the Talmud which says that the brickwork represents the bricks of slavery. We know that when they were in Egypt they had to build for Pharaoh and part of the harsh decrees that Pharaoh imposed on the Jews toward the end was that they even had to make their own bricks. The message that G-d was sending them by showing them the brickwork was : ‘During the time of your slavery, pain and suffering ,I kept the vision of these bricks before Me, says Hashem, as a constant reminder of the suffering and the pain of my people.’
Rav Yerucham Levovitz as well as Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz, both of the famed Mir Yeshiva, explain that we learn an important message from this, and that is that we must practice what the Mishnah says about having to be noseh b’ol im chaveiro, to carry another person’s burdens as if they are our own. It’s not merely about having sympathy for somebody else but about making them feel that we are carrying their burdens with them, that they are not alone. What is interesting is that they had to go through the pain and the suffering of Egypt as part of G-d’s Divine plan. Sometimes G-d decrees things in this world which cause us pain, and yet He feels our pain and is with us in the pain, even though He has decreed that we have to go through this process. We are not alone; He has not turned His back on us, just as throughout the suffering of Egypt He was with us.
Suffering with a higher purpose
In his commentary Oznayim LaTorah, Rav Zalman Sorotzkin asks, why does G-d only show them the vision of the brickwork now, after they have been redeemed? Surely He should have shown them the brickwork before, while they were suffering in Egypt. If He had wanted to convey to them that they are not alone in their suffering, He should have shown it to them then. Although this message was indeed conveyed with the burning bush, where G-d told Moses to tell the people, I am with you in your suffering. But what, then, is the point of conveying this message again afterwards?
Rav Zalman Sorotzkin gives a fascinating explanation for the sapphire brickwork, which teaches us a very important lesson regarding the whole concept of suffering, difficulties and challenges which we all face in one way or another.
When they were busy working and building bricks, these were bricks of cement and mortar, earthly bricks of blood, sweat and tears. But in fact the slavery, symbolised by the bricks, was preparing them for their tremendous spiritual greatness – their arrival at Mount Sinai and their acceptance of the Torah for all generations. Just before they see this vision of the sapphire bricks it says that they entered into the covenant with Hashem to bind them and all future generations – which is us – in a relationship with G-d to keep His Torah and to follow His commandments. They said na’aseh venishma, “we will do and we will listen” to whatever You tell us to do. What brought them to those heights where they were able to embrace this covenant and its ensuing responsibilities for all eternity? It was actually the pain and suffering of Egypt that refined their faith, that refined them as human beings, that made them greater people who could then go to the foot of Mount Sinai and make history for all times.
While they were in Egypt, they were making bricks of cement and mortar, with blood, sweat and tears. But actually they were building bricks of heaven, the sapphire bricks of the purity of heaven, even though at the time they didn’t realise what they were doing. Through their pain and the suffering, they were actually refining themselves and becoming great people, building a tremendous spiritual, heavenly edifice.
There is an important lesson in this for all of us in our day-to-day lives and that is that we all go through trials and tribulations; some people experience great suffering and others minor difficulties and challenges. We sometimes think suffering is pointless. However we must realise that whatever we go through in this world – if we use it to refine our faith and bring us closer to Hashem and make us into better people – helps build eternal, heavenly bricks, sapphire bricks of greatness k’etzem hashamayim latohar “like the essence of the heavens for its purity.” Nothing is for nought; if we use it for its purpose we can actually achieve great things in the heavens.
Every good deed is another ‘brick’
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch offers another interpretation for the sapphire bricks. He doesn’t link the bricks to the suffering in Egypt but to the service of G-d. The bricks they made in Egypt were for the service of Pharaoh and epitomised their slavery. But the heavenly sapphire bricks represent the service of G-d. And that was the crucial thing that changed. Our Sages describe the liberation from Egypt as follows: one moment before midnight, before the plague of the firstborn, we were avdei Par’oh, servants of Pharaoh; after midnight we were avdei Hashem, servants of G-d. The one moment we were building bricks for an earthly tyrant and the next moment we had the awesome privilege of serving the Immortal King of all Kings, Hashem Himself. And so the earthly bricks represent serving Pharaoh and the heavenly bricks represent serving Hashem.
