Thursday, July 20, 2006

The Clarity Of Moshe (Mattot & Masse 5766)

This week's Torah reading commences with the laws of vows. The Torah takes oaths and vows very seriously - indeed, when one makes a vow, then the responsibility to fulfil one's promise takes on a Torah character. For example, a person might vow not to drink whisky for a month, or he might vow to eat a bowl of cholent every Thursday morning. One assumes that the motivation for so doing is to help control some kind of undesirable behaviour or encourage a positive way of acting.

If pronounced in the correct way, these acts now become Biblical responsibility. He may not drink whisky for a month, and is prohibited to him as surely as if it were written in the Torah itself. Similarly, he must eat his bowl of cholent at the prescribed time, and if he does not, then he has failed in his religious duty. The late Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan observed that something very exciting lies within this obscure law. It is clear that while the Torah regulates many things in life, most things remain optional. It is our choice whether or not to eat certain foods, go to certain places - i.e. how to use most of our time and our resources. The Torah gives us a tool - the oath or vow - which enables us to bring any object or action within the ambit of the Torah system. Most actions or objects which the Torah does not demand we use within the Kedushah / holiness sphere, but we can choose to use them to fulfil Torah laws in this way. Of course, this can be dangerous, as by making more rules, we may fall more easily into wrong doing, but the principle is clear. The laws of vows are very complex and occupy a whole tractate of the Talmud (Nedarim) and a large section of the Talmud.

It is interesting to note that in the introductory verse to the section dealing with vows, we see an unusual phrase:

Moshe spoke to the tribal heads of the Jewish people saying - this is the thing which God has commanded. (BeMidbar 30:2)

The phrase this is the thing is uncommon - a more usual usage is thus says God. Rashi, noting this strange usage, observes that only Moshe communicated his prophecy using this is the thing. This is intended to convey the exceptional quality of Moshe's prophecy. The Maharal of Prague, commenting on this Rashi, notes that the phrase thus says God really means ‘an approximation’ - as though the prophet says 'this is pretty much what God said.' This is expressed through the ‘kaf hadimion’ – the comparative letter ‘kaf’ at the beginning of the word ‘koh’ – thus. In contrast, this is the thing means that the message is an exact communication of the Divine will. The sources tell us that prophecy must, perforce, come through the personality of the prophet. He may fall asleep or go into a trance, which means that his physical drives or distractions are limited during the prophetic experience. Nonetheless, the prophecy is filtered through his / her personality and therefore must be expressed in those terms. Hence, while the message repeated by the prophet contains the essence of the Divine communication, it is only a thus says type of prophecy. Not so Moshe, who was able to so limit the influence of his personality on the prophecy that he was communicating the exact word of God - this is the thing. At a deeper level, Moshe's physical reality and drives were so in tune with the will of the Divine that they did not interfere with or warp the prophecy at all.

The Talmud (Tractate Yevamot) expresses this idea quite succinctly - all the prophets saw through a clouded lens, but Moshe saw through a clear lens. Mind you, he was still viewing God's message through a lens, but that is another story....

This helps us to understand the context in which the quality of Moshe’s prophecy would be noted. Vows demand a level of clarity in speech and thought which is perhaps unmatched in any other area of Torah law. It thus makes sense that it was here that the Torah recorded the special nature and clarity of Moshe's prophecy.

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