Tuesday, August 26, 2008

What is Shechinah? ( part 1) -

Before discussing the experience at Sinai, I would like to explore the meaning of Shechinah as it relates to God’s presence. Rav Sa’adyah Gaon in his Hanivchar Be’emunot Vede’ot (Ma’amar 2:10 – page 103 in the Rav Kafieh edition) writes that God creates a form of extreme light and brilliance that takes on different forms which is a representation of God Himself. That creation is referred to as Kevod Hashem and Shechinah. Its purpose is to verify for the prophet that the vision he apprehends in his meditation is really God. It is clear that RSG sees this as a concession to human limitation in apprehending the transcendental.

אנו עונים

כי הדמות הזו ברואה, וכן הכסא, והמושב הנישא8

ונושאיו, כולם נבראים, בראם הבורא מזוהר9

כדי שיתאמת לנביאו שהוא אשר ניבא אותו בדבריו, כמו שנבאר במאמר השלישי.10
והיא דמות נכבדה מן המלאכים, עצומה בבריאתה בהירת זוהר,

והיא נקראת

כבוד ה,

ועליה הוא שתיאר אחד הנביאים:

חזה הוית עד די כרסון רמיו ועתיק יומין יתיב11,

ועליה מה שמתארים החכמים



Interestingly, Rambam accepts this explanation and further shows that Onkelos too used this idea, that there is a created representation of God. But then he partially discredits it with an interesting twist –

In the passage (Exod. xxiv. 10, lit., "And there was under his feet, like the action of the whiteness of a sapphire stone"), Onkelos, as you know, in his version, considers the word (raglav) "his feet" as a figurative expression and a substitute for "throne"; the words "under his feet" he therefore paraphrases, "And under the throne of his glory." Consider this well, and you will observe with wonder how Onkelos keeps free from the idea of the corporeality of God, and from everything that leads thereto, even in the remotest degree. For he does not say, "and under His throne"; the direct relation of the throne to God, implied in the literal sense of the phrase "His throne," would necessarily suggest the idea that God is supported by a material object, and thus lead directly to the corporeality of God. He therefore refers the throne to His glory, i.e., to the Shechinah, which is a light created for the purpose… You are acquainted with the version of Onkelos [of the passage quoted]. He contents himself with excluding from his version all expressions of corporeality in reference to God, and does not show us what they (the nobles of the children of Israel Exod. xxiv. 10) perceived, or what is meant by that figure. In all similar instances Onkelos also abstains from entering into such questions, and only endeavors to exclude every expression implying corporeality; for the incorporeality of God is a demonstrative truth and an indispensable element in our faith; he could decidedly state all that was necessary in that respect. The interpretation of a simile is a doubtful thing: it may possibly have that meaning, but it may also refer to something else. It contains besides very profound matter, the understanding of which is not a fundamental element in our faith, and the comprehension of which is not easy for the common people. (MN1:28)[1]

In other words, Rambam concedes that this explanation of Shechinah as a created representation of God is a possible interpretation of the metaphor of God being present in a place and time - it may possibly have that meaning. However, he does not believe it to be true - but it may also refer to something else. It is good enough for the plain people, who by accepting this explanation, can accept that when the verse refers to God in physical terms it really talks about a created representation thus negating physicality to God himself. Rambam then continues to give a completely different explanation to the verse in question which I will not address here. The words Shechinah and the root Shachen are discussed in several other places in the Moreh. First, I want to turn to Rambam’s understanding the word Avar – passed – as it refers to God discussed in MN1:21. When God said (Shemot 12:12)

יב וְעָבַרְתִּי בְאֶרֶץ-מִצְרַיִם, בַּלַּיְלָה

הַזֶּה, וְהִכֵּיתִי כָל-בְּכוֹר בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, מֵאָדָם

וְעַד-בְּהֵמָה; וּבְכָל-אֱלֹהֵי מִצְרַיִם אֶעֱשֶׂה שְׁפָטִים, אֲנִי יְהוָה.

