Two Perspectives on Prophecy

And He called to Moshe and He spoke to him from the Ohel Moed saying: (Sefer VaYikra 1:1)

1. The strange opening passage of Sefer VaYikra
This passage introduces Sefer VaYikra. It explains that Hashem addressed Moshe from the Ohel Moed[1] – the Tabernacle – and delivered to him the message that is recorded in the following chapters. The passage is odd in its construction. First, the passage refers to Hashem through use of the pronoun “he”. Pronouns are properly used to refer to characters who have been previously fully identified. Therefore, it would have been more proper for the Sefer to begin, “And Hashem called to Moshe and He spoke to him etc.” Once Hashem is identified it would be proper to use the pronoun “he” in subsequent references to Hashem.

The second difficulty in the passage is that it seems to include a redundancy. The passage describes Hashem as calling to Moshe and speaking to him. The passage could have simply stated, “And Hashem spoke to Moshe from the Ohel Moed saying.”

2. Hashem called to Moshe lovingly
The commentators offer various explanations for the apparent redundancy. Rashi explains that the Torah is telling us that Hashem first called to Moshe or beckoned him. After beckoning Moshe, Hashem revealed to Moshe His message. This two step process – beckoning followed by communication of the prophetic message – was a demonstration of Hashem’s love for Moshe. Rashi points out that Hashem’s treatment of Moshe sharply contrasts with His treatment of Bilaam. Bilaam received prophecy suddenly and without warning. He was not first beckoned.[2] Nachmanides elaborates upon Rashi’s interpretation. He adds that Sefer VaYikra opens with the first communication that Moshe received from the Ohel Moed – the Tabernacle. In describing this inaugural prophecy, the Torah explains that it was preceded by Hashem’s beckoning to Moshe. However, every prophecy included this introductory component even though the Torah only explicitly mentions it in this instance.[3]

And he erected the courtyard surrounding the Mishcan and the altar. He put in place the curtain that was the gateway of the courtyard. And Moshe completed all of the work. And the cloud covered the Ohel Moed. And the glory of Hashem filled the Mishcan. And Moshe was not able to enter the Ohel Moed because the cloud rested upon it and the glory of Hashem filled the Mishcan. (Sefer Shemot 40:33-35)

3. Moshe hesitated to enter into the cloud of Hashem
Other commentaries offer a very different explanation of our passage. Rabbaynu Yosef Bechor Shur provides one of the clearest presentations of this alternative approach. He explains that our passage should be understood as a continuation of the final narrative in Sefer Shemot. In these closing passages the Torah explains that Moshe completed the assembly and erection of the Mishcan and the sacred cloud and the glory of Hashem descended upon the structure. This expression of Hashem’s presence prevented Moshe from entering the Mishcan.

And the glory of Hashem rested upon Mount Sinai. The cloud covered it for six days. And He called to Moshe on the seventh day from within the cloud. (Sefer Shemot 24:16)

4. The Mishcan recreated the Sinai Revelation
Why could Moshe not enter the Mishcan? Rabbaynu Yosef Bechor Shur explains that the answer is contained in the Torah narrative of the Sinai revelation. In that narrative Hashem’s cloud and glory descended upon the mountain. Moshe did not enter the cloud until Hashem beckoned him to approach. With the descent of Hashem’s cloud and glory upon the Tabernacle the Sinai experience was repeated. Again, Moshe could not enter the cloud or into the presence of Hashem[4] without first being beckoned.

This interpretation eliminates the apparent redundancy in the opening passage of Sefer VaYikra. Sefer Shemot ended with Hashem’s cloud resting over the Tabernacle and His glory filling its inner space. Moshe could not enter the Mishcan and penetrate the cloud without first being called. Sefer VaYikra continues the narrative. Hashem first calls to Moshe. Through calling to Moshe, He extends to him permission to enter the Mishcan. Once Moshe enters, Hashem speaks to him and communicated to him His commandments.

