From the book, “Moadim B’Simcha” on the Jewish Holidays by HaRav Shlomo Aviner. Founder and Head of the Ateret Yerushalayim Yeshiva in the Old City, HaRav Aviner also served for several decades as the Rabbi of Bet-El Alef. He is the author of 150 books on a wide range of Jewish themes and has pubished thousands of articles and responsa on Halacha. He is considered one of Israel’s foremost experts on the teachings of HaRav Avraham Yitzhak Kook and HaRav Tzvi Yehuda Kook, his mentor for many years. More of his books and writings can be found on the website: https://web.archive.org/web/20210224200412/http://www.ravaviner.com/
Torah and Prophecy
The prophecies of Moshe Rabbeinu and the other prophets “And never did a prophet arise in Israel like Moshe, whom the Lord knew face to face.”¹ Rambam, listing the principles and fundamentals of our religion, states: The seventh principle concerns the prophecy of Moshe Rabbeinu, may he rest in peace. We are commanded to believe that he is the father of all the prophets who lived before him and who arose after him; they are all lesser than he in degree. He was the most chosen from all of mankind; he attained the knowledge of God more than any man in the past had and surpasses the potential of any man in the future.² Why is it so important to emphasize that Moshe will never be surpassed? The answer is that if we were to accept the possibility that a prophet greater than he might arise, we might also think that such a prophet could replace the Torah that Moshe taught us. This possibility is inconceivable, because the Torah is eternal. For this reason, Moshe’s prophecy is considered the highest level of all time.³ Moshe is not only the greatest of all the prophets, he is simply in a different league from all others. True, both Moshe and the others are called “prophets,” but this is because no other word can adequately describe Moshe. Nor is there a unique term for Moshe’s prophecy.⁴ Yet this should not distract us from understanding the difference between the prophecies of Moshe and those of the other prophets.
The “brilliant glass” versus the “cloudy glass” We are told that Moshe Rabbeinu saw through a “clear and brilliant glass,” while the vision of the other prophets was not as lucid.⁵ The prophetic vision of the other prophets is, of course, unambiguous and indisputable. If, for instance, Avraham had had the slightest doubt about God’s revelation to him when he was commanded to bind Yitzchak to the altar, he never would have obeyed this order.⁶ Still, Moshe’s vision was inestimably clearer. When Yeshayahu the prophet said, “And I saw God,”⁷ he was under the impression that he had actually seen God. In contrast, Moshe Rabbeinu, who had taught the Torah’s words, “for no man will see me and live,”⁸ knew that he could not truly see God.⁹ Moshe’s clarity came from the fact that he saw through a “clear glass.” Moshe’s Torah and his vision are clear, detailed, precise, all-inclusive, appropriate for all generations and suitable for all situations.¹⁰ The Torah is the soul of the entire world and its essential substance; it provides direction and imparts significance. In fact, the Torah preceded the world; it is the blueprint of the world and sets its agenda – i.e., it teaches us the way the world must be and the way it will be.¹¹ The Torah is the world’s internal mechanism. Moshe Rabbeinu saw everything: all the general rules, all the specifics, all the times and places, all the circumstances of past and future. Eternity and transience Moshe’s prophecy is called “Torah,” while that of the other prophets is called “words of transmission.” Rashi explains the difference: “The Torah was given to instruct all generations, whereas the prophets’ words are only referred to as ‘words of transmission,’ because they received each prophecy from the Divine Spirit according to the needs of the time, the generation and the deeds themselves.”¹² The word Torah comes from hora’a, meaning instruction. It signifies education, method and absolute truth, eternal and everlasting.¹³ Prophecy, on the other hand, is received only for specific situations, or for certain generations. It can be included in the category of “urgent provisional measures” – rules for exceptional, irregular circumstances. The Torah granted the prophets permission to issue temporary commands (except regarding idol worship), even against the Torah itself.¹⁴ For instance, the prophet Eliyahu built an altar on Mount Carmel at a time when it was strictly forbidden to do so outside the Beit HaMikdash.¹⁵ He only did this, of course, to safeguard the Torah. Furthermore, we know that our forefathers Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, and their descendants, fulfilled the Torah’s commandments,¹⁶ even though the Torah hadn’t yet been revealed to Am Yisrael. Yet we find that there were times that they transgressed Torah laws, such as when Yaakov married two sisters, and when he built an altar,¹⁷ and when Amram (Moshe’s father) married his own aunt Yocheved.¹⁸ How can this be? The answer is that they did not fulfill the Torah as “eternal Torah,” but only as “prophecy,” which consists of “temporary orders” that are appropriate for special situations. Many prophecies were received and transmitted. The Talmud tells us that there were twice the number of prophets as people who left Egypt!