Human beings are creative, intelligent, and powerful; but at the same time, we are incredibly 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.
- We have limited strength and energy.
- 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, and 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 famously formulates 13 Principles of Faith that 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 greatest Navi of all time, greater than both those who came before him and those who came after (Rambam, commentary on Sanhedrin, perek Cheilek). 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? 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 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 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 that lies far beyond the limitations of time and space, and 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. (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.) 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. (See Rambam’s introduction to perek Cheilek to see the Rambam’s description of Moshe’s unique characteristics that are mentioned in this article. See also Mishneh Torah, Yesodei HaTorah 7:6.) The Gemara explains that while all other prophets saw through a clouded lens, Moshe saw through a clear lens (Y’vamos 49b). Another way of formulating this distinction is as follows: While all other N’viim received their prophecy through an angel (intermediary), Moshe received prophecy directly from Hashem (See Sh’mos 33:11 and BaMidbar 12:8). 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 “aspaklaria,” 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 cloudier his vision and the hazier 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.
Rav Dessler beautifully explains that this is why the word “aspaklaria” also means mirror. 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, as many commentators note, each Navi had his own unique style of writing. Each prophecy was filtered through the Navi’s unique mind and personality and was then shared and written accordingly. The ideas were transmitted completely from Hashem, but they were received according to how they flowed through the Navi’s personal consciousness. (For example, there are different episodes in Nach that describe the Kisei HaKavod – the Divine Throne – and each description is different. If you look at the descriptions in Yechezkel, Yeshayah, and Daniel, some descriptions are more detailed, and some are 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 his own unique style and level.)
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 “Sh’chinah m’daberes mi’toch g’rono shel Moshe – [Hashem] spoke from the throat of Moshe” (Ramban, D’varim 5:12). Moshe wasn’t speaking; Hashem was. Moshe simply gave over 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 the 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 N’viim who received and transmitted it. (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.) This is why the Gemara teaches the principle that no halachah can be derived from Nach that wasn’t already introduced in the Torah. (See, for example, 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 must be sourced in the Torah. In our next article, we will delve more deeply into this fascinating topic and try to understand Moshe’s unique level of prophecy on an even deeper level.
Rabbi Shmuel Reichman is the author of the bestselling book, The Journey to Your Ultimate Self, which serves as an inspiring gateway into deeper Jewish thought. He is an international speaker, educator, and the CEO of Self-Mastery Academy. After obtaining his BA from Yeshiva University, he received s’micha from RIETS, a master’s degree in education, a master’s degree in Jewish Thought, and then spent a year studying at Harvard. He is currently pursuing a PhD at UChicago. To invite Rabbi Reichman to speak in your community or to enjoy more of his deep and inspiring content, visit his website: www.ShmuelReichman.com.