12 For I will go through the land of Egypt in that night, and will smite all the first-born in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD.

The meaning is quite clear; we see an action that we attribute to God, we say that He passed through, because that would be how we, as humans, would accomplish such a result. That would apply to any observation on our part of any result that we would attribute to a specific action had we been responsible for it. We therefore say that God acted in such a manner knowing that He does not act in any physical sense. But then we have a much more difficult verse where the word Avar is used about God and there is no action or result to explain it. After the Egel when Moshe wanted to apprehend God’s essence and was denied it but was told that he could only apprehend God’s “back”, he was taught all sciences (MN 1:54). The words "all my goodness" imply that God promised to show him the whole creation, concerning which it has been stated, "And God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good" (Gen. I. 31). When I say, "to show him the whole creation," I mean to imply that God promised to make him comprehend the nature of all things, their relation to each other, and the way they are governed by God both in reference to the universe as a whole and to each creature in particular”. He was then told to go up the mountain and (Shemot 24:5-6)

ה וַיֵּרֶד יְהוָה בֶּעָנָן, וַיִּתְיַצֵּב עִמּוֹ שָׁם; וַיִּקְרָא בְשֵׁם, יְהוָה.

5 And the LORD descended in the cloud, and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD.

וַיַּעֲבֹר יְהוָה עַל-פָּנָיו, וַיִּקְרָא, יְהוָה יְהוָה, אֵל רַחוּם וְחַנּוּן--אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם, וְרַב-חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת.

6 And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed 'The LORD, the LORD, God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth;

Rambam explains that God told Moshe to refrain from focusing on His essence – His face – and concentrate on his deeds which are the attributes that follow in the verse.

Moses sought to attain to a certain perception which is called "the perception of the Divine face," a term occurring in the phrase "My face cannot be seen"; but God vouchsafed to him a perception of a lower degree, viz., the one called, "the seeing of the back," in the words, "And you shall see My back" (Exod. xxxiii. 23). We have mentioned this subject in our work Mishne Torah. Accordingly, it is stated in the above-mentioned passage that the Lord withheld from Moses that perception which is termed "the seeing of the Divine face," and substituted for it another gift, namely the knowledge of the acts attributed to God, which, as I shall explain (chap.54.) are considered to be different and separate attributes of the Supreme.”

In this context it was not God that passed by but rather God made Moshe pass through, namely turn his mind away from seeking to understand the impossible, His essence (face), and concentrate on His actions (back). When the verse said earlier that God descended in a cloud, God does not descend but rather Moshe, in his concentration felt God’s presence unclearly, as if in a fog, a presence that we know rationally is always there. Realizing that he could never pierce the fog, he refocused on God’s actions trying to learn them to emulate Him.

This idea that God is always present is called Shechinah. A person perceives or “feels” the Shechinah when he concentrates on that idea. I will flesh this out in the next post.

[1] בפירושו של אונקלוס לפסוק ותחת רגליו כמעשֹה לבנת הספיר (שמות כ"ד, 10)6

הוא ייחס, כידוע לך, את כינוי השייכות שבמלה רגליו אל הכסא ואמר: ותחות כורסי יקריה7.

הבן זאת והתפעל מה רחוק היה אונקלוס מן ההגשמה ומכל מה שגורם לה אפילו בדרך הרחוקה ביותר. שהרי לא אמר: ותחות כורסיה8

שכן אִילו ייחס את הכיסא אליו על-פי המשמעות המובנת בראשונה היה מתחייב שהוא יהיה יושב9

על גוף והיתה מתחייבת הגשמה. לכן ייחס את הכיסא אל יקריה10,

כלומר, אל השכינה אשר היא אור נברא

את פירושו של אונקלוס אתה יודע, אבל תכליתו של דבר שהוא שלל את ההגשמה ולא הבהיר לנו איזה דבר הם15 השׂיגו, ולא לאיזה דבר הכוונה במשל זה. וכך בכל מקום, הוא איננו מתייחס

