Human beings are creative, intelligent, and powerful, but at the same time, we are so very limited. Physically, we can only be in one place at any given point in time. Our experience of this spectacular physical universe is limited to our five senses. There is a vast and almost infinite world of wisdom that each and every one of us has no grasp of.
But imagine a life beyond the one you currently experience- one with new senses and sensations, new colors added to your field of vision, new sounds added to your range of hearing. What if you had abilities that far surpassed anything you can imagine? Think of a reality in which you had access to all wisdom and could experience it and grasp it all instantaneously. The reason this is so difficult is because it is nearly impossible to imagine something that you have never experienced before- try thinking of a color that doesn’t exist. With this in mind, let us explore a fascinating topic related to this week’s parsha, Beha’aloscha.
The Rambam, in his commentary on the mishna in Perek Chelek of Sanhedrin, famously quotes thirteen principles of faith which he believes to be the absolute foundational pillars of Jewish belief. The sixth principle states that one must believe that all the words of the nevi’im (prophets) are true. The seventh principle states that one must believe that the prophecy of Moshe Rabeinu was true, and that he was greater than all other nevi’im, both those that came before him and those that came after. The sixth principle is obviously crucial; the seventh seems redundant. If all the nevi’ims’ words were true, of course Moshe’s were too. Why do we need a separate principle stating that? And what does it mean that Moshe was the greatest of all prophets?
In this week’s parsha, Hashem Himself attests to this fact, that Moshe Rabeinu was the greatest prophet to ever live. (Bamidbar 12:6-8). What was unique about Moshe’s prophecy? What made it “greater” than any other prophet’s? We know that Moshe was the Navi selected to receive the Torah from Hashem and bring it down to the Jewish People. However, Moshe was not arbitrarily chosen for this mission, it seems that he was uniquely suited for it. The Torah itself is known as “Toras Moshe”, indicating that Moshe was the sole person capable of receiving the Torah, to the extent that it is identified with him. What was the greatness of Moshe’s prophecy that gave him this uniqueness, what was so special about Moshe’s nevuah that made it unequivocally different from all other nevi’im who came before and after him?
In order to understand Moshe’s prophecy, we must first develop an understanding of nevuah in general.
The Nature of Prophecy
We live in a world devoid of prophecy. Therefore, attempting to understand it is like trying to understand a human sense by hearing someone describe it to you. However powerfully you can describe sight, it won’t mean all that much to a person who has been blind from birth. Likewise, a deaf person could read about hearing, but he has no past experience, category, or mental context in which to place it. Similarly, in a world without prophecy it becomes very difficult to relate to the experience or understand what it was. However, we will try to paint as clear of a picture as possible.
Before and throughout the Middle Ages, there were various attacks against Judaism by secular and non-Jewish philosophers. One area commonly targeted was prophecy, with the result that many Jewish philosophers clearly described their understanding of nevuah. While there is some variance within their opinions, the basic consensus is as follows: A prophet must be a great tzaddik, spending his entire life building up to the stage where he was worthy of receiving prophecy. This includes a mastery of both Torah knowledge its observance, and a mastery over one’s middos (character traits) and intellect. Once he achieved this exalted status, now capable of receiving prophecy, Hashem chose whether or not he would indeed receive prophecy. The prophetic experience itself was an other-worldly experience. Hashem opened and expanded the navi’s consciousness, allowing him to connect to a higher dimension of existence, one that lies far beyond the limitations of time and space, far beyond the capacity of the normal human mind. In doing so, Hashem allowed the navi to experience lofty ideas and intellectual truths which would then get translated through the navi’s intellect down into his imaginative faculties. In a very deep sense, it was an angelic experience of the spiritual world.
Now that we have a basic picture of prophecy in general, we must ask: What made Moshe’s prophecy unique?
Clarity of Vision
The first unique characteristic of Moshe’s prophecy was his level of clarity. The gemara in Yevamos 49b states that while all other prophets saw through a clouded lens, Moshe saw through a clear lens. In other words, we all perceive reality through our own lens. A tremendously developed and wise person will see the world through a much more sophisticated lens than an immature child. One of them sees many layers of depth behind every aspect of reality, while the others sees nothing more than the surface. One of them looks at the Torah and sees layers of wisdom, while the other looks at the same Torah and sees meaningless scribbles. As this child matures, he has the ability to continuously expand his understanding, and develop a more sophisticated approach to life.
The same is true regarding prophecy, there were many different levels. As humans, our consciousness is limited in that we only see the physical, not the spiritual. Since prophecy was a window into the spiritual world, the metaphor Chazal used was an “Aspaklaria”, loosely translated as a window, lens, or mirror. The greater the prophet, the clearer his vision and the more he was able to understand; the lesser the prophet, the more opaque and cloudy his vision was, and the more ambiguous his understanding was. While all other nevi’im had some cloudiness to their vision, Moshe saw Hashem and the spiritual world with absolute clarity, or at least with as much clarity as possible for a human being. In other words, while other nevi’im saw a reflection of the spiritual world and its truths, Moshe saw the spiritual world itself, with no filters. As the Ramchal puts it in Derech Hashem, Moshe was looking through a glass window.
