“The Difference Between Moses and the Other Prophets”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Parashat B’ha’a’lot’cha, reaches its exciting crescendo in Numbers 12, with the story of Miriam and Aaron who speak against their brother, Moses (for details, see B’ha’a’lot’cha 5771-2011). G-d’s anger is kindled at Miriam and Aaron, and eventually Miriam who was regarded as the instigator is punished–stricken with the Tzara’at disease for seven days.

The commentators suggest that Miriam and Aaron were angry with their brother over the fact that Moses had taken a Cushite woman–either Moses was estranged from his wife Zippora, or had taken an additional wife. Miriam and Aaron confront their brother Moses, saying, Numbers 12:2, “Is it only to Moses to whom G-d speaks? Did He not speak to us as well?”

Because Moses was the meekest person on the face of the earth, G-d comes to his defense. He summons Moses, Aaron and Miriam to come out of the Tent of Meeting. Descending in a pillar of cloud, the Al-mighty stands at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and calls Aaron and Miriam.

G-d harshly rebukes Moses’ siblings, saying, Numbers 12:6-8: וַיֹּאמֶר, שִׁמְעוּ נָא דְבָרָי, אִם יִהְיֶה נְבִיאֲכֶם–השם בַּמַּרְאָה אֵלָיו אֶתְוַדָּע, בַּחֲלוֹם אֲדַבֶּר בּו.

לֹא כֵן עַבְדִּי מֹשֶׁה,  בְּכָל בֵּיתִי נֶאֱמָן הוּאֹ. פֶּה אֶל פֶּה אֲדַבֶּר בּוֹ, וּמַרְאֶה וְלֹא בְחִידֹת, וּתְמֻנַת השם יַבִּיט, וּמַדּוּעַ לֹא יְרֵאתֶם לְדַבֵּר בְּעַבְדִּי בְמֹשֶׁה.

Hear now My words. If there shall be prophets among you, in a vision shall I, G-d, make Myself known to him; in a dream, I will speak with him. Not so is My servant, Moses. My entire house, he is the trusted one. Mouth to mouth do I speak to him, in clear vision and not in riddles. At the image of G-d does he gaze. Why did you not fear to speak against My servant, Moses?

Two of Maimonides famed Thirteen Principles of Faith address the specific issue of the status of prophets and the special status of Moses. In Principle number six, Maimonides declares: I firmly believe that all the words of the Prophets are true. Principle number seven: I firmly believe that the prophecy of Moses, our teacher, may he rest in peace, was true, and that he was the chief of the prophets, both of those who preceded and those who followed him.

Principle number seven uncompromisingly declares that the nature and power of the prophecy of Moses was entirely different and superior to that of the other prophets.

Nevertheless, while it is important to note that despite the difference in caliber between Moses and the other prophets, it is entirely improper to diminish the status of the other prophets and their prophecies.

Maimonidies, in the Laws of the Principles of Torah 7:6, clarifies the essential differences between the other prophets and Moses. All the prophets prophesied by falling on their faces, and losing control of their powers and faculties. Moses prophesied while standing strong on his feet, maintaining full consciousness.

Rabbi Shimshon Dovid Pincus in his posthumously collected lectures, Tiferet Shimshon, explains that when people hear astonishing or shocking news, their entire psychological demeanor is often impacted. They begin gasping and can hardly catch their breath. They often lose control over their faculties. Shaking and trembling, they often cannot close their mouths or keep their hands and feet steady. In some instances, a person may be so traumatized that he loses awareness of his location and his surroundings. A sleeping person, explains Rabbi Pincus, cannot stand because he has no control over his muscles and skeletal structure.

All of the prophets, except for Moses, lost control when they heard the word of G-d. That is why prophets (for example the Prophet Elisha in Kings II 9:11) are sometimes referred to in scripture, as “Meshugah,” crazy. When prophets prophesy, they are oblivious to what is going on around them, and feel as if there is no one else in the world. They are alone with their Creator. They are not embarrassed by what others say about them or their unusual actions.

Moses, however, says Rabbi Pincus, was different. He did not lose control of his faculties like the other prophets, whose experiences were in direct contradiction to human nature. However, Moses’ nature was so exalted, the prophecy impacted on his entire personality, until Moses became (Deuteronomy 33:1) ,אִישׁ הָאֱלֹ קִים, a man of G-d. There was no contradiction between the “Eesh,” the human being, and the “Elokim,” the G-d Who was within him. His prophecy was natural to him. That is why he did not have to fall down to prophesy like the other prophets.

The The Malbim points to seven profound differences between the prophecy of Moses and the other prophets. 1. All the prophets prophesied through a dream or a stupor. Moses, however, was always awake and aware. 2. The other prophets were overcome with fear and trembling, while Moses stood firm and strong. 3. The other prophets saw visions and fantasy. Moses saw direct reality. 4. The other prophets prophesied in riddles. Moses received the direct message and conveyed direct messages. 5.The prophesies of other prophets were conveyed through angels. Moses heard the message directly from G-d Himself. 6. The other prophets prophesied in an arbitrary and spontaneous manner. Whereas, Moses, states his prophecy boldly and directly whenever he deems it necessary. 7. The other prophets prophesied as if they were masquerading as spiritual beings, covering their mortal bodies. That is why their visions were always in the form of dreams and illusions. But, Moses’ vision was always a direct vision, as if Moses had risen above the abstract world, enabling him to prophecy using his own intelligence, without illusions, as if his soul had separated from his body.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch adds, that when G-d says, “Not so My servant, not so Moses,” He means that Moses is more than a prophet, who stands permanently in G-d’s service. As a human being, Moses rises above all mortals. Everything is open, unlocked and uncovered for him, “In My whole home he is trusted.” Everything in G-d’s household, in this world, which is able to be comprehended by mortal flesh and blood, stands open for him. To a servant who is not entrusted with the whole of the house, certain things are inaccessible…but all this is different with one who is trusted with free entry everywhere in the house. Moses “wanders freely, always in the Light of the House. He has the full, unabbreviated, uncovered knowledge.”(Hirsch pp 191-192, verse 7)

Eliyahu Kitov notes that when other prophets prophecy, they are relieved of their essence, and made into a new creature. Only after the conclusion of their prophesies do they return to their natural essence. Kitov also maintains, that all other prophets do not have the power to prophecy at will. Moses did not have to wait for a propitious time, and could summon the prophecy at his desire. That is why Moses was able to say, (Numbers 9:8) עִמְדוּ וְאֶשְׁמְעָה, Stand here, and I will hear the words of the L-rd.”

In light of all the special qualities of Moses, Principle number seven of Maimonides’ articles of faith, of belief in the prophecy of Moses, our teacher, in the truth of his prophecy, and that he was the chief of all prophets for all times, becomes even more formidable and takes on even greater profundity.

Especially in the week in which we celebrate the festival of Shavuot, the giving of the Torah to the People of Israel by G-d at Sinai at the hand of Moses, it is important to appreciate even more the special qualities of Moses (Deuteronomy 34:4), עֶבֶד השם, G-d’s faithful servant.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The wonderful festival of Shavuot, commemorating the giving of the Torah at Sinai 3326 years ago, is observed this year on Tuesday evening, June 3rd, and continues through Thursday night, June 5th, 2014.

Chag Shavuot Samayach. Have a happy and festive Shavuot.