How was Moses different from the many other prophets recorded in the biblical tradition? Was there a distinction only in degree, or was there a much more fundamental difference, a difference in “kind” between Moses and those who came after him?
The opening verse in the portion of Matot may well provide us with an insight concerning this issue. We read, “And Moses spoke unto the heads of the tribes of the children of Israel saying: ‘This is the thing [or “word,” zeh hadavar] which God has commanded: when a man vows a vow unto God…’” (Numbers 30:2–3).
In his commentary, Rashi cites a midrash (Sifrei) which makes the following distinction between Moses and the other prophets: whereas the other prophets consistently introduced their prophecy with the word, “Thus said God,” (koh amar Hashem), the expression “zeh hadavar asher tziva Hashem” (this is the thing which God has commanded) is unique only to Moses (although koh also appears in Mosaic prophecies), and so zeh represents Moses’ additional and superior prophetic status.
Rashi is apparently lifting Moses above the other prophets; he does not seem, however, to flesh out the substance of this superiority. One of the most important super-commentaries – or commentaries on the primary commentary Rashi – Rabbi Eliyahu Mizraĥi, the Re’em (1448–1526, chief rabbi of Constantinople), suggests that the phrase “koh amar Hashem” (thus said God) expresses the intention or the essence of the vision, although not necessarily the vision itself; after all, the other prophets only see “through a glass darkly” (aspaklarya she’eina me’ira). Moses’ prophecy, however, is through “a glass brightly” (aspaklarya me’ira), and therefore he had the power to express precisely what was given to his eye or communicated to his mind, word for word: “zeh,” this is (precisely) the thing, or word.
In Emek HaNetziv, the classic commentary on the Sifrei written by Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, the author questions any interpretation which could possibly suggest that the vision of the other prophets could be anything less than an exact transmission. Moreover, the Netziv proves that the use of the word koh elsewhere in the Torah is taken by the Talmudic sages to indicate something absolute and exact: for example, when the priests are commanded to bless the Israelites, we read the following words, “And God spoke unto Moses telling him to speak to Aaron and to his sons, saying: ‘This [koh] is how you must bless the children of Israel’” (Numbers 6:23). And our sages insist that the blessing is to be recited exactly as presented in the text, twenty-two words, no more and no less, in other words, “This is how you must bless….”
The Netziv therefore explains that what makes the prophecy of Moses unique, and what is the true significance of “this” rather than “thus,” is the fact that Moses communicated the divine word immediately upon his having received it, whereas the other prophets could only process their message after a delay of a period of time; after all, the prophetic state had a paralyzing and debilitating affect on the other prophets, weakening their physical condition, while Moses received the Godly message naturally, without the requirement of time-in-between for recuperation. It was that in-between time which caused the delivery of the message by the other prophets to be less exact.
Rabbi Isaac Bernstein, the late erudite rabbi of London, called my attention to another commentary of Rabbi Yitzĥak Zev Soloveitchik (Ĥidushei HaGryz) which can truly illuminate our distinction between koh and zeh. When the young shepherd Moses is confronted by a burning bush which is not consumed, the Almighty attempts to convince him to accept the responsibility of Jewish leadership. Moses is hard to convince: “Who am I that I should bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt?” (Exodus 3:11). But God counters Moses’ resistance: “Certainly I will be with you” (Exodus 3:12).
The Gryz points out that the real significance of this dialogue is more profound than Moses merely seeking assurance and God guaranteeing “back-up.” Moses is questioning the efficacy of human involvement altogether in what he thinks ought to be a divine mission. After all, did not the Almighty promise the patriarchs that He, God Himself, would act as the redeemer (Midrash Rabba 15)? The interpretation must be that the divine response “I will be with you” is God’s explanation that indeed He will act as the redeemer, but that God acts through human instruments. God requires, as it were, human beings to be His full partners; the ground rules with which the world is governed require divine objectives to be realized through human agency. Hence, God must insist that He and Moses go to Pharaoh and redeem Israel together; God is choosing Moses to redeem the Israelites alongside of Him!
I would suggest that herein lies the truest distinction between Moses and the other prophets, as well as the significance of the differences in phraseology in the Hebrew text. The other prophets succeeded in receiving and transmitting a divine will; Moses succeeded in living a life and doing deeds which were the human extension of the divine plan, “this is the thing which God commands.” Davar is more than a “word”; it is a thing, an objective and substantive reality. The other prophets conveyed words in accordance with the divine message; Moses, however, changed reality in accordance with the divine plan, in accordance with his actions. The other prophets spoke words which were a transmission of the divine; Moses lived a life which was an extension of the divine. And the Hebrew word zeh can also refer to a human being (ha’ish hazeh, this man), and not only to a word, koh tomar (thus shall you say).
Perhaps this is why the Sifrei chooses to point out this distinction between Moses and the other prophets in the context of the opening verse of our biblical portion Matot, in the context of the laws of oaths and promises. Human beings have the power to alter reality by the oaths and words which they utter, as well as to effectuate forgiveness and absolution by words which they express (Numbers 30:3). The realm of oaths and promises unmistakably points out the almost God-like powers of human beings, the ability of humans to serve in an almost divine capacity as God’s helpers, as God’s partners. It is indeed the most exalted goal of every person to become a vehicle for the expression of the divine will. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch so interprets the biblical words zeh Eli ve’anvehu sung by the Israelites after the splitting of the Red Sea: “This is my God, and I shall be His sanctuary” (Exodus 15:2). Most translators render the verse, “This is my God and I shall glorify Him” from the Hebrew na’eh, to beautify, but Rabbi Hirsch derives the meaning from naveh, which means “home” or “sanctuary.” The human being, his very body acting upon the messenger of his brain, his heart, and his soul – must become the vehicle, the expression, for God’s will in its every word and action.
Moses’ physical being, Moses’ every act and word, was indeed a sanctuary, an extension of the divine. Moses is therefore the greatest of all prophets and the highest human achievement in world history.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Chancellor Ohr Torah Stone
Chief Rabbi – Efrat Israel