Moses Speaks!

moshe wth people
by Rabbi Chanan Morrison

The Salesman and the King

The Book of Deuteronomy consists mainly of Moses’ farewell speeches, spoken to the Jewish people as they prepared to enter the Land of Israel. The eloquence, passion, and rhythm of Moses’ discourses are breathtaking. And we cannot but wonder: is this the same person who claimed to be “heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue” (Ex. 4:10)?

The Sages were not unaware of this anomaly. The Midrash (Devarim Rabbah I:7) explains that eloquence is a relative matter, using the following parable to explain:

“This is like a man selling purple cloth, who announced, ‘Here is purple for sale.’ Hearing his voice, the king peeked out and called the salesman over. ‘What are you selling?’ asked the king. ‘Nothing.’ ‘But before I heard you say, ‘Here is purple for sale,’ and now you say, ‘Nothing’?

“Oh no!” exclaimed the salesman. “I am selling purple, but by your standards, it is nothing.”

This same concept, the Midrash concludes, may be applied to Moses and his speaking abilities. When standing before God, Creator of faculties of speech, Moses announced, “I am not a man of words” (Ex. 4:10). When it came to speaking to the Jewish people, however, the Torah records: “These are the words that Moses spoke….”

Who May Be a Prophet?

In order to properly understand Moses’ claim of inferior oratory skills, we need to first examine a basic question regarding the nature of prophets and prophecy.

In chapter 7 of Yesodei HaTorah, Maimonides describes those character traits and intellectual qualifications necessary to be a prophet. He then writes:

“One who has perfected himself in all of these traits and is in perfect health, when he enters the Pardes (i.e., he studies esoteric wisdom) and is drawn to those lofty and distant matters … Immediately the prophetic spirit will come to him.”

This description seems to indicate that prophecy is purely a function of one’s moral and spiritual preparation. Once one has attained the necessary spiritual level, he automatically merits prophecy.

However, Maimonides later writes that those who strive to attain prophecy are called “the sons of prophets” (see 2 Kings 2:15). “Even though they direct their minds, it is possible that the Divine Presence will inspire them, and it is possible that it will not” (ibid. 7:5). This second statement indicates that attaining prophecy is not dependent only upon one’s initiative and efforts. Even those who have attained the appropriate spiritual level are not assured of receiving prophecy.

How can we reconcile these two statements?

Natural or Supernatural?

Many aspects of the spiritual realm corresponds to the ways of the physical world. We find that the physical world is governed on the whole by set laws of nature and physics; only on occasion does Divine providence require that the laws of nature be overridden. The same holds true for the hidden resources of the soul. There are set, general rules that govern their functions. But there are also situations that are beyond the natural faculties of the soul.

We may thus rephrase our question as follows: is prophecy a natural spiritual talent (for those who prepare themselves appropriately)? Or does it fall under the category of the supernatural, and is only a matter of “Ratzon Hashem,” God’s will at that time to perfect the world by way of prophetic message?

“Ruach HaKodesh” and Nevu’ah

To resolve this dilemma, Rav Kook distinguished between two levels of prophecy. The first is an inner revelation in thought and mind, called Ruach HaKodesh. This is Divine knowledge attained naturally, a result of the soul’s greatness and its concentration on lofty matters. This form of prophecy is a natural talent that God established in the soul in its initial formation.

There is, however, a second, more external level of prophecy. This is Nevu’ah, from the word niv, meaning expression or utterance. Nevu’ah is the completion of the prophetic experience; prophecy goes beyond thought and is concretized in letters and words. This form of verbal prophecy is not a natural faculty of the soul. It reflects a miraculous connection between the spirit and the physical, the supernatural phenomenon of Divine Will commanding the prophet to relay a specific message to the world.

Now we may resolve the apparent contradiction in Maimonides’ writings. When he wrote that the prophetic spirit will immediately come to him, Maimonides was referring to the prophetic knowledge of Ruach HaKodesh. From his description, it is clear that he is speaking about prophecy of the mind: “His thoughts are constantly attuned to above; they are bound under God’s Throne, to understand those holy and pure images, perceiving God’s wisdom (in all aspects of creation).”

When, on the other hand, Maimonides referred to Nevu’ah, he wrote that even though the prophet directs his mind, the Divine Presence will not necessarily dwell upon him. This form of prophecy is dependent upon God’s Will and not on the soul’s natural talents.

Moses’ Mistake

Now we can better understand Moses’ claim that he was not “a man of words.” Moses was certainly aware of his stature as a prophet. Maimonides teaches that a prophet “recognizes that he is no longer as he once was; but rather that he has been elevated above the level of other wise individuals.” Moses was aware of his spiritual state — but only as one worthy of Ruach HaKodesh in prophetic thought. He assumed that the greater level of Nevu’ah would be similarly recognizable by one who merited such a level. Since Moses did not feel within himself this level of prophecy, he stated that he was not a “man of words” — i.e., one meriting verbal prophecy.

Moses’ assumption, however, was flawed. Since the inner prophecy of thought is a natural talent of the soul and the result of the prophet’s spiritual efforts, the prophet is aware that he merits Ruach HaKodesh. The external prophecy of Nevu’ah, on the other hand, is dependent upon “Ratzon Hashem,” according to the dictates of Divine providence at that time. While the first level is comparable to the laws of nature in the world, the second is like the supernatural miracles performed on special occasions. Thus it does not reflect any inner quality of the prophet’s soul.

God’s response to Moses is now clearer. “Who gave man a mouth? … Who made him blind? Was it not I, the Lord?” (Ex. 4:11) The world has two sides, the natural and the supernatural. The mouth belongs to the natural, whereas blindness is a special condition. Both, God explained, come from Me. Just as you attained the natural level of Ruach HaKodesh, so too it is My will that you will attain the supernatural level of Nevu’ah.

The Prophetic Nature of Devarim

We are left with one last issue to resolve. Why is it that the Midrash only clarifies Moses’ oratorical skills in the book of Deuteronomy? The answer to this question is to be found in the difference between the prophetic nature of Deuteronomy as opposed to the other books of Moses.

Regular Nevu’ah occurs like this: the prophets would first hear the Divine message; then the Divine Spirit would come to them and they would relate what they had heard. The prophecy of Moses, however, was totally different. The Shechinah would ‘speak through his throat,’ even as he spoke to the people. Moses was just a mouthpiece for the Divine Presence.

As a result, the other books of the Pentateuch do not reflect Moses’ oratory talents. Unlike other prophets, his speeches were not even a repetition of what he had heard. The book of Deuteronomy, on the other hand, is a reflection of Moses’ talents in the same way that the prophetic books of other prophets reflect their personal talents.

Were it not for Deuteronomy, we could have taken Moses’ claim at face value and understood that he was literally “heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue.” But after reading the eloquent discourses of Devarim, we realize that Moses was in fact referring to his prophetic capabilities. Moses meant that he was unworthy of verbal Nevu’ah. As in the Midrashic parable, only with regard to the King was Moses “heavy of mouth.”

(adapted from Otzarot HaRe’iyah vol. II pp. 131-133 (originally published in Itur Sofrim))

Copyright © 2006 by Chanan Morrison

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