5. The relationship between Sefer Shemot and Sefer VaYikra
Rabbaynu Yosef Bechor Shur adds that this interpretation also explains the use of the pronoun “he” in the opening passage. The Torah intends to communicate through this usage that Sefer VaYikra should be understood as a continuation of the final narrative of Sefer Shemot. The final narrative described the descent of Hashem’s cloud and glory upon the Tabernacle. The first passage of Sefer VaYikra is to be understood as a continuation of the account. The “he” in the passage is Hashem – whose cloud and glory had just descended upon the completed Mishcan. The use of the pronoun alerts the reader to not construe Sefer VaYikra as a new account but as a continuation of Sefer Shemot.[5]

In other words, according to Rabbaynu Yosef Bechur Shur, Sefer VaYikra and Sefer Shemot form a continuous narrative. Sefer VaYikra is separated from Sefer Shemot only because it introduces a new subject matter. Sefer Shemot described the emergence of Bnai Yisrael as a nation and its entry into the Sinai covenant. Sefer VaYikra describes the commandments that govern sacrifices, Kohanim and related areas. These two subjects are presented through a continuous narrative that joins these two volumes of the Torah.

6. Two classes of prophecy
Although the interpretations of Rashi and Rabbaynu Yosef Bechor Shur have superficial similarities, on a more fundamental level they represent very different perspectives on the opening passage. According to Rashi, the passage communicates that Moshe’s prophecy was an expression and experience of intimacy with Hashem. Hashem beckoned to Moshe and lovingly summoned Moshe to draw closer to Him through the prophetic experience. Rashi contrasts this to the prophecy of Bilaam. Bilaam’s prophecy lacked this intimacy. It came upon him suddenly and departed quickly.

Although we can intuitively sense and appreciate the distinction that Rashi is describing. His description seems vague and even a little disturbing. He describes Hashem in very human terms. Hashem treats Moshe as a beloved and Bilaam as a stranger. But when applied to Hashem these descriptions are only figures used to communicate something more profound. What is the message that Rashi is attempting to communicate descriptively?

Rashi is apparently distinguishing between two cases of prophecy. In the first, prophecy is an expression or realization of Hashem’s will for humanity. Moshe achieved prophecy through ascending to the highest level of human achievement. He drew ever closer to Hashem and ultimately Hashem revealed Himself to Moshe. Hashem created humanity and endowed His creation with the unique capacity to enter into a relationship with its creator. Moshe realized this capacity and Hashem’s revelation to him was the response to this realization.

Bilaam’s prophecy belonged to a different class. It was not the result of Bilaam’s spiritual achievement and self-realization. His prophecy was a result of practical necessity. Bilaam wished to harm Bnai Yisrael and Hashem came to him in order to prevent him from pursuing his plan. This class of prophecy is fittingly described by Rashi as a relationship into which Hashem enters begrudgingly, and from which He departs hastily.

7. The awe and humility of the prophet
According to Rabbaynu Yosef Bechur Shur, the passage is not intended to communicate the intimacy of Moshe’s prophetic experience. Instead, the passage communicates a general principle regarding prophecy. Prophecy brings the participant into a closer relationship with Hashem. It is an experience that should elicit from the prophet the deepest sense of awe. The prophet many not enter into the experience uninvited. He must wait to be beckoned and only then enter into the Divine Presence trembling with awe.

In other words, the prophet must be constantly aware of the vast gulf that separates him from Hashem. He must be ever-aware of his own limits and capacities. He should not presume to understand Hashem or His ways. Instead, he should tread with humility into the presence of his Creator.

1. The terms Ohel Moed and Mishcan are used in the Torah – almost interchangeably – when referring to the Tabernacle. The difference between these terms will not be explored in this discussion.
2. Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer VaYikra 1:1.
3. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer VaYikra 1:1.
4. The phrase “presence of Hashem” should be understood figuratively. Hashem does not occupy space. References to His presence should be understood as descriptions of the observer’s sense of the presence of His influence. Therefore, when we describe Hashem’s presence at Sinai or in the Mishcan, the intent is to communicate that the observer clearly understood that His influence was present. The use of the figurative expression is a necessary literary device. An exact description of the phenomenon would be cumbersome and confusing for reader.
5. Rabbaynu Yosef Bechor Shur, Commentary on Sefer VaYikra 1:1.