Moshe, Prophecy Catalyst

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Drasha 8 Part 1

Does Hashem have to say please? In the eighth drasha, Ran is puzzled that Hashem begins with the word “please” his rebuke of Miriam and Aharon for their criticizing Moshe’s separation from his wife. Miriam and Aharon thought that since they maintained healthy married lives, why couldn’t Moshe do the same?

Prior essays in this series

Ran thinks they spoke up at this point because Moshe now had seventy elders helping him. Until then, he might have been too involved in one mitzvah, leading the people, to perform another, being married. With the change, his siblings felt he should have returned to Tzipporah.

Aside from their error in seeing Moshe as similar to them in prophecy (which Hashem corrects), Ran notes that they failed to ask Moshe for an explanation before they drew conclusions. However, Ran’s real interest is why Moshe had to be present when Hashem showed them their error. He sees Hashem’s politeness as the key to this mysterious behavior.

Understanding Moshe’s presence at Miriam and Aharon’s rebuke will shed light on why Moshe had to be present for the first prophecies of the seventy elders. Underlying both issues is the tangible impact our non-physical selves have on this world.

Let’s start with Miriam and Aharon, picking out the pieces of the Drasha that deal with them (the Drasha starts and ends with them, with some scattered references in the middle—in the name of coherent presentation, I am taking those this time, and will return to Ran’s other ideas in essays to come). Ran reminds us of a debate in Sifrei (Behaalotcha 100) about whether Moshe heard his siblings’ slander (the view of R. Natan).  Ramban’s explanation, that Hashem included Moshe to teach him that Hashem would stand up for his honor regardless of Moshe’s humility, fits with R. Natan’s view, that Moshe had heard and ignored the original incident.

Ran wants an explanation that works for the other view, that no one heard other than Hashem.

The Difficulties of Immediate Prophecy

His entry point is Hashem’s saying נא, please, to Miriam and Aharon. Ran wonders why Hashem had to ask politely. Especially if Hashem was coming to explain what they had done wrong before punishing them, we would not expect Hashem to ask their permission.

Ran answers that the “please” was to apologize for the suddenness of the visitation.  Like everyone other than Moshe, Miriam and Aharon’s physical side made prophecy difficult, necessitating preparation. By appearing without warning, Hashem was pointing out that immediate prophecy requires jumping into an experience that contradicts one’s physical nature, which is hard.

This was the first part of Hashem’s lesson in how Moshe differed from them. His physical side did not conflict with his prophetic one, so there was no resistance to sudden prophecy. Being involved in a marriage would change him to make that no longer true.

That does not yet explain why Moshe had to be there. Ran suggests that it wasn’t just hard for Aharon and Miriam to have sudden prophecy; it was impossible. Moshe served as a sort of receiver for the prophetic communications from Hashem, which could then spread to Miriam and Aharon even though they weren’t worthy.

Ran applies a similar logic to Moshe’s presence at the first prophecy of the seventy elders.  Hashem says He will speak with Moshe, taking some of that spirit and placing it upon them.  Because they weren’t worthy of prophecy on their own, Hashem “needed” Moshe to ease the process.

The Beit HaMikdash and the Graves of the Righteous

Ran does not limit this idea to prophecy. Next time, we will see that he sees it as the reason Moshe was supposed to hold his staff when speaking to the rock.  He also says that about the Beit HaMikdash, a place prepared for prophecy and wisdom. When it was standing, wisdom and prophecy spread from that structure throughout Israel.  In that time, in other words, it was easier to be a prophet or to achieve wisdom.

Notice that he has slipped in wisdom, which is not usually seen as supernatural in the same way as prophecy. Yet when the Temple stood, wisdom was more accessible, all over the world.

Prophets and wise people themselves influence others, Ran says, lifting them to higher levels than they might reach on their own. After their deaths, some of that ability to bring Divine influence into this world survives, becoming concentrated at their burial place. That is why Sotah 34b favors visiting and praying at the graves of the righteous.  Since the righteous buried there were repositories of Divine influence in their lifetimes, prayer there has a greater chance of success (not praying to the righteous, praying in the presence of their earthly remains).

Catalyst, Not Cause of Punishment

Ran’s belief in special people’s impact on others, without speech or action, raised the possibility that Moshe caused Miriam’s leprosy by taking umbrage at what she said (this is similar to how the Evil Eye works, Ran notes). To be sure we not misread Moshe, the verse pauses to tell us that he was exceedingly humble, and was not (or would not have been) offended by her words.

Then Hashem tells them the several ways Moshe’s prophecy differed from theirs (as Ran said in earlier Derashot). Most directly relevant, his physicality did not impede his prophecy, which meant he prophesied while fully awake.  He also did not use his imagination to prophesy, which means his experience was more directly recorded—what he saw was exactly what he told us.

Other prophets’ visions, with metaphors, needed translation and explanation. Moshe didn’t see a house with a rooftop, and then a fence being built, letting him and us infer that we should fence in dangerous places. He was told the commandment to build a fence for one’s roof.

Which is why he is called the most נאמן, trustworthy or dependable, of those in Hashem’s house.

But all that is not the aspect of the incident that will fuel Ran’s other interests. The discussion of Miriam and Aharon led him to articulate a view of how influence can flow without connection or interaction from animate and inanimate objects (people, graves, a staff, the Beit HaMikdash).

That influence affects both prophecy and wisdom, leading to questions of how much teachers affect students, how close a connection there is between one prophet and another, one wise person and another. As we’ll see next time.

About Gidon Rothstein

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