Judaism: Elders of Israel
Having completed the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) at the end of the Book of Exodus, the Book of Leviticus continues very naturally with the functioning of the Mishkan: “When He called to Moses, Hashem (G-d) spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting…” (Leviticus 1:1).
The Midrash (Sifra, Vayikra 1) notes the sequence here: G-d first “called to Moses”, and then “He spoke to him”. And then the Sifra goes on to note that this is the third of three occasions when G-d first called to Moses and then spoke to him.
The first time was about two years earlier at the Burning Bush, when Moses was still exiled from his nation, a humble shepherd tending the flocks of his father-in-law Yitro (Jethro). When G-d saw that Moses had turned aside to behold the wonder, “G-d called to him from the midst of the bush, and He said, Moses, Moses” (Exodus 3:4).
The second time was at Mount Sinai, immediately before the Giving of the Torah: “Hashem called Moses to the peak of the Mountain, and Moses ascended; and Hashem said to Moses: Go down, warn the nation lest they break through to Hashem to gaze” (Exodus 19:20-21).
The obvious question arises from here is: what do these three events (the Burning Bush, the Giving of the Torah, and the beginning of the Mishkan’s functioning) have in common?
The simplest and most obvious answer is that all of these were events which were intimately connected with Israel’s redemption. The process of redemption from Egypt began when G-d revealed Himself to Moses at the Burning Bush; the purpose of redemption was the Giving of the Torah (1); and the building of the Mishkan was the pinnacle of the redemption (2).
It is significant that one of the greatest of first-generation (mid-3rd century) Tannaim in the Land of Israel cited these three occasions as examples of when G-d bestowed His glory on the Elders of Israel: “We have learned in a few places that G-d gave honour to the Elders. At the Burning Bush, as it is written ‘G-d said to Moses…, Go and assemble the Elders of Israel’ (Exodus 3:15-16); at Sinai, as it is written ‘To Moses He said, Go up to Hashem, you and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the Elders of Israel’ (Exodus 24:1); and at the Tent of Meeting, as it is written ‘It happened on the eighth day [of the Inauguration of the Mishkan] that Moses called Aaron and his sons and the Elders of Israel’ (Leviticus 9:1)” (Shemot Rabbah 5:12).
So on the three separate occasions which were the three milestones on the road from Egyptian slavery to redemption, G-d first called to Moses and then spoke to him. And on those same three occasions He gave honour to the Elders of Israel.
The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 5:12) continues: “And in the future time to come, it will be the same, as it says ‘When Hashem, Lord of Legions, will reign in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, there will be glory for His elders’ (Isaiah 24:23).
Rabbi Avin said: In the future G-d will seat the Elders as on a threshing-floor, with Himself sitting as the head of them all as the President of the Court, and they will judge the idolaters, as it says ‘Hashem will enter into judgment with the elders of His nation and its princes’ (Isaiah 3:14). It does not say [that He will enter into judgment] ‘the elders of His nation’ but rather ‘with the elders of His nation’: He will sit with them and judge the idolaters”.
We pause here to explain the somewhat cryptic reference to the Elders sitting “as on a threshing-floor”. The Mishnah records that “the Sanhedrin would sit in the shape of a semicircular threshing-floor so that they could see one another” (Sanhedrin 4:3).
This refers specifically to the Great Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court of Israel which would sit in the Chamber of Hewn Stone in the Holy Temple. (Every town and city with more than 120 adult men would have its own Minor Sanhedrin of 23 judges, and every village with fewer than 120 adult men would have a court of three judges.)
Of the 71 Judges on the Great Sanhedrin, 69 would sit in three concentric semicircles of 23 each. Facing them were the Nasi (the President of the Court), and to his right the Av Beit Din (Father of the Court). The Nasi was the leader; the Av Beit Din was the second in charge (Rambam, Laws of the Sanhedrin 1:3).
So the Midrash looks back on three landmark events in the first redemption, the redemption from Egypt, when G-d called to Moses and then spoke to him, which were the three times when He gave honour to the Elders of Israel.
Our parashah opens with the third of these occasions – when the Mishkan began to function.
And the Midrash then looks forward to the time of the final redemption – may it come speedily! – when G-d will again give honour to the Elders of Israel. And though then, at the time of the first redemption, the Elders’ honour was manifest only to Israel, in the time to come their honour will suffuse the entire world. After all, only thus will they be able to stand with G-d Himself, so to speak, to judge all the idolaters in the world.
And this is logical. After all, 3,325 years ago in the desert, G-d gave honour to the Elders of Israel in the Mishkan, which holy though it was, was but a precursor to the Holy Temple which would only be built 479 years later by King Solomon. The second Holy Temple, the one built by Ezra and Nehemiah, had a lower level of sanctity than that of King Solomon.
But the third Holy Temple, the one destined to stand for all time, the Holy Temple which the prophet Ezekiel depicts so graphically in chapters 40 to 44, will be far grander and more magnificent, and have a far higher level of sanctity, than those which came before.
So it is entirely fitting that in that third Holy Temple, God Himself will stand, so to speak, as the Leader of the Sanhedrin, to administer ultimate justice, not only to Israel, but to the entire world.
It is then that Israel will truly be a light unto the nations. In the words of the prophet Isaiah in one of his magnificent, majestic depictions of the messianic era, “I am Hashem, I have called you with righteousness and I will strengthen your hand; I have fashioned you, and I will make you for a covenant with the nation, as a light to nations” (Isaiah 42:6).
And again: “Then He said: It is not enough for you to be My servant, to establish the Tribes of Jacob and to bring back the besieged of Israel; I will also make you a light to nations, that My salvation shall be unto the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6).
(1) We expounded on this idea in detail in a previous D’var Torah on Shavuot.
(2) Last week, in the context of Parashat Pekudey/Shabbat Shekalim, we cited the Ramban’s Introduction to the Book of Exodus: “The [Egyptian] exile was not ended until the day of their return to their place, and when they were restored to their forefathers’ level. When they left Egypt, even though they had left the house of slavery, they were still considered exiles, because they were ‘in a land not theirs’, wandering through the desert. And when they came to Mount Sinai and built the Mishkan, and G-d restored His Divine Presence to their midst, then they were restored to their Forefathers’ level…and then they were considered redeemed”.