לעניין הזה אלא לשלילת ההגשמה בלבד. כי שלילת ההגשמה היא דבר מוכח הוכחה

מופתית, הכרחי לאמונה

16. לכן הוא קובע באופן חד-משמעי שיש לשלול את ההגשמה ומפרש בהתאם לכך.
הבהרת משמעות המשל, לעומת זאת, היא עניין של סברה. אולי הכוונה לדבר זה או

לדבר אחר. כמו כן דברים אלה נסתרים מאוד, אין הבנתם מיסודות האמונה ואין

השׂגתם קלה להמון. לכן לא נגע בעניין זה

(Michael Schwartz Translation)

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


I will not be posting during the next ten days.

Enjoy the respite.

Standing Before God and Walking in God's Ways.

As a follow up to my last post on the word Omed in the context of apprehending HKBH, I have been thinking about several other places where this idea clarifies a text and we also get an insight into Rambam’s thought. The Gemara Sanhedrin 22a reads-

דאמר רב חנה בר ביזנא אר"ש חסידא המתפלל צריך שיראה עצמו כאילו שכינה כנגדו שנאמר שויתי ה' לנגדי תמיד

Rav Chana bar Bizna in the name of Rav Shimon Chasida says, the person that prays should see himself as if the Shechinah is in front of him as it says in Tehilim 16, “I set God always in front of me”.

In Hilchot Tefilah 4:16 Rambam based on the Gemara legislates as follows:

כיצד היא הכוונה--שיפנה ליבו מכל המחשבות, ויראה עצמו כאילו הוא עומד לפני השכינה

How does one concentrate [during Tefilah]? He clears his mind from all thoughts and sees himself as if he is standing in front of the Shechinah.

Rambam here changes “I set God always in front of me” of the Gemara to “sees himself as if he is standing in front of the Shechinah”. It has the same meaning as “while you, stand here with Me” that God told Moshe after the Sinai experience. Tefilah is part of the process that leads to apprehending God.

I will now commence to show you the way how to educate and train yourselves in order to attain that great perfection. The first thing you must do is this: Turn your thoughts away from everything while you read Shema, and do not content yourself with being intent when you read the first verse of Shema, or the first benediction [in the Amidah]. When you have successfully practiced this for many years, try in reading the Law or listening to it, to have all your heart and all your thought occupied with understanding what you read or hear. After some time when you have mastered this, accustom yourself to have your mind free from all other thoughts when you read any portion of the other books of the prophets, or when you say any blessing; and to have your attention directed exclusively to the reflection on what you are listening to or reading. When this too has been practiced consistently for a certain time, cause your soul to be in such a way that your thoughts is always quite free of distraction and gives heed to all that you are reading of the other discourses of the prophets and even when you read all the benedictions, so that you aim at meditating on what you are reading and at considering its meaning.” (MN3:51)

The idea is to eventually train ourselves to be focused and spend as much time as possible thinking about God and our role as individuals, as a nation and as human beings in the universe God created. An example of such a state is portrayed in the story of Sodom where Avraham realizes that its destruction is nearing. He enters into a prophetic discourse with God about the fairness of the situation where righteous might be swept along in the destruction. Avraham struggles with the idea. Here too the word Omed is prominent. The internal prophetic debate Avraham has, is depicted as beginning with -

וְאַבְרָהָם--עוֹדֶנּוּ עֹמֵד, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה.

But Abraham stood yet before the LORD.

And ending with –

כז וַיַּשְׁכֵּם אַבְרָהָם, בַּבֹּקֶר: אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם--אֲשֶׁר-עָמַד שָׁם, אֶת-פְּנֵי יְהוָה.

