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.
The Rambam (Perek Cheilek) famously formulates Thirteen Principles of Faith, which he believes to be the absolute foundational pillars of Jewish belief, emphasizing that every Jew must believe in these principles. The sixth principle states that all the words of the n’viim (prophets) are true. The seventh principle specifies that the prophecy of Moshe Rabbeinu is true, and that he was the greatest navi of all time, greater than both those who came before him and those who came after. The sixth principle is obviously crucial; the seventh seems redundant. If all of the words of the n’viim were true, of course Moshe’s were true, as well. What is so fundamentally important about the superiority of Moshe’s prophecy that the Rambam deemed it necessary to state it as a separate principle of faith?
More broadly, what does it mean that Moshe was the greatest prophet to ever live? In Parshas B’Ha’aloscha, Hashem Himself attests to the greatness of Moshe and his unique level of prophecy (BaMidbar 12:6-8). What was so 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 even called “Toras Moshe” (Malachi 3:22), indicating an intrinsic tie between Moshe and the Torah. But what was the greatness of Moshe’s prophecy that earned him this unique status? Why was Moshe’s n’vuah fundamentally different from all the other n’viim who came before and after him?
In order to understand Moshe’s prophecy, we must first develop an understanding of n’vuah 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 framework 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. One area commonly targeted was prophecy, resulting in many Jewish thinkers attempting to clearly describe their understanding of n’vuah. While there is variance within their opinions, the basic consensus is as follows: A prophet must be a great tzadik, spending his or her 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 complete command over one’s midos (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, transcendent 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 that he would otherwise have no access to. These ideas and truths would then filter down through the navi’s intellect and get translated by his imaginative faculties, resulting in his unique, subjective experience of these lofty objective truths. In a very deep sense, n’vuah was a transcendent, 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 (Y’vamos 49b) explains 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 other 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 words and sees meaningless scribbles. As the child matures, he will have 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 is a window into the spiritual world, the metaphor Chazal use to describe the quality of the navi’s vision is an “aspaklariah,” loosely translated as a window, lens, or mirror. The greater the prophet, the clearer his vision and the better his understanding; the lesser the prophet, the more opaque and cloudy his vision and the more hazy his understanding. While the vision of all other n’viim 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 n’viim 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 saw through a “glass window”; he saw the spiritual world as it is, with absolute clarity.
Moshe, however, completely negated his ego. He was a transparent reflection of Hashem, and his n’vuah was 100 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 n’viim 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, and was able to transmit that objective truth in its absolute purity and entirety. The words he wrote were the actual objective truth, not a filtered or watered-down reflection. Moshe added nothing of himself to Hashem’s words; he was purely the medium and vessel through which Hashem gave the Torah. This is what Chazal mean when they say that “HaSh’chinah m’daberes mitoch grono shel Moshe” – Hashem spoke from the throat of Moshe (Ramban – D’varim 5:12). Moshe wasn’t speaking, Hashem was. Moshe simply transmitted what Hashem said, as opposed to other n’viim – who received prophecy from Hashem and then expressed it in their own unique way.
As a result, Chumash and 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 Nach is a manifestation of Torah on a lower level, in a more limited form, reflecting the lower level of the n’viim who received and transmitted it. This is why the Gemara teaches the principle that no halachah can be derived from Nach that wasn’t already introduced in the Torah (Bava Kama 2b). Torah is the root – the absolute truth – while Nach is its expression. There is nothing in the expression that cannot be found within the root, just as there is nothing in a tree that can’t be traced back to its original seed. As such, all mitzvos much be sourced in the Torah.
A Pillar of Faith
We can now explain why the Rambam separates between the sixth and seventh Ikarim of Emunah. The sixth ikar is our belief in n’vuah itself, that n’vuah is a message of spiritual truth from Hashem. Moshe’s n’vuah, however, was not only true, but of a fundamentally different category: a revelation of absolute truth. One could have easily mistaken Moshe’s n’vuah as being no different from any other navi’s. As a result, if a navi claimed to receive a new Torah, perhaps he would be right, and we should replace Moshe’s Torah. The Rambam is therefore clarifying that Moshe didn’t just receive prophecy; he received the highest level of prophecy possible. This level of prophecy is Torah. 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.
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 that ideal 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?
Shmuel Reichman is an inspirational speaker, writer, and coach who has lectured internationally at shuls, conferences, and Jewish communities on topics of Jewish Thought and Jewish Medical Ethics. He is the founder and CEO of Self-Mastery Academy (ShmuelReichman.com), the transformative online course that is revolutionizing how we engage in self-development. You can find more inspirational lectures, videos, and articles from Shmuel on his website: www.ShmuelReichman.com.