¹⁹ Obviously, not all of what they prophesied was recorded and included in the Torah, except for that which was deemed to be “necessary for all time” – that which has significance beyond the generation in which it was given. The defining characteristic of prophecy, though, is that it is given only for a specific time. True, in exceptional cases, the same circumstances will repeat themselves, rendering a particular prophecy “necessary for all time.” But the principle remains valid: Torah is eternal; prophecy is transient. Halacha and universal morality As we have said above, Moshe sees through a “clear and brilliant glass.” His vision extends to even the smallest details, and thus his prophecy deals with precise, practical laws. The other prophets, however, see through a “cloudy glass.” Their view encompasses the big picture and addresses overall principles of what is right and just. Their vision is not sufficiently penetrating to see how these principles diverge into the myriad of particular, intricate laws which constitute Halacha. The Christians rejected the Torah because its obligations were too delineated and specific for their taste: this is permitted, that is forbidden, this is obligatory, etc. They repudiated the mitzvot, but they were drawn to the words of the prophets who spoke in general terms: “Seek justice, relieve the oppressed….”²⁰ These were undefined moral obligations that could be interpreted in various ways and do not obligate one to carry out particular actions. But the Torah of Moshe includes both the general, exalted principles and their practical, defined and obligatory details. Comprehensive Torah and partial Torah Every sage in Am Yisrael sees the Torah from his own viewpoint, according to his own understanding. All sages study the Torah, and it molds and shapes their ways of thinking – but each one has a “Torah mind” of his own. This diversity of thought allows for disagreement on certain points. Every Torah sage sees things differently from his fellow, and through his own “glasses.” Where, then, is the Torah’s truth? Which sage is teaching us what the Torah really means? The answer is: all of them. The Talmud teaches us that, “The words of these sages and those – all are the words of the living God.”²¹ We must study the words of all of them: those who would rule something pure according to Halacha, and those who would rule it impure; those who would exempt, and those who would obligate; those who would permit, and those who would forbid.²² Each of them represents a different aspect of the Torah, and they must all be seen together. However, Moshe Rabbeinu is different. His words do not constitute just another “aspect.” It’s not that he saw things from one angle while others see things from another. Whoever sees things differently from Moshe is outside the framework of Torah! He becomes like Korach and his congregation, who differed with Moshe and consequently were swallowed up by the earth.²³ Moshe represents the entirety of Torah. God said about him: “He is trusted throughout My entire house.”²⁴ In addition, the Talmud teaches, “Anything that any veteran student will say before his teacher was already taught to Moshe at Sinai.”²⁵ All of our studies are just an expansion upon that which Moshe already taught. Our Sages describe in the Midrash what happened when Moshe asked God to show him R. Akiva, the sage who derived detailed halachot from the very crownlets of the Torah’s letters: God instructed Moshe: “Turn around.” Moshe went and sat behind eight rows of Torah scholars studying under R. Akiva, and found that he did not understand what they were saying. He thereupon felt faint. At one point, the students asked R. Akiva, “Rebbe, from where do you know this?” He answered, “It was taught to Moshe at Sinai [and handed down through the generations].” Moshe was relieved.²⁶ This tells us that everything is included within the Torah of Moshe. Moshe learned and taught the principles in a general way, and their hidden details were expounded on, and revealed by, R. Akiva and the Sages throughout the generations.²⁷ The prophets do not have students in the accepted sense of the word.²⁸ A person is either a prophet, or he is not. But Moshe has students who, deriving their strength from him, are able to develop his ideas into new ones. Moshe’s concepts are so eternal and all-encompassing that students throughout the generations are able to pass them on and even extend them. Every generation faces new problems and circumstances which Moshe Rabbeinu did not have to contend with. As time passes, an ever-greater number of new issues manifest themselves. For each of these problems, a solution exists within the Torah, for the Torah is a Divine, everlasting, comprehensive doctrine, designed to help all of mankind – every nation, family and individual, in every time, place and situation. ose who engage in Torah learning are continuing the legacy of Moshe Rabbeinu, and are applying his words to new situations through elaboration, expansion, and the pinpointing of specifics therein. Every Torah student is called “Moshe”²⁹ – a little Moshe, a spark of Moshe Rabbeinu.