27 And Abraham got up early in the morning to the place where he had stood before the LORD.

It is during that prophetic state, while he was “standing” before God, that Avraham debated with God trying to understand the oncoming tragedy. Just before describing this internal struggle, the Torah makes the following statement -

יט כִּי יְדַעְתִּיו, לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה

אֶת-בָּנָיו וְאֶת-בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו, וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ יְהוָה,

לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט--לְמַעַן, הָבִיא יְהוָה עַל-אַבְרָהָם,

אֵת אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר, עָלָיו.

19 For I have known him, to the end that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of the LORD, to do righteousness and justice; to the end that the LORD may bring upon Abraham that which He hath spoken of him.'

Rambam talks about this verse in many places and sees it as one of the central underlying themes of Judaism. Avraham teaches his descendants that the goal of man is to get to know God and follow in His path doing righteousness and justice. This speculation about God’s ways, a constant full time endeavor, triggers the cogitations about Sodom as Avraham “stands” before God.

We also find a similar idea in Zechariah 3:7

ז כֹּה-אָמַר יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת, אִם-בִּדְרָכַי

תֵּלֵךְ וְאִם אֶת-מִשְׁמַרְתִּי תִשְׁמֹר, וְגַם-אַתָּה תָּדִין

אֶת-בֵּיתִי, וְגַם תִּשְׁמֹר אֶת-חֲצֵרָי--וְנָתַתִּי לְךָ מַהְלְכִים,

בֵּין הָעֹמְדִים הָאֵלֶּה.

7 'Thus says the LORD of hosts: If you will walk in My ways, and if you will keep My charge, and will also judge My house, and will also keep My courts, then I will give you free access among these that stand by.

Walking in God’s ways is “standing” in front of Him.

Monday, August 11, 2008

"While You Stand Here With Me" - The Unattainable Ideal.

Rambam in Hil Yesodei Hatorah 7:12 writes -

יג כל הנביאים, אין מתנבאים בכל עת שירצו. ומשה רבנו, אינו

כן, אלא כל זמן שיחפוץ, רוח הקודש לובשתו ונבואה שורה עליו; ואינו צריך

לכוון דעתו ולהזדמן לה, שהרי הוא מכוון ומזומן ועומד כמלאכי השרת. לפיכך

מתנבא בכל עת, שנאמר "עמדו ואשמעה, מה יצווה ה' לכם

ובזה הבטיחו האל, שנאמר "לך, אמור להם: שובו לכם, לאוהליכם. ואתה, פה עמוד עימדי

הא למדת שכל הנביאים, כשהנבואה מסתלקת, חוזרין לאוהלם, שהוא צורכי הגוף

כולן כשאר העם;

לפיכך אינן פורשין מנשותיהן. ומשה רבנו, לא חזר לאוהלו

הראשון; לפיכך פירש מן האישה לעולם ומכל הדומה לה, ונקשרה דעתו בצור

העולמים, ולא נסתלק ההוד מעליו לעולם וקרן עור פניו, ונתקדש כמלאכים

“All prophets cannot prophesize at all times while Moshe Rabbeinu is not so; at any time that he wishes it, the spirit from the Holy surrounds him and prophecy is upon him. He does not have to prepare himself for it [prophecy] by focusing his mind for he is always ready and standing like the angels that serve [God]. That is why he prophesizes at all times as it says, “stand and I will listen to what God instructs you”. God promised him this when he was told, “go and tell them – return to your tents - while you, stand here with Me”. This teaches that all prophets returned to their tent, that is their material needs, just like everyone else, once the prophecy left them and therefore did not distance themselves from their wives. On the other hand, Moshe Rabbeinu did not return to his earlier tent. He distanced himself from a woman forever as well as from any such similar things, his mind became tied up in the Rock of the worlds, the grace never left and his face shone, becoming holy like the angels.”

I have highlighted the word “stand” and “standing”, a term that appears three times in this text all translation of the Hebrew עומד. In MN 1:13, Rambam explains that in this context the word means durable, stable and established.