Rav Dessler beautifully explains that this is why the word “Aspaklaria” also means mirror, because the prophet’s experience would be a reflection of himself, as the prophecy is filtered through the prophets own consciousness. If there is any ego or distance between the navi and Hashem, even to the slightest degree, the prophecy will be disfigured accordingly. This is why the gemara states that all the nevi’im had their own unique style of writing, it was because the nevuah was filtered through their unique personalities and minds. The words and ideas were completely from Hashem, but were given based on how it flowed through their personal consciousness.
Moshe, however, had completely negated his ego, and was a transparent reflection of Hashem. His nevuah was one hundred percent pure and was experienced without any translation or filtration, only as it actually was. In other words, all other nevi’im saw an image of truth, but the words they transmitted were not actual truth itself but only a reflection of the truth. The prophecies they transmitted were shaped by their own personalities and feelings. Moshe, however, saw the objective truth itself, and was able to transmit that truth. The words he wrote were the actual truth, not a filtered down reflection. Moshe added nothing of his own, he was purely the medium and vessel through which Hashem gave the Torah. This is what Chazal mean when they say that Hashem spoke “mitoch grono shel Moshe”- from the throat of Moshe. Moshe wasn’t speaking, Hashem was; Moshe simply and purely gave over what Hashem was saying, as opposed to the other nevi’im who received prophecy from Hashem and then expressed it in their own unique way.
As a result, Chumash and the rest of Nach are on two completely different levels. Chumash is absolutely pure and reflects spiritual reality in its most potent and true form. All of spiritual truth is contained within the Torah. The rest of Nach is a manifestation of Torah on a lower form, reflecting the lower level of the nevi’im who received it. Interestingly, there are different episodes in Nach which describe the kisei ha’kavod- the divine throne, and each description is different. If you look at the descriptions in Yechezkel, Yeshayah, and Daniel, some descriptions are more detailed, some longer than others. One way to understand this is that they all saw the same prophecy, but each of them received and transmitted it according to their own unique style and level.
This is why the gemara often teaches the principle that no halacha can be learned out from Nach that wasn’t already introduced in the Torah. This is because Torah is the root and Nach is its expression. There is nothing in the expression that can’t be found within the root, just like there is nothing in a tree that can’t be traced back to its original seed.
His Face Glowed
While this is a much deeper topic, this also explains why Moshe’s face glowed upon descending from atop Har Sinai. As physical beings, our body is opaque and does not reflect our spiritual souls. All we see are each-others physical faces, no more. But Moshe uplifted himself and his physical body to such a level of spirituality, that his face and body were then able to reflect his spiritual core. The midrash explains that Moshe attained the same level that Adam was on before his sin. However, this was too much for Klal Yisrael to handle, and Moshe was forced to hide his face so as not to overwhelm them.
In Sha’ar Ha’Gamul of Toras Ha’Adam, the Ramban explains that Moshe completely overcame his physical drives and become completely spiritual. As a result, he no longer saw with physical eyes, but saw with a spiritual eye. In other words, Moshe no longer saw the physical world, but saw everything as a manifestation of spirituality. His perception itself was altered. This is connected to the well-known Meshech Chochmah who explains that Moshe completely overcame his free will and became a malach living in this world.
Awake or Sleeping
While all other nevi’im received their prophecy at night, while sleeping, Moshe received his nevuah while still awake and standing. If another prophet received his prophecy while awake, he would immediately collapse and lose consciousness, receiving the prophecy in a trance-like state. This is why the Gemara in Brachos 57b states that a dream is a taste of prophecy, both occur when the mind transcends the physical limitations of the body, and both occur while you are asleep. Nevuah is, in a sense, simply a much more elevated form of dreaming.
The reason prophecy can’t occur while you are awake seems logical. Nevuah is such a completely spiritual experience that the physical, conscious body cannot contain or sustain it. The navi therefore needs to let go of his physical senses if he wishes to experience this spiritual dimension. Moshe’s body, however, was so pure and spiritual, that it was able to sustain a direct experience with the spiritual world. This is how he was able to go forty days and nights on Har Sinai without eating, his physical body was able to exist in the spiritual world, almost as if he was an angel. The Ramchal compares Moshe to Eliyahu and Chanoch, both of whom were able to go directly to the spiritual world without dying and leaving their physical bodies, since their bodies themselves became completely spiritual.
While other nevi’im had to wait to be called upon by Hashem, Moshe was able to call upon Hashem and initiate his prophecy at any point in time he wanted. In parshas Behaaloscha, when the men complained about the korban Pesach, Moshe simply told them to wait there while he goes to ask Hashem. Similarly, in the case of the Bnos Tzlafchad, he does the same. If at any point Moshe was unsure about a halacha, he would simply ask Hashem.
