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What Makes Moshe’s Prophecy Unique? (Parshas Beha’aloscha)

parsha sefer bamidbar Jun 09, 2020



Human beings are creative, intelligent, and powerful, but at the same time, we are exceedingly limited. Our experience of this spectacular physical universe is limited to our five senses. We can only be in one place at any given point in time. There is a vast, almost infinite world of wisdom that we have no grasp of whatsoever.


But what if this wasn’t the case? 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 to your range of hearing. What if you had abilities that far surpassed anything you can imagine? Consider a reality in which you had access to all wisdom and could experience and grasp it all instantaneously. It is so difficult to imagine this because it is nearly impossible to think about something that you have never experienced before- just try thinking of a color that doesn't exist.


Moshe's Prophecy


The Rambam[1] famously quotes thirteen principles of faith which he believes to be the absolute foundational pillars of Jewish belief, and strongly emphasizes how every Jew must believe in these principles. The sixth principle states that all the words of the nevi'im (prophets) are true. The seventh principle states that the prophecy of Moshe Rabeinu is 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 of the nevi'im's words were true, of course Moshe's were true as well. Why did the Rambam deem it necessary to state this as a separate principle?


More generally, what does it mean that Moshe was the greatest prophet to ever life? In Parshas Beha’aloscha, Hashem Himself attests to this fact (Bamidbar 12:6-8). What was unique about Moshe's prophecy? We know that Moshe received the Torah from Hashem and brought it down to the Jewish People, a role he seemed uniquely suited for. The Torah itself is called "Toras Moshe", indicating an intrinsic tie between Moshe and the Torah. Moshe was the sole person capable of receiving the Torah, to the extent that it is identified with him[2]. What was the greatness of Moshe's prophecy that earned him this unique status? What was so special about Moshe's nevuah that rendered it fundamentally 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 much to a person who has been blind from birth. Likewise, a deaf person could read about hearing, but he has no past experience or mental construct in which to place it. Similarly, in a world devoid of prophecy, it becomes exceedingly difficult to understand or even relate to the experience. However, we will try to paint as clear a picture as possible.


Throughout the Middle Ages, there were various attacks against Judaism by secular and non-Jewish philosophers[3]. One area commonly targeted was prophecy, resulting in many Jewish philosophers attempting to clearly describe their understanding of nevuah. While there is variance within their opinions, the basic consensus is as follows: A prophet must be a great tzaddik, spending his entire life building to the stage where he is worthy of receiving prophecy. This includes both a mastery of Torah knowledge and commitment to its observance, as well as a mastery over one’s middos (character traits) and intellect. Once he achieves this exalted status, he is capable of receiving prophecy, and Hashem will choose whether or not to grant him 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 regular human mind. In doing so, the navi became capable of experiencing lofty ideas and intellectual truths which he would otherwise not have access to.[4] These ideas and truths would then filter down through the navi's intellect and get translated through his imaginative faculties, resulting in his unique and subjective experience of those objective truths. In a very deep sense, nevuah was an other-worldly and angelic experience of the spiritual world that a navi experienced while still in this world.


Building off this general understanding of prophecy, we must now 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 (Yevamos 49b) states that while all other prophets saw through a clouded lens, Moshe saw through a clear lens. We all perceive reality through our own unique 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 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 hazy his understanding was. While all other nevi'im’s vision had some measure of cloudiness, Moshe saw Hashem and the spiritual world with absolute clarity, or 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, seeing the spiritual world as it is, with absolute clarity.


Rav Dessler beautifully explains that this is why the word "Aspaklaria" also means mirror, because the prophet's experience was a reflection of himself, as the prophecy was filtered through his own consciousness. If there is even the slightest degree of ego involved, or the smallest distance between the navi and Hashem, the prophecy will be blurred accordingly. This is why the commentaries state that each navi had their own unique style of writing. Nevuah was filtered through each navi’s unique mind and personality, then recorded accordingly. The words and ideas were completely from Hashem, but were received based on how they flowed through the navi’s personal consciousness.


Moshe, however, completely negated his ego. He was a transparent reflection of Hashem, and his nevuah was one hundred percent pure. He experienced his prophecy without any translation, filtration, or distortion; he received it exactly as it was given by Hashem. In other words, all other nevi'im saw an image of truth, but the words they transmitted were only a reflection of that truth, shaped by their own minds and personalities. Moshe, however, saw the objective truth itself, and was able to transmit that truth in its purity and entirety. 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 “Shechinah midaberes mitoch grono shel Moshe"- Hashem spoke from the throat of Moshe[5]. Moshe wasn't speaking, Hashem was; Moshe simply gave over what Hashem said, in contrast to 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 fundamentally 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 level, in a more limited form, reflecting the lower level of the nevi'im who received it.[6] 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 derived from Nach that wasn't already introduced in the Torah. Torah is the root, and Nach is its expression. There is nothing in the expression that cannot 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


The uniqueness of Moshe’s prophecy and connection with Hashem manifested in other ways as well. When Moshe descended from atop Har Sinai, his face glowed, to the extent that he had to cover it when interacting with the rest of Klal Yisrael. As physical beings, our bodies are opaque and do not reflect our spiritual souls[7]. All we see are each other’s physical exterior, but no more. Moshe, however, uplifted himself and his physical body to such a level of spirituality, that his face and body reflected his spiritual core. The Midrash explains that Moshe attained the same exalted level that Adam was on before he ate from the eitz ha’da’as.[8] 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 became fully spiritual. As a result, he no longer saw with physical eyes, but saw with spiritual vision. In other words, Moshe no longer saw the physical world, but saw everything as a reflection and manifestation of spirituality. His very perception itself was fundamentally altered. This is connected to the well-known piece from the Meshech Chochmah[9], which explains that Moshe completely overcame his free will and became a malach living in this world.