The Revelation at Sinai
Why was it neccesary for the whole nation to experience the revelation at Sinai? Wouldn’t it have been sufficient for Moshe Rabbeinu to simply transmit it to us? In order to answer these questions, we need to look into the Torah itself, where God says to Moshe, “Behold, I shall appear to you within the thickness of a cloud, so that the nation hears as I speak to you [Moshe], and they shall believe in you, too, forever.”³⁰ It is vital that all of Am Yisrael received the Torah. The Ten Commandments that we received in public encompass all of the Torah, and since the whole nation witnessed the giving of the Torah, we have no need to prove the truth of our theology. Rambam states that Am Yisrael believed in the Torah and in Moshe Rabbeinu, not on account of the miracles, but because the nation itself heard the voice of God speaking: Am Yisrael believed in Moshe, not because of the miracles he performed, but because it was our own eyes, and not those of others, which witnessed the revelation at Sinai, and our own ears, and not those of others, which heard the fire and the thunder and the lightning, and Moshe entered the thick darkness [where the presence of God was], and the voice spoke to him and we heard: “Moshe, Moshe. Go and tell them.…” Furthermore, the Torah says: “God spoke to you face to face.…” How do we know that the revelation at Sinai is the sole proof that Moshe’s prophecy is unequivocally true? Because the Torah says, “Behold I shall appear to you within the thickness of a cloud, so that the nation hear as I speak to you, and they shall believe in you, too, forever.”³¹
After the first two commandments, Am Yisrael begged Moshe to intervene and transmit God’s word to them, for they were not yet on a level where they could listen to God directly: “And they said to Moshe, ‘You speak to us, and we shall listen; don’t let God speak to us, lest we die.’”³² On the one hand, it is essential to have complete faith in Moshe Rabbeinu. At the same time, it is vital for us to directly encounter our Creator, to realize that Moshe and his Torah are true, and that he speaks the word of God, so that the nation shall believe in Moshe forever. Thus, there were two elements present at Mount Sinai: the giving of the Torah through Moshe Rabbeinu, and the Divine revelation to the nation as a whole, which ensured that we unequivocally accepted the truth of the Torah. This wholehearted assurance is transmitted from one loyal Jew to the next through the generations. Whenever we study Torah, we reexperience the revelation at Sinai. For this reason, the Torah did not reveal exactly where and when it was given. Every day when we delve into the Torah, we express our connection to the revelation at Sinai.
Was the Torah Forced Upon Us at Sinai?
There seem to be two contradictory aspects to Am Yisrael’s receiving of the Torah. On the one hand, we learn in parashat Yitro that God compelled the nation by holding the mountain over them like a basin, saying, “If you receive the Torah, well and good, if not – this will be your grave!”³³ On the other hand, we see that Am Yisrael decided to accept the Torah out of free will: “The whole nation replied together and said, ‘Everything which God has spoken we shall do.’”³⁴ Were Am Yisrael compelled to receive the Torah or did they accept it of their own free will? It is essential to understand what the Talmud means by saying that God compelled Am Yisrael to receive the Torah. The world was created for the sake of the Torah; therefore, there is no validity to the world’s continued existence without it. If the Torah had not been accepted, God would have returned the world to its original state of desolation and chaos. Creation requires the Torah, for it is the “Manufacturer’s instruction manual.” Not only did Am Yisrael have to accept the Torah for their own continued existence, but also for the purpose of keeping the whole world alive.³⁵ God, who chose us, created us in such a way that we are a nation who desires the Torah. Just as we have no say in whether we want to be human or beast, so do we have no choice about whether we are born Jews or not. This is how we were formed, as “a nation who knows (i.e., has a close relationship with) its God.” The upturned basin is not a case of coercion, but rather the emergence of a new reality with its own obligations. It is true that we still have the free choice of either living up to or denying our essence, but this potential cannot be changed. At Sinai, we were uplifted to a new level of consciousness, which brought the whole nation to the level of “Na’aseh venishma,” of identification with our inner essence. We realized who we were and what choices were necessitated by the new reality. Receiving the Torah, however, is not just a one-time event; the Torah is given and received every day. This idea is reflected in the morning beracha we make on the Torah, which is phrased in the present tense.³⁶ The Torah is continually being given: God’s word is perpetually in the process of being integrated into the world, becoming clearer and more comprehensible. At the time of Matan Torah, we had reached a certain maturity; we were saturated with human input and thirsted to hear the superhuman. There we received the Torah, but it was, to a certain extent, a forced acceptance, because the Torah did not harmonize completely with our spiritual status of the time. Ths, the acceptance was tinged with a hint of coercion; it was not completely compatible with our true selves. Thousands of years later, at the time of Purim, we accepted, once more, the Torah upon ourselves. Then, there was a renewed identification with the Torah, this time completely voluntary. As time passes, we are able to perceive that which was previously incomprehensible. This is our history – the increasing revelation of the letters of the Torah within ourselves.