In my last post, I touched on Ikarim 6 and 7 that respectively deal with prophecy itself and with the prophecy of Moshe. Ikar 7 states that the prophecy of Moshe was in a category of its own. Rambam enumerates four differences between the two prophecies. I will analyze each one in upcoming posts and I believe we will gain insights into Rambam’s understanding of prophecy.
As I explained, prophecy is a natural human capability that certain people acquire by perfecting themselves both intellectually through knowledge and by improving the traits they were born with, their Midot. As a person meditates on transcendental issues which are non-material and non-physical he cannot truly picture these concepts in his mind, as they have no relations to his daily life. For example, even if one contemplates the existence of God, fully aware that He is not knowable and “existence” is equivocal when used in this context, man as a human being cannot escape visualizing “existence” in his mind. The mind translates the incomprehensible by attaching and superimposing it onto past experiences that are closest to the abstract concept in question. When we try to grasp the abstract idea that God “exists”, we append that concept onto how our mind understands what “to be” means. The same applies to all Metaphysical meditation about God and the laws and rules that He put in place to bring continuity to the universe and our existence. The concepts that dictate how nature operates, the ideas that underlie nature – not the forces themselves – are visualized as angels or God’s messengers thus Yeshayahu and Yechezkel saw winged beings. That process of allegorizing is what Rambam refers to as the involvement of the imaginative faculty in prophecy. The prophet as he reaches the deeper levels of cogitation about metaphysics translates those insights into his past experience.
The things that the prophet is told in the prophetic vision are in the form of an allegory and the interpretation of the allegory is simultaneously embedded in his mind. (Hil Yesodei Hatorah 7:3).
What we have is a process of apprehension of an abstract concept which is translated by the prophet’s mind and presented to his listeners in its allegorical form. At times, the prophet will interpret the allegory to his listeners at others, where the interpretation is beyond being understood by the masses, not. This type of prophecy is inevitably contaminated by the prophet’s subjective state of mind and experiences. It is the word of God in an indirect way. And here is the first difference between run of the mill prophecy and Moshe’s. Moshe was able to dispense with the imaginative faculty, the need to allegorize. By having transcended his material self, he was able to grasp abstract concepts as he saw them. There was no need for him to translate them. His prophecy was therefore uncontaminated by human frailty and subjectivity. That is the meaning of Peh el Peh.
All the prophets [prophesize] through an angel therefore their vision is in the form of allegory and riddle. Moshe Rabbeinu[‘s vision] is not through an angel because it says “I will speak with him Peh el Peh [mouth to mouth]” and it says “and God speaks to Moshe face to face” and it says “he sees the likeness of God”. Namely, there was no allegory. [Moshe] saw it as it was without a riddle or allegory. That is what the Torah attests about him [Moshe], “in a vision and not in riddles”, that he does not prophesize through a riddle but in a vision. He sees things as they are. (Yesodei Hatorah 7:11)
To understand the meaning of prophesying through an angel we turn to MN 2:6 where Rambam explains this based on a Midrash.
“We may find a confirmation of the opinion that the natural and psychical forces of an individual are called angels in a statement of our Sages which is frequently quoted, and occurs originally in Bereshit Raba (chap. 78): "Every day God creates a legion of angels; they sing before Him, and disappear."… In Midrash-Kohelet (on Eccles. x. 7) the following passage occurs: "When man sleeps, his soul speaks to the angel, the angel [speaks] to the cherub." The intelligent reader will find here a clear statement that man's imaginative faculty is also called "angel," and that "cherub" is used for man's intellectual faculty. How beautiful must this appear to him who understands it; how absurd to the ignorant!”
When we say that the prophecy came to the prophet from an angel, it means that he translated it internally using his imaginative faculty. Angel is the word used when we want to describe concepts underlying the laws and forces of nature. Those concepts are the early cause and precursors of every action in the universe.
“Consider how clearly they say that the term "angel" signifies nothing but a certain action, and that every appearance of an angel is part of a prophetic vision, depending on the capacity of the person that perceives it.”(MN2:6)
To “see” these abstract concepts, a normal human has to engage his imaginative faculty. Moshe, because of his ability to transcend his material self, having subjugated his sensory perceptions completely to his rational mind, was able to apprehend abstract concepts without superimposing them onto his imaginative faculty. That ability is metaphorically described as seeing through a “cherub” instead of through an angel.
וּבְבֹא מֹשֶׁה אֶל-אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד, לְדַבֵּר
אִתּוֹ, וַיִּשְׁמַע אֶת-הַקּוֹל מִדַּבֵּר אֵלָיו מֵעַל הַכַּפֹּרֶת
אֲשֶׁר עַל-אֲרֹן הָעֵדֻת, מִבֵּין שְׁנֵי הַכְּרֻבִים; וַיְדַבֵּר,
89 And when Moshe went into the tent of meeting that He might speak with him, he would hear the Voice being spoken unto him from above the covering that was upon the ark of covenant, from between the two cherubim; and He would speak to him. (Bamidbar 7:89)
The ability of a human being to attain prophecy as described above is not beyond the limits of our comprehension. The ability to employ all our mental capabilities from the rational to the imaginative and intuitive is something that anyone with a healthy body and mind should be able to develop. Prophecy in its most common and basic sense is a personal state of development that is really very private and internal. When we say that such and such is a prophet, we are saying that he is a human being that we estimate has arrived at a level of advanced development. However, an observer can only conjecture. The individual in question is the only one who knows that he has reached that level if he does not delude himself. It is only when the prophet cannot contain himself and feels the uncontrollable urge to share his prophecy with others, (the story of Yonah describes this urge), that the question of authenticity arises. I will leave that for another discussion. The prophecy that Moshe experienced however is not something that we as normal humans can even try to comprehend. We only know it because the Torah tells it to us. Unlike prophecy itself, it is a belief based on tradition and acceptance thereof. That is why I said in my last post that the sixth Ikar is knowable while the seventh has to be taken on faith partially. That part that Moshe was able to visualize transcendental concepts without the involvement of the imaginative faculty is incomprehensible to us and must be taken on faith. It is that ability that makes Moshe’s prophecy immutable when he gave us the Torah and also is the basic concept that underlies the next Ikar Torah Min Hashamayim.
The difficulty in understanding this type of prophecy is described in the Torah through the story of the interaction of Aharon, Miriam and Moshe at the end of Beha’alotcha. It is also the underlying reason for the conflict with Korach. That is however for another time.
 הדברים שמודיעין לנביא במראה הנבואה--דרך משל מודיעין לו, ומיד ייחקק בליבו פתרון המשל במראה הנבואה, ויידע מה הוא
 It is fascinating to note that Peh el Peh and dying through a kiss, Missat Neshikah, which was the death described by Chazal for Moshe, Aharon and Miriam, connote a similar imagery.
כל הנביאים, על ידי מלאך; לפיכך רואין מה שהן רואין במשל וחידה. ומשה רבנו, לא על ידי מלאך, שנאמר "פה
אל פה אדבר בו
, ונאמר "ודיבר ה' אל משה פנים אל פנים
ונאמר "ותמונת ה', יביט
כלומר שאין שם משל, אלא רואה הדבר על בורייו בלא חידה בלא משל; הוא שהתורה
מעידה עליו, "ומראה ולא בחידות, שאינו מתנבא בחידה אלא במראה, שרואה
הדבר על בורייו