This is connected to another key characteristic of Moshe’s nevuah, namely, that it was constant. As a matter of fact, since Moshe would receive nevuah at any point in the day, he had to separate from his wife, Tzipporah, so that he was always tahor.
Interestingly, while other nevi’im only saw what Hashem wanted to reveal to them, Moshe was allowed to see whatever he wanted. When Moshe asks Hashem to reveal His “Goodness”, Hashem agrees (Shemos 33:19). The Ramchal in Da’as Tevunos and the Rambam in his Moreh Nevuchim (1:54) explain that Moshe wished to understand the entire nature and depth of everything that exists in the created world. While there were still limits to Moshe’s Nevuah, in that he couldn’t see Hashem “Himself”- the front of Hashem’s head- Hashem allowed Moshe to see His full expression into this world- the back of Hashem’s head. In other words, Hashem allowed Moshe to see as much as a human could possibly comprehend.
Moshe’s Speech Impediment
This sheds new light on an often misunderstood topic. Moshe served as the leader of the Jewish people, yet, he had a very ironic flaw: a speech impediment. How can the leader of a nation, a person who is called upon to represent and guide them, possibly have a speech impediment? Some, like the Rashbam, suggest that Moshe was capable of speaking just like everybody else, but had simply forgotten the Egyptian language. The Ran famously suggests that Moshe spoke with a lisp in order to ensure people know that Klal Yisrael accepted the Torah for its innate truth, and not because Moshe swayed them with his elegant and inspiring speaking skills.
The Maharal, however, suggests a much deeper explanation. He explains that Moshe’s speech impediment was not a defect; rather, it was a reflection of his perfection. As we’ve discussed before, speech is the concretization of the infinite into finite packages of words and sentences. Speech takes that which is beyond words, that which is infinite, and limits it to the finite, to words. Silence reflects the notion that something can’t be formulated or constricted into mere words. Whenever you experience something truly deep and powerful, you most likely struggle to formulate it into concrete thoughts or words. Moshe couldn’t speak because he lived in a dimension of such absolute clarity and truth. He simply could not bring such lofty and transcendent concepts down into the finite and limited dimensions of this physical world. His speech defect was actually a revelation of his perfection.
This was the paradox of the Torah. Hashem took the infinite truth of reality, something far beyond words, and somehow constricted that endless wisdom into the finite words of Torah, words that we have written down in our own sifrei Torah. Yet, paradoxically, even though they are finite and written down, they still loyally reflect their eternal and infinite truth. Fascinatingly, once Hashem did this, Moshe received the ability to do this as well. Why? Because Moshe was the voice of Torah, the shliach of Hashem. Therefore, sefer Devarim begins with “Eleh devarim asher diber Moshe…”. Moshe now gained the ability to speak, to faithfully express the infinite within the finite.
A Pillar of Faith
We can now explain why the Rambam separates between the sixth and seventh ikar of emunah. The sixth ikar is our belief in nevuah itself. But Moshe’s nevuah are not only true, but of a fundamentally different category. One could easily mistaken Moshe’s nevuah as being no different from any other navi’s. As a result, if a navi claimed to have received a new Torah, perhaps he’s right, and we should replace Moshe’s Torah. The Rambam is therefore clarifying that Moshe didn’t just receive prophecy, he received the highest prophecy possible. This level of prophecy is Torah. Every other navi who comes subsequently is on a lower level. Therefore, if a navi contradicts Moshe’s Torah, we know he is a navi sheker- a false prophet. This sheds new light onto why Korach’s rebellion was so severe. By challenging Moshe, he was trying to uproot the entire foundation of Torah!
Moshe as Source of Inspiration
To many, Moshe may not serve as a classic role model. He wasn’t great, he was perfect, he didn’t accomplish a lot, he accomplished everything. To some, this may be more overwhelming than inspiring, more daunting than encouraging. But I think that we can all connect to Moshe in a very deep way. Moshe shows us what humanity is capable of. Sometimes you need to see an example of human perfection before you can personalize it to your unique mission in life. True, you can’t be as great as Moshe, but that’s not your job; your job is to be the greatest version of you possible. But perhaps Moshe can inspire us to challenge ourselves a bit more, to add one more layer to our self-expectations, to question our own limits, to genuinely ask ourselves if we’re giving it everything we have. Moshe was a complicated figure; when he separated from his wife, Miriam and Aharon didn’t understand or even agree with it. He was not a man of this world. But that was not his role; he serves as an eternal model of transcendent perfection, a star in the night sky guiding each of us on our own unique journey through life. In moments of self-doubt, in moments of opportunity, in moments of fear, just think of Moshe and remember that in a very deep way, the sky is the limit… or is it?