Elsewhere it has the meaning: to be stable and durable… Whenever the term “standing” occurs with reference to God, it is used in the last sense… This meaning also occurs in the words of God to Moshe: While you stand here with Me…”

The problem that faces us with this particular verse ואתה, פה עמוד עימדי is how do we understand Moshe, a physical person, standing with God, a transcendental entity? It must therefore be referring to a mental state rather than a physical one. When God told the people all of whom had just experienced a modicum of prophecy, to return to their tent, He was releasing them from their mental and intellectual concentration in their effort to apprehend God. Moshe on the other hand remained focused on the subject “forever” or permanently. To do that he had to completely detach his intellect, the rational faculty, from all his other faculties and completely remove himself from any material and physical personal interests and needs. The importance of understanding Moshe’s prophecy this way has two components. The first is a belief that we must accept and is part of how we understand the immutability of Torah. As Moshe was unique amongst all other prophets that came before, after or during his lifetime, his prophecy is unique and cannot be challenged for eternity. But there is also an empirical component to this idea. It describes an ideal that all human beings have to strive to reach, even while knowing that it will never be reached. It is also the underlying goal and purpose of why we perform all the Mitzvot prescribed by the immutable Torah that Moshe transmitted to us.

We must bear in mind that all such religious acts as reading the Law, praying, and the performance of other precepts, serve exclusively as the means of causing us to occupy and fill our mind with the precepts of God, and free it from worldly business. For we are thus, as it were, in communication with God undisturbed by any other thing… When an individual has acquired a true knowledge of God, and rejoices in that knowledge in such a manner, that whilst speaking with others, or attending to our bodily wants, his mind is all that time with God; when he is with his heart constantly near God, even whilst his body is in the society of men; then he is in that state which the Song on the relation between God and man poetically describes in the following words: "I sleep, but my heart wakes: it is the voice of my beloved that knocks" (Song v. 2). I do not say that that this rank is that of all the prophets, but I do say that this is the rank of Moses, our Teacher, of whom Scripture relates: "And Moses alone shall come near before the Lord" (ibid. xxxiv. 28); " while you, stand here with Me” (Deut. V. 28).” (MN3:51)

The idea that a person can attain this level of development, even if only theoretically, is the foundation upon which Judaism stands. This is not only a theological and philosophical stand. It has tremendous practical implications for humanity. If we think about it, Moshe’s devotion to HKBH resulted in a Torah that impacts human society after 3000 years and will continue affecting it forever. The actions of a perfected individual, although he himself is detached from any personal material and physical interest, impacts society not only during his lifetime but also for generations to come.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Are There Prophets Among Us? - Personal and Missionary Prophecy

The fourth difference between Moshe and other prophets is in my opinion the most important and practical one from our perspective as Homo Religioso. But first, a little bit of a digression.

I have discussed in the past that not all prophecy is for the consumption of others. One can be a private prophet that has developed himself to such a point that he can apprehend physical and metaphysical truths beyond what a less developed thinker would. It is a result of both behavioral and mental perfection.

הנביא, אפשר שתהיה נבואתו לעצמו בלבד, להרחיב ליבו ולהוסיף דעתו, עד שיידע מה שלא היה יודע, מאותן הדברים הגדולים.

A prophet’s prophecy may be a personal experience only, whereby he broadens his mind and adds knowledge to the point that he now knows things about these great matters that he never knew. (Rambam Hil Yesodei Hatorah 7:7)

I believe that Rambam holds that this kind of prophecy is based on merit and no outside interference may stop it. I would also tentatively venture, that according to Rambam this type of prophecy never ceased and may still be attained nowadays. It is completely dependent on the prophets’ development and perfection - a natural human phenomenon. Obviously, not all the rules of prophecy, such as infallibility[1] and authentication[2], apply.

The other kind of prophecy is the one addressed to others. The prophet gets an uncontrollable urge and need to share his prophecy with others. It is to this type of prophecy that all the rules, such as infallibility and authentication, apply. This prophecy requires traits other than just developed thought and personality. Giving a sometimes-unwanted message or risking one’s life just in the authentication process requires courage and boldness.

