Who Sees Clearest of Them All (Isaiah 6:1-13)

Two prophetic visions from the latter prophets are forever linked liturgically with the revelation of the Torah at Sinai. In Parshat Yitro, we read Isaiah’s vision of the divine throne room where the angels proclaim God’s glory: “Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh – Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Host” (6:3), while on Shavuot which again shares the same Torah reading, we read of Ezekiel’s vision of the divine chariot where the angels again proclaim God’s glory with the words: “Blessed be the Presence of the Lord in His place”. (Ezekiel 3:12) These angelic responses were considered so magisterial that they were enshrined in the Kiddusha (holiness) section of the Amidah, where we proclaim God’s holy status.

With the special status granted these visions in mind, it is interesting to read this surprising midrash: “Rabbi Eliezer says: From where do you know that the servant woman could see at Yam Suf (at the splitting of the sea) what neither Isaiah and Ezekiel nor any of the other prophets ever saw? Regarding them (the prophets) it said: ‘When I spoke to the prophets; I appeared in likenesses (only)’ (Hosea 12:11) And it is also written: ‘The heavens were opened and I saw (only) reflections of God.’ (Ezekiel 1:1) A parable is told. To what can this be compared – to a flesh and blood king who entered into a kingdom surrounded by a circle of guards; his heroes standing to his right and on his left, his soldiers before him and behind him, so that everyone had to ask: ‘Which one is the king – since he is flesh and blood like them?’ But when the Holy One Blessed be He revealed Himself at the sea, no one had to ask: ‘Which one is the king?’ Rather when they saw Him, they recognized Him, and they all opened their mouths and said: ‘This is my God and I will glorify Him’ (Exodus 15.2).’ (Mechilta d’Rabbi Ishmael Shirta Parsha 3, Horowitz Rabin edition, pp. 126-7 – See J. Goldin, The Song at the Sea, pp. 112-3)

What could possibly prompt Rabbi Eliezer to make the audacious claim that the prophetic vision of a slave woman at the sea was clearer and more authentic than that of all of the great prophets? Perhaps part of the impetus for this midrash can be found in the democratic spirit of rabbinic Judaism. The sages wanted to make it very clear that religion was not to be exclusively the purview of the elite, whether they be prophets, priests or rabbis. The notion that only rabbis study Torah, observe commandments, or experience the presence of God was anathema to them. The life of Torah was meant for all, even the slave woman! And her vision might even be the clearest of all!

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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