Awake or Sleeping


The difference between Moshe’s and all other nevi’im’s prophecy was also expressed in the way that they received nevuah. While all other nevi'im received their prophecy at night, while sleeping, Moshe received his nevuah while 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 (Brachos 57b) states that a dream is a taste of prophecy. Both occur while you are asleep, when the mind transcends the physical limitations of the body[10]. Nevuah is, in a sense, an immensely more elevated form of dreaming.


The reason prophecy cannot occur while one is simply. 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 asked about the missing out on Korban Pesach, Moshe simply told them to wait there while he asks Hashem (Bamidbar 9:8). He does the same in the case of the Bnos Tzlafchad (Bamidbar 27:5). Moshe was able to speak with Hashem at will, he was able to tap into the highest of spiritual levels with complete ease.


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 separated from his wife, Tzipporah, so that he could remain tahor at all times.


The Content


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 (Da'as Tevunos) and the Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim, 1:54) explain that Moshe wished to understand the nature and depth of all that exists in the created world. While there were still limits to Moshe's Nevuah, in that he could not 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 seemingly ironic flaw: a speech impediment. How can the leader of a nation, a person called upon to represent and guide them, possibly have a speech impediment? Some, like the Rashbam[11], suggest that Moshe did not have a speech impediment, but was limited in his speech simply because he had forgotten the Egyptian language. The Ran[12], on the other hand, suggests that while Moshe did indeed speak with a lisp, this was to make it clear to all that Klal Yisrael accepted the Torah for its innate truth, and not because they Moshe swayed them with inspiring, persuasive speech.


The Maharal[13], 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.[14] Silence reflects the notion that something cannot be formulated or constricted into mere words. When you experience something truly deep and powerful, it is difficult to formulate it into concrete thoughts or words. This is because your mind experiences the idea as it is, in its purest and root state, while words only reveal a limited expression of that original perfection and clarity.[15] For mathematics, logic, and technical thinking, such as learning Gemara, if one can't formulate his thoughts in words, he doesn't understand it. For post-rational, deep spiritual wisdom, it is when one thinks that he can express it in words that he doesn't understand it.[16] Moshe could not 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 is the paradox of the Torah. Hashem took the infinite truth of reality, something far beyond words, and miraculously constricted that endless wisdom into the finite words of Torah, words that we have written in our own sifrei Torah. Nevertheless, paradoxically, even though the words of the Torah are finite and written down, they still loyally and completely reflect their eternal and infinite truth. And amazingly, once Hashem did this, expressing the eternal truths of Torah in finite form, Moshe received the ability to speak as well. Why? Because Moshe was the voice of Torah, the shliach of Hashem. When Hashem committed the Torah to words, through the mechanism of speech, Moshe as well gained the ability to speak, to fully express the infinite within the confines and constructs of speech, without betraying the root source which transcends those words. Sefer Devarim begins with the words, "Eileh ha’devarim asher diber Moshe…"[17]. 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, that it is a truthful message from Hashem. Moshe's nevuah, however, was 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 isTorah. Every other navi 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 a 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 believe 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 youpossible. 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?


[1] In his commentary on Sanhedrin, Perek Chelek

[2] See article on Parshas Devarim for more on Moshe’s unique connection with Torah and his role in Torah Sheba’al Peh.

[3] Originating mainly from the view of Aristotle.

[4] The prophetic experience is beyond space and time. This explains how a navi can become aware of future events that have not yet occurred. Within this transcendent realm of experience, time itself breaks down. Past, present, and future melt into one continuum. This raises the conflict between free will and foreknowledge, a question that is beyond the scope of this article.

[5] See Ramban (Parshas Va’eschanan)

[6] It is important to note that all of nach is still on a transcendent level. It is only in comparison to the Chumash that Nach is considered secondary.

[7] See article on Parshas Mikeitz for a deeper analysis of this topic and the relationship between body and soul.

[8]  See article on Parshas Mikeitz, section “Adam Ha’Rishon”.

[9] Hakdamah to Sefer Shemos

[10] This explains why people sometimes experience prophetic elements in their dreams; they are entering a state of consciousness that transcends the boundaries and rules of space and time. This also sheds light on the concept of deja vu.

[11] Shemos 4:11

[12] Drashos Ha’Ran 3:6-10

[13] Gevuras Hashem 28:1

[14] See article on Parshas Tzav, section: “Speaking: Act of Connection”.

[15] Silence is also powerful, in that it allows you to process your learning, think, and absorb ideas. Silence is also an essential part of the process of communicating deeper ideas. A great rabbi was once delivering a lecture, when one of his students positioned a recorder to record the shiur. It made a strange clicking sound whenever the rabbi stopped speaking. After the lecture, the rabbi asked his talmid, "Why did it make this clicking sound?"  His talmid answered, "This recorder is unique, as it only records when it receives sound. Every time the Rebbi was silent, the recorder stopped. The rabbi shook his head in dismay, "What a shame; silence is also fundamental to the teaching process. You are now missing this in the recording."

[16] See article on Parshas Chukas for relationship between rational and post-rational wisdom

[17] Devarim 1:1 


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