Thursday, February 15, 2007

Sinai - Risks and Rewards.

I have written about prophecy according to Rambam on this blog and in greater depth in the two articles published in Hakirah and available fully online at for viewing and download. To summarize Rambam has a very naturalistic view of the experience. There are two different types of prophecy; the one experienced by all prophets including Moshe and another, called prophecy for lack of a better word, which only Moshe experienced.

The prophecy experienced by all prophets results from a very thorough and deep understanding of the physical universe, the metaphysics behind it and an ontological perspective of our existence. It is an amalgam of concrete facts and abstract concepts seen from the perspective of a universe caused to exist by the First Cause. A person to successfully speculate and arrive at prophecy corrals both his rational and imaginative faculties where the former controls the outcome. That is the meaning of the Gemara in Hagigah 14b where Rabbi Akivah tells the other three that joined him in the vineyard “when you see the clear marble stones do not say “water! water!” for it says “My eyes will not countenance falsehood”.[1] The imagination needs to be reined in. The way I understand it is that by assimilating all that one can absorb about our existence and filtering it through our rational faculty we then translate the abstract concepts into pictures or allegories using our imaginative faculty. The prophet then interprets it into a concrete action, advice or forecast injecting his own personality and state of mind into the prophecy. That is why we find two prophets describing essentially the same idea with a different emphasis. For example if you compare Yechezkel’s understanding (chapters 1 and 5) God and His relationship to existence with Yeshayahu’s (chapter 6) we see the same concept described in two similar but different allegories.

Moshe’s prophecy on the other hand operated differently. While he experienced regular prophecy when dealing with day-to-day issues and decisions, when he legislated he used only his rational faculty. In a process that only Moshe could have known, he was able to rationally connect with the “active intellect” (an Aristotelian concept which I understand to be the underlying idea behind existence – more in a separate post to come). As Rambam in his introduction to Chelek puts it “his imaginative and sensory faculties were not in effect during his apprehension, his instinctual faculty was dampened, and he was purely rational.” That is the meaning of Bamidbar 12:8

ח פֶּה אֶל-פֶּה אֲדַבֶּר-בּוֹ, וּמַרְאֶה וְלֹא בְחִידֹת, וּתְמֻנַת יְהוָה, יַבִּיט; וּמַדּוּעַ לֹא יְרֵאתֶם, לְדַבֵּר בְּעַבְדִּי בְמֹשֶׁה.
8 with him do I speak mouth to mouth, even manifestly, and not in dark speeches; and the similitude of the LORD doth he behold; wherefore then were ye not afraid to speak against My servant, against Moses?'

Moshe’s prophecy is what is referred to as Kol – voice in the context of Matan Torah and when referred to Moshe’s legislation. That is the meaning of

פט וּבְבֹא מֹשֶׁה אֶל-אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד, לְדַבֵּר אִתּוֹ, וַיִּשְׁמַע אֶת-הַקּוֹל מִדַּבֵּר אֵלָיו מֵעַל הַכַּפֹּרֶת אֲשֶׁר עַל-אֲרֹן הָעֵדֻת, מִבֵּין שְׁנֵי הַכְּרֻבִים; וַיְדַבֵּר, אֵלָיו. {פ}
89 And when Moses went into the tent of meeting that He might speak with him, then he heard the Voice speaking unto him from above the ark-cover that was upon the ark of the testimony, from between the two cherubim; and He spoke unto him. {P}

Not only at Sinai was the Voice (Kol) central but afterwards too whenever Moshe needed to legislate he experienced Kol; the Kodesh Kodoshim where the Aron and its cover that was adorned by the Cherubs was the new source[3] of that Kol. That Kol could only be deciphered by Moshe. He was the only person that had succeeded in suppressing his physicality to the point that he could apprehend, without interpreting, the pure logic and abstract concepts necessary to legislate laws and rituals that will be eternally meaningful. Laws promulgated by even great and thoughtful legislators, are rooted only in the physical and as society changes, they tend to lose their meaning and arte abandoned. The laws promulgated by Moshe are meant to be adaptable to all times without changing their core concept.

The people at Sinai needed to experience this Kol so that they would be convinced of the eternity of the Torah. They had to accept that the laws promulgated by Moshe cannot be changed ever, they are eternally immutable. Moshe prepared them to a certain extent during the three days of preparation, which as Rabbeinu Avraham Rambam’s son explains, included contemplation coupled with philosophical discourse and teachings. This apparently was the culmination of a process of teaching started immediately at the Exodus from Egypt as commemorated with the Mitzvah of counting of the Omer. They were prepared enough that thy all could experience enough Kol to convince them. However each experience was particular to each individual. That explains

א וְאֶל-מֹשֶׁה אָמַר עֲלֵה אֶל-יְהוָה, אַתָּה וְאַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא, וְשִׁבְעִים, מִזִּקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתֶם, מֵרָחֹק.
1 And unto Moses He said: 'Come up unto the LORD, thou, and Aaron, Nadav, and Avihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel; and worship ye afar off;
ב וְנִגַּשׁ מֹשֶׁה לְבַדּוֹ אֶל-יְהוָה, וְהֵם לֹא יִגָּשׁוּ; וְהָעָם, לֹא יַעֲלוּ עִמּוֹ.
2 and Moses alone shall come near unto the LORD; but they shall not come near; neither shall the people go up with him.'

It also explains the repeated warnings against going up the mountain. Ascending the mountain is an allegory for metaphysical speculation. Having experienced the Kol, experiencing it without really understanding it, there was a natural urge to speculate further. Moshe warned the people not to do so as they were not prepared enough, had not acquired enough knowledge, to pursue further understanding without being derailed. Looking at Sinai from this perspective, there clearly is a risk associated with this sudden flooding of new ideas and concepts. It did not take much time and the people could not resist the temptation of further speculation which resulted in the Egel – the Golden Calf. Not only the people but also the elite got derailed. More in next post.

[1] תלמוד בבלי מסכת חגיגה דף יד עמוד ב

תנו רבנן: ארבעה נכנסו בפרדס, ואלו הן: בן עזאי, ובן זומא, אחר, ורבי עקיבא. אמר להם רבי עקיבא: כשאתם מגיעין אצל אבני שיש טהור אל תאמרו מים מים! משום שנאמר +תהלים ק"א+ דובר שקרים לא יכון לנגד עיני.

[2] As an aside note the allegory of Peh el Peh and Mitat Neshikah - dying with a kiss.

[3] When we say source we do not mean physical place but rather a focal point of concentration. More in other posts.

1 comment:

  1. Dad you said-
    that is why we find two prophets describing essentially the same idea with a different emphasis. For example if you compare Yechezkel’s understanding (chapters 1 and 5) God and His relationship to existence with Yeshayahu’s (chapter 6) we see the same concept described in two similar but different allegories.

    In Isaiah 6:5-7 it is interesting to see how Isaiah mentions "for my eyes have seen the king, hashem, master of the legions."
    I think that it is concerning this statement that the Seraphim says "Behold !this has touched your lips;your inquity is removed and your sin shall be atoned."
    The message is that the prophet is coming to terms with his vision and accepting that the physical perception of G-D is just an act of his imagination.The same with Moshe when he covered his face(according to the rambam).I think that the seraph is cleaning the prophets lips not for the lashan horah but for the false declaration and perception that he saw G-D.