When we think about spiritual experiences, we picture prayer, meditation, or perhaps a solitary walk in nature. Yet that is not how the Torah describes the Jewish people’s experienceIt seems inconceivable! at the greatest Divine revelation in history, the giving of the Torah at Sinai.

… and they perceived the G‑d of Israel, and beneath His feet was like the forming of a sapphire brick and like the appearance of the heavens for clarity.

1And upon the nobles of the children of Israel He did not lay His hand, and they perceived G‑d, and they ate and drank.

It seems almost inconceivable. “They perceived the G‑d of Israel,” and how did they respond? They ate and drank!

In explaining this incident, Biblical commentators are divided. Some maintain that eating and drinking was indeed a sin, evidenced by the words, “And upon the nobles of the children of Israel He did not lay His hand.” i.e., the nobles should have been punished for eating, but G‑d refrained. Others, however, explain that it was not only permitted, but the right thing to do, since the food and drink were not a distraction from the Divine revelation, rather a celebration of it.

Judaism teaches that our task is to heal the rift between physical and spiritual, to the point where the physical is sanctified by enhancing the spiritual experience.

Chassidic philosophy explains that before the giving of the Torah at Sinai, the divide between physical and spiritual was unbridgeable. At Sinai the separation was broken; G‑d descended upon Mount Sinai, enabling us, for the first time in the history of the cosmos, to elevate the physical world and connect it to holiness.

There is, however, another point that requires exploration.

What is the meaning of the verse, “And upon the nobles of the children of Israel He did not lay His hand”? To those who maintain that the Jews sinned by eating and drinking at the Revelation, the meaning is clear: although they were deserving of punishment, G‑d refrained. But what is the meaning to those who believe that eating and drinking at Sinai (elevating the physical world we live in) was, in fact, the purpose of the entire spiritual experience?

The Hebrew word for “nobles”, atzilei, shares the same root as the word etzel, which means “near”. The Alter Rebbe, the founder of Chabad, explains: “He did not lay His hand” meansSpiritual experiences empower us to sanctify the physical that G‑d did not place paralyzing fear within their hearts. Many of the Jewish people at Sinai were overwhelmed by the intensity of the experience and were unable to eat. It was specifically the nobles, those close to G‑d, who were not awe-stricken, and were able to engage in elevating the food and drink. The lesson, says the Alter Rebbe, is that the more we connect to the sacred, the more we are able to fulfill the task of elevating the physical world.

This explains a Talmudic debate regarding the purpose of Shabbat. Some argue that Shabbat was given so that the Jewish people would have time to study Torah (since labor is prohibited), while others say that Shabbat was given for the Jewish people to enjoy food and drink (as there is an obligation to honor the Shabbat with delicacies). These two opinions do not contradict one another; they address two distinct situations: if we spend the six days of the week completely engaged in material business and we do not dedicate time to holiness, then Shabbat is the time to dedicate to spirituality.

If, however, we create moments of closeness to G‑d during the week, then on Shabbat we enjoy the pleasures of food and drink, because the spiritual experiences empower us to be able to sanctify the food and drink.

The more we connect to spirituality and holiness, the more we can elevate the material world.

(Adapted from Mamorei Admu”r Hazaken Haktzarim, p. 378)