Parshat Beha’alotecha: The Unique Status of Moshe as a Prophet

And He said: If you have prophets, I, Hashem, make Myself known to them in a vision. In a dream I speak to them. This is not the case with my servant Moshe. In all My household, he is the most faithful. Mouth to mouth I speak to him, in a vision and not with parables. He looks upon the continence of Hashem. Why did you not fear to speak against My servant Moshe? (Sefer BeMidbar 8:6-8)

1. The sin of Aharon and Miryam
The Torah tells us that Miryam and Aharon spoke about their brother Moshe. The Torah does not provide many details regarding the conversation that took place between Miryam and Aharon. The Torah only reveals two specifics regarding their conversation. 1. The conversation, in some way, concerned Moshe’s wife – Tziporah. 2. They observed that although Moshe was a prophet, they too were prophets. The Sages provide the additional information required to reconstruct their conversation. The Sages explain that Miryam initiated the conversation. Aharon participated through listening. Miryam told Aharon that she understood from Moshe’s wife – Tziporah – that Moshe was no longer intimate with her. Miryam and Aharon found this astounding. They too were prophets. Yet, they had not abandoned intimacy with their spouses. The Torah explains that as a result of this sin, Miryam was stricken with tzara’at. Tzara’at is a skin disease described in Sefer VaYikra.

In the above passages, Hashem rebukes Miryam and Aharon for their criticism of Moshe. The rebuke focuses upon the greatness of Moshe. It seems that Hashem’s message is that Moshe is a very great prophet – superior to all other prophets. Therefore, his behavior should not be questioned or criticized.

2. A problem with Hashem’s rebuke of Aharon and Miryam

Hashem’s criticism presents a problem. It seems to imply that Aharon and Miryam’s sin was in acting disrespectfully towards Moshe. Moshe should have been regarded as beyond criticism. Aharon and Miryam demonstrated inexcusable audacity in presuming that they had the right to question Moshe’s behavior.

It is almost impossible to imagine a rebuke that is more inconsistent with the Torah’s consistent message that we must always question and challenge conventional “truths.” Avraham’s greatness was that he succeeded in seeing though the accepted practices and beliefs of his time and found Hashem. Moshe repeated this feat. Raised in the home of Paroh, he rejected Egyptian values and embraced the G-d of his forefathers. Hashem demanded that Bnai Yisrael duplicate this rejection of convention in order to be redeemed. Before redemption, the people were required to offer the Pesach sacrifice. Thereby, they demonstrated their rejection of their masters’ idolatry and they embraced the worship of Hashem. How can Hashem criticize Aharon and Miryam for questioning the behavior of their leader?[1]

3. The differences between Moshe and other prophets

Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno seems to maintain that Hashem’s point was not that Moshe was beyond criticism. His message was that there was a basic flaw in the reasoning underlying Aharon and Miryam’s criticism. They compared themselves to Moshe; they argued that they too were prophets. Therefore, they assumed that they could judge Moshe’s behavior by using their own behavior as the standard. They argued that if they had remained intimate with their spouses, Moshe should have remained intimate with Tziporah. Hashem’s rebuke was that their equation of themselves to Moshe was a self-serving and absurd assumption. They were all prophets but nonetheless not comparable.[2]

Hashem indentifies in the above passages a number of distinctions between Moshe’s prophetic experience and that of other prophets – including Miryam and Aharon. Maimonides explains these differences in some detail.

• Moshe experienced prophecy in a wakeful, fully conscience state. Other prophets first entered into a sleeplike or trancelike state before prophesying.

• Moshe’s prophetic experience was a direct interaction with Hashem. Other prophets did not interact directly with Hashem. Instead, their prophecies were communicated to them through the intermediary of an agent or angel employed by Hashem.

• Moshe received prophecy in the form of clear, straightforward communication. Other prophets received their prophecy in the form of a parable or image. The parable or image was constructed so as to communicate the message of the prophecy.

In addition to those distinctions that are clearly described in the above passages, the Sages identify other distinctions between Moshe’s prophetic experience and that of other prophets. These include the following:

• Moshe was not physically affected by the prophetic experience. Other prophets were physically drained – to the point of debilitation – by the prophetic experience.

