The Sapphire Path

Part of a yearlong series on resilience in Jewish spiritual life.

Long before Frank Baum imagined Munchkins and "The Yellow Brick Road," Jews had a "Sapphire Path" that, according to Torah, Moses and 70 elders saw ascending skyward (Exodus 24:10).  While mystics and rationalists might part ways about these kinds of visions, the hope of an unseen spiritual path is a keystone of resilience.

There's comfort in knowing the world for what it is. At the same time, if the world is only what we know, then what kind of world is this and what kind of life do we live? The human condition impels us to wonder, seek, hope, reach, dream and create. By definition, we only can wonder, seek, hope, reach, dream and create beyond what we think we know and past the perceived limits of the world as it appears.

Understood this way, the unknown is the only true path to growth, betterment, creativity and the future. There's no forward and no future without the unknown.

That's how I understand Torah's mystical scene from this week's paresha (Mishpatim). After the Children of Israel famously agreed to receive the Covenant, Moses and 70 elders of Israel ascended. There, "they saw the God of Israel, and under God's feet was like a pavement of sapphire, like the essence of sky in purity" (Exodus 24:10).

Oh? How could they see God if "none could see God's face and live" (Exodus 33:20)? To Rashi, they saw God but didn't die because God didn't want to mar the joy of giving Torah. To Ibn Ezra, they didn't see God but rather became prophets. To Ramban, they only thought they saw God but instead saw the holy seat of divine glory. To the Sforno, they didn't see God or a sapphire path but rather a spiritual essence that both absorbed and transcended all spirituality.

If you're left feeling like none of this makes rational sense, you're right and in good company.  It can't make rational sense. Sometimes life defies words: words are limited, while some experiences evoke the transcendent. Good luck finding the right words to describe seeing an awesome sunset, or witnessing a birth, or having an orgasm, or saying "I do," or being present at the moment of death. 

When life transcends words, naturally we reach for metaphor and allegory (it was "like" this or that) or we say "Oh God!" (a common refrain even for devout atheists). Words are just pointers: sometimes the point is beyond all words.

That's Torah's lesson. The people didn't see a sapphire path but rather something "like" a sapphire path.  What they saw wasn't "of" the essence of sky in purity but rather "like" the essence of sky in purity. Torah readily admits that our ancestors had no idea what they were seeing, and neither do we. There were no words. There are no words.  

It was the same for the prophet Ezekiel. In his mystical vision, Ezekiel saw things that were "like" the "appearance" of a "vision" of a "semblance." He described the same gleaming sapphire, but words were failing him (Ezekiel 1:26).

That's the Reality – with a capital "R" – that sometimes hides in plain sight. It's the Reality that takes our breath away, that scrambles our minds, that leaves us tongue tied lacking for words, that we can only sing or paint or dance. Call it a sapphire path, or the Light, or the throne of glory, or the breath of life, or God, or countless other synonyms to describe the undescribable.  

Call it anything or nothing at all.  Reality is beyond all words, ideas and images. The unseen hides in plain sight. We only think we know: all spirituality, all creativity, the entire future, the universe and everything are in the not knowing.

"Like" resilience itself.

Rabbi David Evan Markus