Explaining how prophecy in Judaism differs from advanced human mental development, Rambam writes –

For we believe that, even if one has the capacity for prophecy, and has duly prepared himself, it may yet happen that he does not actually prophesy. It is in that case the will of God [that withholds from him the use of the faculty]. According to my opinion, this is like all the miracles and takes the same course as they. For the laws of Nature demand that every one should be a prophet, who has a proper physical constitution, and has been duly prepared as regards education and training. If such a person is prevented from it, he is in the same position as a person who, like Jeroboam (1 Kings Xiii.), is prevented from moving his hand, or of his eyes, as was the case with the army of Syria, in the history of Elisha (2 Kings Vi. 18).” (MN 2:32).

As I have shown many times, Rambam understands miracles as anomalies in nature that prove that God wills. Prophecy is a natural human development that cannot be suppressed or stopped and when it is, it is seen as a natural anomaly – “this is like all the miracles and takes the same course as they.” I understand this to mean that unforeseen circumstances outside the prophets’ internal life interfere and prevent him from prophesying. Rambam uses Baruch ben Neria as an example for someone that is ready for prophecy and could not.

That those who have prepared themselves may still be prevented from being prophets, may be inferred from the history of Baruch, the son of Neria; for he followed Jeremiah, who prepared and instructed him; and yet he hoped in vain for prophecy. (MN2:32)

Yet the same Baruch is listed among the prophets –

מיתיבי ברוך בן נריה ושריה בן מעשיה ודניאל ומרדכי בלשן וחגי זכריה ומלאכי כולן נתנבאו בשנת שתים לדריוש תיובתא

(Megilah 15a)

Clearly, although he was prevented from what I would call missionary prophecy, he still was a prophet in the sense of apprehending things that only prophets do. The circumstances that Baruch had to confront as one of the exiles during the destruction of the first temple prevented him from getting on a pulpit and promulgating his prophecies.

The same circumstance, prevalence of sadness and dullness, was undoubtedly the direct cause of the interruption of prophecy during the exile. For can there be any greater misfortune for man than this? To be a slave bought for money in the service of ignorant and voluptuous masters, and powerless against them as they unite in themselves the absence of true knowledge and the force of all animal desires?” (MN 2:36)

Baruch himself however was a prophet and was able to “broaden his mind and add knowledge to the point that he now knows things about these great matters that he never knew.” He was prevented from broadcasting his prophecies being seen as a prophet to himself and not to the world. It is based on this that I believe that only the second type of prophecy, the one that is shared with others, can be prevented by circumstances while the internal kind, though affected, would not be stopped completely. It has to do with the involvement in missionary prophecy of traits other than the intellect. It is those traits such as courage and boldness that can be inhibited by circumstances. This explains the following –

The same was the case with Moses after the disastrous incident of the spies and until the death of the warriors of that generation. He received no message of God, the way he used to do, because – seeing the enormity of their crime – he suffered greatly because of this matter. This was so even though he did not receive prophetic inspiration through the medium of the imaginative faculty, but directly through the intellect.” (MN 2:36)

Rambam is telling us that the intellect is not affected by outside circumstances that make the prophet suffer. The imaginative faculty is apparently affected by mood brought upon the person from the outside, however as Moshe did not involve that faculty in his prophetic experience, there must be another reason that his mood affected his prophecy. When describing the need for courage in prophecy Rambam writes –

Their courage was so great that, e.g., Moses, with only a staff in his hand, dared to address a great king in his desire to deliver a nation from his service. He was not frightened or terrified, because he had been told, "I will be with thee" (Exod. iii. 12). The prophets have not all the same degree of courage, but none of them have been entirely without it. Thus, Jeremiah is told: "Be not afraid of them," etc. (Jer. i. 8), and Ezekiel is exhorted, "Do not fear them or their word" (Ezek. ii. 6). In the same manner, you find that all prophets possessed great courage. (MN2:38)

I understand that this trait, courage, is one of those needed for missionary prophecy that is affected by outside circumstances and have an impact on the prophet’s mood.