• Moshe had the capacity to receive prophecy at any moment. Other prophets were not always prepared for prophecy and often needed to first establish within themselves the proper mood, attitude, and mental state before receiving prophecy.

• Moshe was able to initiate the prophetic experience.[3]

4. Moshe was a prophet of a different magnitude
These specific distinctions seem to indicate an underlying more fundamental difference between Moshe and other prophets. Others were capable of achieving prophecy. It required that they subdue the material element of their existence and elevate themselves to a higher plane of existence. Even when the prophet succeeded in achieving this state – a state unnatural to him – the distance or gap between him and Hashem was too great to negotiate. Therefore, he received the prophecy through an intermediary and in the form of a parable or image. In contrast to these prophets, Moshe existed naturally in the higher plane in which prophecy occurs. He closed the gap or distance between himself and Hashem to the extent that no intermediary or parable was required in order to communicate with Hashem. In short, Moshe was a different type of human being. He was not just greater than other prophets by some degree; he was a prophet of a different magnitude from all others.

Now, Hashem’s rebuke is more clearly understood. There can be no doubt that Aharon and Miryam realized that Moshe was a greater prophet than they. However, they understood the difference to be one of degree. They were prophets and Moshe was a prophet – albeit a better prophet than they. Therefore, they assumed they could judge the propriety of Moshe’s behavior by comparing it to their own. Hashem responded that they were not distinguished from Moshe by the mere degree of their prophetic capacity. Moshe was a prophet of a different and unique type. He existed on a unique plane that no other human being had or would achieve. Therefore, any attempt to evaluate Moshe’s behavior by comparing him to other prophets was flawed. More importantly, the attempt expressed a failure to appreciate the uniqueness of Moshe.

5. The seriousness of Aharon and Miryam’s error
Hashem’s rebuke is stern and it is accompanied by an immediate consequence. Miryam is afflicted with tzara’at. Why was Aharon and Miryam’s error treated with such severity? Our commentators and Sages provide various responses. However, based on the above, a simple explanation emerges. The superiority of Moshe over all other prophets is one of the most fundamental ideas of the Torah. Maimonides includes this idea among his thirteen most basic principles of the Torah.[4] One of the reasons that this idea is so basic to the Torah is that Revelation depends upon it. Revelation means that Hashem revealed Himself at Sinai to the nation and that He communicated the Torah – word for word – to Moshe. Only a prophet with Moshe’s unique prophetic capacity could have served as Hashem’s scribe. Only Moshe – from among all other prophets before him or after – could have engaged in the extended and detailed dialogue with Hashem required for this task.

Now, Hashem’s anger can be better understood. Through comparing Moshe to themselves and to other prophets, Aharon and Miryam inadvertently diminished Moshe from his proper stature. This – in itself – was wrong and unjustified. However, beyond the error in the analysis that underlies their criticism, the analysis also threatened the very foundation of Revelation. Through denying Moshe’s unique nature, they undermined a requisite for Revelation. Therefore, Hashem responded with an immediate and stern rebuke. He declared Moshe’s uniqueness. Thereby, He reestablished recognition of Moshe’s capacity to serve as His scribe in Revelation.

[1] The requirement to question even our most esteemed leaders is a theme in Sefer Yermiyahu. Yermiyahu acknowledges that the nation was misled by its false prophets, Torah scholars, and Kohanim. They told the people that they need not fear from Hashem’s retributions and that they would not be punished for their behaviors. In other words, virtually the entire religious leadership of the time dismissed Yermiyahu as a charlatan. Yet, the people were held responsible for not questioning these leaders and rejecting their false assurances. RaDaK explains that we are responsible to question and to discern the truth and we cannot merely excuse our behaviors by blaming our leaders for failing to provide proper guidance. (RaDaK, Sefer Yermiyahu 14:16)

[2] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar, 12:6.

[3] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Yesodai HaTorah 7:6.

[4] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Commentary on the Mishne, Mesechet Sanhedrin 10:1.