Friday, February 9, 2007

Prophet for a Day?

Prophecy is not equal opportunity. Even in the Era of Prophecy, G-d only spoke to spiritual giants (with the rare exception made for emergency divine intervention). One thing is certain. The average Joe never heard G-d’s voice.

It’s not a question of worthiness – the prophetic experience would kill the unprepared human. Blast the soul right out of the poor fellow, no less. The Revelation at Sinai, however, broke the rules of the game.

At Sinai, every Jew heard G-d’s voice (Shemot 20:19). It was a sublime and exhilarating experience but it was also unimaginably terrifying. It was too much to take and the Jews begged for it to end.

All the people saw the sounds, the flames, the blast of the ram’s horn and the mountain smoking. The people trembled when they saw it, keeping their distance. They said to Moshe, “You speak to us, and we will listen. But let G-d not speak to us [anymore], for if He does, we will die.

Shemot 20:15-16

Bringing every Jew into G-d’s classroom was a great idea, but it kills the students. G-d had compassion on the people and He cut the lesson short. The rest of the Torah would be taught to Moshe alone and he would get the job of teaching it to the Jews. Like many things in life, prophecy is best left to the professionals.

How many commandments did the Jews hear before the mike was turned off? Only the first two.

“Moshe commanded us the Torah as an inheritance” (Deut. 33:4). The Gematria, the numerical value, of the word “Torah” is 611. “I am G-d” (Shemot 20:2) and “You shall not have [other gods]” (Shemot 20:3) were heard from the mouth of the Almighty.

Talmud, Makkot 23b-24a

In other words, of the 613 biblical mitzvot, only 611 were taught by Moshe. The first two commandments, the mitzvah of faith, “I am G-d,” and the prohibition against polytheism and idolatry, “You shall not have other gods,” were taught to us not by Moshe, but by G-d Himself. The nation heard these first two commandments firsthand at Sinai. The remaining 611 mitzvot, “Torah,” were heard not from G-d, but from Moshe, as per the nation’s request.

G-d knew that novices can’t become prophets at moment’s notice. G-d knew that the nation couldn’t tolerate prophecy. So why did He speak to the nation only to have them beg Him to stop? Why does He freak out the Jews with the first two commandments when He could just tell them to Moshe like the other 611?

The answer is that the Moshe idea had to come from the Jews themselves.
They said to Moshe, “You speak to us, and we will listen. But let G-d not speak to us [anymore], for if He does, we will die.
The Jews needed to experience their inability to receive the Torah from G-d. Only then could they appreciate the critical role that Moshe had to play. Going through this process, the Jews realized for the first time what an incredible prophet they had for a leader.

In fact, the stated purpose of the revelation at Sinai was to establish Moshe's position as the Jewish prophet par excellence.

G-d said to Moshe, “… the nation will hear when I speak to you and they will then believe in you forever.”

Shemot 19:9

This is all fine and good, but we haven’t really answered our original question. If you’re not a licensed prophet, you can’t hear G-d’s voice and live. How did the entire nation survive prophecy, even if it was just for the first two commandments?

Maimonides has a fascinating answer to this question. He posits that hearing the first two commandments doesn’t really qualify as prophecy at all.

For these two principles, I mean the existence of the deity (I am G-d) and His being one (you shall not have other gods), are knowable by human speculation alone. Now with regard to everything that can be known by demonstration, the status of the prophet and everyone else who knows it is equal; there is no superiority of one over the other…
As for the other commandments, they belong to the class of generally accepted opinions and those adopted in virtue of tradition, not to the class of the intellecta.

The Guide of the Perplexed 2:33

In other words, the definition of prophecy is information or insight provided by G-d. If you can figure it out yourself, it isn't prophecy – even if you hear G-d say it! The first two commandments fall in this category. The converse is also true. An unprovable piece of information is prophecy when it is heard from G-d – even if you already believed it to be true.

This is not linguistic acrobatics; Maimonides is making a statement here of profound import.

Most of us can only hear what we already know. We pride ourselves on our rationality and we reside comfortably within self-imposed walls of empirical evidence and human logic. This is wonderful, of course, and it’s especially useful if you happen to be a scientist or a computer programmer, but it’s a narrow view of the universe and reality. Certainly, a prophet it does not make. The prophetic talent is the ability to hear and accept divine ideas and concepts that transcend the human intellect.

The Prophets of Old are not the only ones who require this talent; the Torah student of today needs it too. To study the eternal words of Torah is to be a mini prophet, striving to understand the Torah’s mitzvot and message and straining to hear the voice of the living G-d. To succeed, we need the humility to admit that man does not know all.


  1. It seems as if the first two commandments heard at Sinai summarize the decades-long process of discovery that led Abrahaham to the truth of monotheism. It is these 2 commandments that make us "b'nai Avraham."

    I have a question concerning Rambam's definition of prophecy--it would seem then, that only chukim would be prophetic? Mishpatim, which according to Chazal are laws that can be deduced by rational thought, would then technically not be prophetic?

    Thank you again, and Shabbat Shalom to all!

  2. The first 2 commandments:

    1. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; shall have no other gods before me.

    The first is a reminder for that generation, to imprint it into their heads that HaShem is the power that released them from slavery. We, as descendents of those Hebrews, are to consider ourselves as if we were there, also. So we must be grateful for this Supreme Power that has protected us and formed a covenant with us.

    2. We Jews have been extraordinarily blessed with minds that are logical and ready to believe in our own individualistic power to have influence over our fate. Perhaps that is why many Jews have become secular, or have disregarded the first commandment. If the first commandment is eliminated from a person's belief, then there is no need to honor the second commandment. So, a person in this category chooses his own gods. The choices are:
    1. to honor and respect only his own thoughts (idol worship of himself).
    2. to choose a popular religion of his time for social purposes and to either make an effort to believe in the idols of that religion; or to secretly perform idol worship of himself.

  3. As for the second commandment, it was necessary to tell that to the Hebrews then, because there was also the possibility in the minds of the Hebrews that this "Magnificent Power" that saved them might not be the "Supreme Power". So, g-d told them that there are no other g-ds that are more "powerful" in any way than Him. In later commandments, He states that we should not bother to spend any time in prayering or honoring other gods and that it would definitely be considered offensive to Him.

  4. Barry-
    The Rambam seems to be saying that it is only the first two commandments that fall into this category. Certainly commandments 6 & 7, the prohibitions against murder and adultery, are classified as mishpatim, but are still unhearable by anyone other than a prophet. The distinction is this: There are things that we know to be true and then there are things we believe. We can believe that murder is wrong, but we cannot "know" it. You can't prove it's wrong. "Belief" in G-d, however, is not limited to "faith." It can be known. Especially if G-d took you out of Egypt.

  5. We learn a lesson from Yitro, who converted to Judaism. Moshe fully accepted him and took his sugggestion and implemented it concerning the court system and judges. This teaches us to fully accept with open arms and minds a person that converts to Judaism.

  6. We learn a lesson from the behavior of Pharoah. He represents a man who considers himself almost a god; or, he is an idol unto himself. His idolatry of himself produces an arrogance and superiority over others that can not allow him to yield to mere mortals. His arrogance persisted for the first 5 plagues and then HaShem intervened directly in hardening Pharoah's heart. And, of course, we know the final ending of the "Superior" Pharoah, who died along with all the other mere mortal Egyptians.

    From this story, we should learn that idol worship of yourself will only lead to the ultimate lowering of your own self-esteem.

  7. The key word is humility, the human quality of an individual which says, "I am neither superior nor inferior to any other human being. However, I open my mind and heart to doing God's will not anyone else's, including my own."