The Torah says that Hashem showed them kelivnat hasapir, “like a sapphire brick,” which Rabbi Hirsch says doesn’t mean brickwork, but a single brick. G-d showed them a single sapphire brick, which symbolised their acceptance of the covenant. They had just said na’aseh venishma, “we will do and we will listen” – we will accept the Torah for all future generations. G-d then says to them : ‘Let Me show you what you have just created.’ He showed them a picture of the sapphire brick saying : ‘You have laid the first brick of all of these heavenly bricks of mitzvos.’
With every mitzvah that we do in this world we are building heavenly bricks of eternal merit. It may look like we are doing something ordinary – putting on tefillin, giving charity, keeping Shabbos, praying, saying a kind word to a person, not speaking lashon hara; these all look like simple, seemingly mundane actions but each one is adding a brick in this heavenly edifice. Everything we do has incredible eternal significance and that is what G-d was showing them : ‘Don’t think that what you are doing is just ordinary, let Me show you what you have just done: you have started the first brick in the heavens for this incredible edifice of the service of Hashem and it’s k’etzem hashamayim letohar, ‘like the essence of the heavens for its purity.”
Stones vs Bricks
The common denominator of these two interpretations is that through our actions we do things in this world which have eternal merit and significance. Our actions are central. This is how the Malbim (in Shemot 24:10), another one of our commentators, explains the passages in the book of Ezekiel, where Yechezkel the Prophet talks about seeing a sapphire stone which was G-d’s throne, in one of his prophetic visions (see chapter 1:26 and chapter 10:1). Interestingly, the Malbim points out that Yechezkel the Prophet talks about an even sapir, a sapphire stone, whereas here our parsha speaks about livnat hasapir, sapphire bricks. What is the difference? The Malbim explains that a stone is made by G-d while bricks are man-made. Here, we are talking about human action, and so it uses the term bricks. G-d brings inspiration, spirituality and greatness into the world – symbolised by the sapphire stone of his throne. What He wants us to do is to create sapphire bricks, where we take the raw materials of this world and the raw materials of our neshama, our soul, and turn it into bricks, into action. We do this in two ways. Firstly, by taking the suffering, tribulations and challenges that we experience and refining and uplifting ourselves. Secondly, our mitzvos create eternal, heavenly significance.
Now we can understand why G-d showed the seventy elders, Moshe, Aharon and Aharon’s sons this tremendous vision and why it was recorded in our parsha specifically at the time of the giving of the Torah. This vision serves as the model for all future generations and this is the vision we have to keep in the front of our minds at all times. Whatever happens in this world, we are building heavenly bricks and there is nothing that we do which does not have the potential to be recorded for all eternity. It’s true that life in this physical world comes and goes and that it’s temporary. But we have the potential to create eternity and no moment is wasted. No suffering is for nought, no mitzvah goes unnoticed. Whatever we are doing is creating eternal value in the heavens and that’s what G-d wanted to show them: ‘Realise what you have done here, here is the beginning of a great journey of Torah and whatever you do is building a heavenly edifice, brick by brick.’
Life is a building process. This is why, according to the Gemora, the great Torah scholars are called bonim, “builders,” because they are involved in the building of the world. That is our task in this world – to be builders, brick by brick, small action by small action. That is how a building is built – brick by brick, and no brick goes to waste. So, too, throughout our lives we are building, brick by brick, good deed by good deed, challenge by challenge. G-d looks upon each one of these bricks with love and appreciation for what we have done and He stores for us in the next world the incredible edifice of eternal spiritual merit, which serves as a testimony to a life well lived.
Mishpatim – Brickwork of sapphire
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