Thoughts to Ponder Number 30
27 Teves, 5760; January 5, 2000

The Mystery of Revelation

If anyone would ever argue that traditional Judaism is guilty of too much dogma and too little imaginative thought, a closer look into the world of rabbinical insight into the idea of revelation would cure him of such ideas.

When speaking about Moshe's conversation with God in the Tent of Meeting the Torah says: "When Moshe entered the tent of Meeting to speak with Him, he heard the Voice speaking to him from above the cover which is on the ark of testimony, from between the two cheruvim, and He spoke to him." (Bamidbar 7:89) Most remarkable is the fact that the verse mentions twice that God spoke to Moshe; "he heard the Voice speaking to him…and He spoke to him." Looking at the Hebrew, we discover something even more unusual: Based on the masora, the traditional way in which the words in the Torah are pronounced (since there are no vowels under the Hebrew letters), we read, "And He heard the voice (midaber) to him." Would we not have received such a tradition, we would undoubtedly have read "medaber," "And he heard the Voice speaking to him (i.e. Moshe.)" "Midaber" is, however, a hitpael, a reflexive form. "Midaber," then, reflects back to the one who is speaking, i.e. God. In that case, the translation should be, "And he (Moshe) heard the Voice speaking to Him, (i.e. God Himself.)" Thus Rashi comments, "This is an expression similar to "mitdaber" (reflexive) He spoke between Him and Himself, and Moshe heard." In other words, God was really in conversation with Himself and Moshe "overheard" this. This caused Moshe to have an inner acoustic experience in which, according to Rashi's bold words, he heard God speak to Himself. It is in that way that God "spoke" to Moshe.

This observation is very close to Maimonides' understanding of prophecy as explained in several parts of his famous Guide for the Perplexed. To find such an observation from this great Jewish philosopher is not at all surprising when one is aware of the general philosophical approach of Maimonides. But, for Rashi, who is not known to be a philosopher or someone likely to speculate about philosophical problems, it is all the more unique. We must, therefore, conclude that this observation is not just the manifestation of philosophical inquiry but a basic foundation of Jewish belief. Still, most commentators do not pause at this fact, and the translations of the targumim (Onkelos and Yehonathan) do not make any distinction between "medaber" and "midaber."

Many years after Rashi, the great Italian commentator, Rabbi Obadya Siforno, seems to relate to Rashi's observation. In one of his most profound and difficult statements, he comments on our verse as follows, "'midaber elav:' Between Him and Himself, for 'God does everything for Himself' (Mishle 16:4) and by knowing Himself, He knows and does good to others, and the action manifests itself to the one affected by God in accordance with his capacity, and so it is true about every case in the Torah where it says, "And God spoke."

As in many other cases, Jewish commentators struggle with the notion of revelation. All agree that revelation did happen as told by the Torah, but, since the text is silent about the "how," the sages and later rabbinic thinkers showed unusual creativity into the nature of this divine disclosure.

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