Please note the conditional tone Rambam uses when describing Moshe’s changed prophecy after the disastrous incident of the spies and until the death of the warriors of that generation. He says He received no message of God, the way he used to do. This proviso is very important and I will discuss it as I continue with this subject.

Cautionary Note:

The ideas that I present in this post, the difference between missionary and personal prophecy being affected by outside circumstances, are tentative and my own. I have been thinking about this issue for a long time and I believe this resolves some of the problems I have on this specific subject. I would like to hear from others on the issue.

[1] See Introduction to Pirush Hamishna explaining Yaakov’s fear that his sins may have changed God’s promise to him.

[2] See the Halacha quoted above in its full context –

ואפשר שישולח לעם מעמי הארץ, או לאנשי עיר או ממלכה, לבונן אותם ולהודיעם

מה יעשו, או למנוע אותם ממעשים הרעים שבידיהם;

וכשמשלחין אותו, נותנין לו

אות ומופת כדי שיידעו העם שהאל שילחו באמת

Only in this last instance does he require authentication.


Sunday, August 03, 2008

Prophetic Visions and Trances.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the Torah tells us that all prophets besides Moshe experienced their prophecy in either a dream or a vision.

ו וַיֹּאמֶר, שִׁמְעוּ-נָא דְבָרָי; אִם-יִהְיֶה, נְבִיאֲכֶם--יְהוָה בַּמַּרְאָה אֵלָיו אֶתְוַדָּע, בַּחֲלוֹם אֲדַבֶּר-בּוֹ.

6 And He said: Listen pray to My words: if your prophet be the Lord’s in a vision to him would I be known, in a dream would I speak through him. (Bamidbar 12:6)

We also showed that the Sifre and Rambam in its wake both understand this verse to describe the state the prophet is in when he prophesizes, namely either dreaming or having a vision. Dreaming clearly can only occur when a person is asleep but what happens when the prophet has a vision?

I need not explain what a dream is, but I will explain the meaning of the term "vision," which occurs in the passage: "In a vision do I make myself known unto him" (Num. xii. 6). The term signifies that which is also called mare’eh ha-nevuah, "prophetic vision," Yad ha-shem, "the hand of God," and Machazeh, "a sight." It is a fearful and terrifying state which comes to the prophet while awake, as is made clear by Daniel, "And I saw this great vision, and there remained no strength in me, for my comeliness was turned in me into corruption, and I retained no strength" (Dan, x. 8). He afterwards continues, "Thus was I in deep sleep on my face, and my face toward the ground" (ibid. ver. 9). It was in a prophetic vision that the angel spoke to him and "set him upright." Under such circumstances, the senses cease to act, and the overflow in question comes to the rational faculty and through them to the imaginative faculty, which become perfect and performs its function. (MN 2:41)

Rambam further defines this state in his Pirush Hamishna –

The third difference [between Moshe and other prophets] is that when the prophet apprehends “the sight” – Chazon – although it is a vision via an angel, [IOW a vision resulting from rational speculation], his strength leaves him. His whole body trembles and he becomes so fearful as if he is about to die. As Daniel explained when Gavriel spoke to him in a vision “and there remained no strength in me, for my comeliness was turned in me into corruption, and I retained no strength" (Dan, x. 8) and “overcome by a deep sleep I lay prostrate on the ground.” He continues “and because of the vision, I have been seized by pangs”.

