Parshat Vaeira: Proselytizing

“And Hashem spoke to Moshe and Aharon and He appointed them regarding Bnai Yisrael and regarding Paroh – the king of Egypt – to take Bnai Yisrael out of Egypt.” (Shemot 6:13)

I do not know why but at least a few times each year some individual or group of individuals will approach me in the street and proselytize me. Sometimes I just try to politely ignore the appeal. But occasionally, I will engage the would-be missionary in conversation. I am curious as to why this person feels that I should abandon my faith for another. I generally, find that the appeal is not based upon some objective argument that one religion is superior to the other. Instead, the would-be missionary assures me that his or her faith is so strong that on this basis I should abandon my false beliefs. I find it remarkable that the missionary feels that this argument should sway me. Certainly, this is not the Torah’s outlook.

In this week’s parasha Moshe goes into action and the redemption of Bnai Yisrael begins to unfold. In this process of redemption Moshe will perform wonders that surpass those of any other prophet. As we read the Torah’s account of Moshe’s actions we can appreciate the meaning of the Torah assessment of Moshe. The closing passages of the Torah tell us that there no other arose in Bnai Yisrael that was Moshe’s equal. No other knew Hashem as intimately or performed wonders on the same scale as Moshe.[1]

However, Maimonides makes an astounding assertion regarding Moshe. Maimonides explains Moshe was the first true navi – prophet.[2] This is an amazing statement. The Torah tells us that others – who lived before Moshe – spoke with Hashem. Adam, Noach Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov and others received prophetic visions. How can Maimonides contend that Moshe was the first true navi?

“And Hashem said to Moshe, “Now, I have appointed you as a lord over Paroh and Aharon your brother will be your navi.” (Shemot 7:1)

Before we begin to explore Maimonides’ position, it will be helpful to consider this passage. Hashem tells Moshe that he has been appointed as a lord over Paroh. Through Moshe, Hashem will punish Paroh and eventually Paroh will be forced to yield to Hashem’s will. Hashem adds that Aharon – Moshe’s older brother will act as his navi. The description of Aharon as Moshe’s navi must be understood. The term navi is generally understood to mean prophet. It is clear that this interpretation of the term navi is not appropriate in this context. In no sense was Aharon Moshe’s prophet. On the contrary – Moshe was Aharon’s prophet. Hashem communicated with Moshe – not Aharon – and Moshe provided Aharon with instructions. Targum Unkelus responds to this problem. He translates the term navi – in this instance – to mean spokesperson. Hashem is telling Moshe that he will yield the power but Aharon will be the spokesperson. However, Unkelus’ interpretation of the term navi requires further explanation. How can the term navi – which generally means prophet – have a different meaning in this instance?

Rashi responds to this difficulty. After quoting Unkelus’ explanation of the term navi, Rashi explains the basis for Unkelus’ novel interpretation. Rashi explains that the term navi actually has a consistent meaning. It describes a person that makes announcements to the people and provides public rebuke.[3] According to Rashi, a navi is not merely a prophet. A navi is a person that speaks on behalf of Hashem, and speaks to the people in Hashem’s name. In other words, every navi is a spokesperson. Generally, the term navi is used to refer to a person who speaks in the name of Hashem. In this instance the term is used to describe Aharon – who acted as a spokesperson for Moshe.

This is an important point. According to Rashi’s interpretation of the term navi, not everyone who receives a prophecy deserved to be regarded as a navi in the fullest sense of the term. For example, if Hashem communicates with an individual but does not instruct the individual to share the communication, then the person is not a navi in the full sense. So, although Hashem spoke with Yitzchak, He did provide Yitzchak with commandments or instructions that he was to share with humanity. It follows that according to Rashi’s reasoning, Yitzchak cannot be referred to as a navi in the same sense that the term is used in relationship to Moshe.

Now, we can return to Maimonides’ comments. Maimonides explains that although there were individuals who communicated with Hashem prior to Moshe – for example, the forefathers – these prophets did not speak to humanity in the name of Hashem. Maimonides discusses the distinction between Avraham and Moshe. He explains that Avraham did not communicate commandments to humanity from Hashem. Instead, he provided instruction to humanity based upon rational argument and proof. In contrast, Moshe communicated commandments in the name of Hashem. Avraham was a prophet – in the sense that he communicated with Hashem. He was also a teacher to humanity. However, he was not a navi – a person who speaks in the name of Hashem.

Maimonides concludes that this is the reason that Moshe is the first person provided with wonders that he would perform. Moshe was required to establish his credibility as a navi – a spokesperson of Hashem. Avraham had no need for such miracles. He did not speak to humanity as Hashem’s spokesperson. So, there was no need for him to provide proofs of his prophecy.[4]

Maimonides acknowledges that his position presents a number of problems. One problem is that it would seems that there were a number of people – before Moshe – that acted as spokespeople for Hashem provided direction to humanity. Did not Noach warn his generation of the impending Deluge and urge the people to repent?

Maimonides offers a bold answer. He suggests we carefully read the Torah and we will find that the text of the Torah does correspond with this popular impression. The Torah does not describe Noach speaking to the people in the name of Hashem. Furthermore, the Torah seems to tell us that Hashem did not send a messenger to forewarn humanity of His designs. The Torah describes Hashem as “grieved to His heart.”[5] According to Maimonides, this phrase means that Hashem’s decision to destroy humanity was not announced. It was held in His heart. Only Noach was told and he was not instructed to share this knowledge.[6]

Maimonides raises other questions. In some cases his answers are not clear. However, his main point is completely unambiguous. Moshe was the first prophet provided with wonders. This is because any person who speaks in the name of Hashem should expect to be required to establish his credibility. Hashem would not expect Bnai Yisrael to believe that Moshe was Hashem’s spokesperson, without evidence that this was the case.

Furthermore, Maimonides’ description of the work of Avraham is consistent with this outlook. Avraham did not perform wonders in order to establish himself. This was not necessary for a teacher that did not claim to speak on Hashem’s behalf. However, Avraham did not merely urge the people of his time to change. He offered proofs and arguments. Again, Maimonides is asserting that it is not appropriate for us to expect a person or group to change religious beliefs without basis. Just as Moshe was required to provide proof of his status as Hashem’s spokesperson, Avraham provide proofs of his religious teachings. This is very different from the attitude of the would-be missionaries described above who expect a person to radically reassess one’s faith without any evidence.

[1] Sefer Devarim 34:10-11.

[2] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Moreh Nevuchim, volume 1, chapter 63.

[3] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 7:1.

[4] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Moreh Nevuchim, volume 1, chapter 63.

[5] Sefer Beresheit 6:6.

[6] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Moreh Nevuchim, volume 1, chapter 29.