Reading these two descriptions, we get the picture that first the prophet speculates about physical and metaphysical matters using his rational faculty - and the overflow in question comes to the rational faculty. As he gets deeper into trying to apprehend metaphysical and transcendental matters that are no longer material, he has to engage his imaginative faculty to translate them into something coherent - and through them to the imaginative faculty. There is now an internal collision between the rational and imaginative, where the rational keeps on reminding the prophet that what he sees in his imaginative faculty is only a metaphor and an allegory. The mental strain that results from this conflict throws the prophet into a state of trance, where he loses touch with his physicality and material self. A person that has not reached the level of perfection of Moshe can only deal with this conflict either while asleep or when in a trance.

Moshe was different. He received the word without any tremor. That is [the meaning of] what HKBH said “and God spoke to Moshe face to face as a friend speaks to another”, namely just as a person does not experience tremors when speaking to a friend so too Moshe did not tremble from the speech although it was face to face. That was because of how strongly he was attached to his rational faculty as we explained.

Moshe having reached perfection was able to deal with the transcendental without having to use the imaginative to make it coherent. His rational faculty could handle these abstract concepts while awake and standing. Rambam summarizes the above as usual in a few words in Hil Yesodei Hatorah 7:12 -


כל הנביאים, יראין ונבהלין ומתמוגגים. ומשה רבנו, אינו כן; הוא שהכתוב אומר "כאשר ידבר איש אל ריעהו" (שמות לג,יא):

כמו שאין אדם נבהל לשמוע דברי חברו, כך היה כוח בדעתו של משה רבנו להבין דברי הנבואה; והוא עומד על עומדו שלם.

There is however, a very intriguing statement in MN 3:9.

Similarly, when it speaks about His manifestation in a thick cloud and in darkness, cloud and thick darkness, it is also only in order that the notion in question is inferred from this manner of speech. For everything that is apprehended in a vision of prophecy is only a parable for some notion. And though that great assembly was greater than any vision of prophecy and beyond any analogy, it also indicated a notion; I refer to His manifestation in a thick cloud. For it draws attention to the fact, that the apprehension of His true reality is impossible for us, because of the dark matter that surrounds us and not Him; for He is not a body.

I have touched on this subject of clouds and this chapter many times and I am sure will return many more times to it. Here I want to focus on just one sentence “And though that great assembly was greater than any vision of prophecy and beyond any analogy”. Rambam is saying that the assembly at Sinai was an experience greater than any vision of prophecy. He then says it is beyond any analogy. Was it a greater vision or was it beyond any analogy to a vision?

Rambam told us that there are two possible prophetic experiences - a dream while sleeping or a vision that results from rational speculation which happens while the prophet is in a trance. We also know that prophecy takes on different forms. It goes from a deep understanding of a metaphysical concept such as Creation from nothingness (MN 2:24) to an apprehension of a concept which takes the form of a communication. It is as if the prophet hears a voice talking to him. Rambam has difficulties with this type prophecy, the idea that a person can hear voices in a semi wakeful trance. He therefore asserts that communication can only occur in a dream.

But it appears to me improbable that a prophet should be able to perceive in a prophetic vision God speaking to him. The action of the imaginative faculty does not go so far, and therefore we do not notice this in the case of the ordinary prophets. Scripture says expressly, "In a vision I will make myself known, in a dream I will speak to him". The speaking is here connected with dream, the influence and the action of the intellect is connected with vision. (MN2:45)

It is not clear exactly why he objects to hearing God speaking during a vision. I suspect that he would question the authenticity of such an experience - “The action of the imaginative faculty does not go so far”. At Sinai, though we are told that the people “heard” God speaking to Moshe. That was the whole point of the experience - to verify that Moshe is the true prophet. The people were not sleeping so they could only have “heard” God speaking in a vision. I understand that is the point Rambam makes when he says that that vision was beyond any analogy. It was a unique vision where the people “heard” God speaking. No other prophet besides Moshe experienced such a vision.

I plan to discuss Rambam’s understanding of the Sinai experience in upcoming posts as I elaborate on the next Ikar, TMS. It is however important to keep in mind what we learned here; that the Sinaitic experience was a “prophetic vision” and that visions are always experienced while in a trance, except for Moshe.