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Shmot(Exodus 1:1-6:1)

The Point of Soul

The longest private conversation recorded in the Torah between God and a human individual takes place in our parsha. It takes God 39 long verses (from Exodus 3:1 to 4:17) to persuade Moses to accept the mission of serving as the savior of the Jewish people. In a wide-ranging conversation that covers many topics, God patiently responds to Moses' many objections and queries before Moses finally caves in to the Divine will and accepts.

There are many aspects of this amazing conversation which merit extensive exploration, but in this essay we will focus on the objection raised by Moses in Exodus 4:1:

Moses responded and said, But they will not believe me and they will not heed my voice, for they will say, "God did not appear to you."

Maimonedes (Yesodei Hatorah, 8,1-2) gives us some background on the deeper implications of this statement:

The Jews did not believe in Moses our teacher because of the miracles that he performed. Whenever anyone's belief is based on miracles, he has misgivings, because it is possible to perform a miracle through magic or sorcery. (If Maimonedes were writing today, he would have substituted mind control or technology...)

What is the source of our belief in him? The revelation at Mount Sinai. Our own eyes, not some stranger's, saw; our own ears and not another's heard ... the voice spoke to him and we heard, "Moses, Moses, go tell them the following...."

How is it known that Mount Sinai alone is proof of the truth of Moses' prophecy that leaves no apprehension? (Exodus 19:9) Behold! I will come to you in a thick cloud, so that the people will hear Me speaking to you, so that they will believe in you forever. It appears that before this happened, they did not believe in him with a faith that would last forever, but rather with a faith that allowed for suspicions and doubts....

Moses our teacher knew that one who believes in a person because of miracles has apprehensions in his heart, and that he has doubts and suspicions. Therefore he sought to be released from the mission saying, "They will not believe in me" until the Holy One Blessed be He informed him that these wonders were only intended as a temporary measure until they left Egypt. After they left, they would stand on this mountain [Sinai] and all the doubts which they had about him would be removed....This is what is meant by (Exodus 3:12): This will be your sign that I sent you: when you take the people out of Egypt, you will serve God on this mountain.

Thus we do not believe in any prophet who arises after Moses because of the miracles that he performs alone, as if to say: If he performs a miracle we will listen to everything he has to say. Rather, [we listen to him] because it is a Mitzvah which we were commanded by Moses who said: if he performs a miracle listen to him.

There is a startling idea contained in these words of Maimonides. It often seems to us that the lack of belief in God is due to the lack of 'proof' of his existence. If only God would show us that He was really out there we would surely follow Him and obey all the commandments. Maimonides tells us that this is not so.

To appreciate the profundity of the thought expressed here, we must distinguish between belief in God and belief in prophecy.

The existence of God in the abstract is widely accepted as a fact in our society. Repeated polls have shown that well over 80% of those confronted with the question, "Do you believe in God?" answer firmly in the affirmative. The reason that the world is so intensely secular, in spite of this overwhelming affirmation, is that belief in God and belief in prophecy are two separate things.

To believe in God is perfectly 'harmless.' The belief itself makes no demands. By definition we human beings are mortal and finite whereas God is immortal and infinite. It is logically beyond our capacity to penetrate the depths of God's mind and figure out what He wants of us, if anything. In fact in the cosmic measure of things the individual human life and consciousness is so tiny and insignificant that chances are high that an Infinite consciousness would have no interest in tracking its puny concerns.

It is the existence of prophecy and the Divine messages delivered by the prophets that tells us this is not so. It is they who inform us that God is interested in man, and cares enough about him to communicate His demands of him. Knowing that we couldn't possibly figure out these demands by ourselves, God had to inform us about His intentions and desires through the vehicle of revelation.

Much ink has been spilled over the question of whether God exists or not throughout history, most of it in vain. The philosophical study of theology is a mind game of questionable benefit. The attempt to probe God's existence or nature philosophically cannot produce results that will make a powerful impact on the average human consciousness. The only important existential question regarding the existence of God concerns the truth of prophecy. If prophecy is real, God has demands that He expressed, demands to which we must respond.

Thus, while the abstract question of God's existence marshals little resistance in the human breast, the proposition of the truth of prophecy inspires immense opposition. Maimonedes teaches us that even miracles do not suffice to overcome it. Confronted with a performer of miracles who also attempts to deliver Divine commandments the human reaction tends to be: "True, I also know that God exists, but who says you are His prophet?"

Imagine living through the Ten Plagues, the splitting of the sea, the falling of manna from the sky, the spring flowing out of the rock -- one couldn't possibly ask for clearer proof of God's guiding hand. Now, the man who accomplished all this -- Moses -- clearly stated that he was acting as an agent of God throughout, and at the time he certainly must have generated considerable faith in the truth of his prophecies. Yet, this was the sort of faith that could not endure according to Maimonedes' understanding of Moses' objection. As the power of the impression cast by a miracle recedes with the passage of time, its proof value begins to fade.

To get us to believe in His prophets through the performance of miracles God would have to allow prophets to perform miracles daily, and if He did that, we would soon come to accept them as non-miraculous ordinary occurrences and they would consequently lose their proof value.

To really believe in the possibility of direct human communication with God you really have to speak with Him yourself. Thus Moses negotiated the public meeting at Sinai as a condition for the acceptance of his mission. He wanted the entire Jewish people to meet God, to know that it is possible for human beings to experience Divine communication, and accept the truth of prophecy in general and his in particular as unquestioned facts.

But isn't prophecy itself a sort of miracle? If it is, why wouldn't the impact of experiencing this miracle fade with time just like the impact of other miracles? After all, just as the entire Jewish people experienced the encounter at Sinai they also lived through the ten plagues and the other miracles pointed out earlier. If Moses believed that their proof value must inevitably fade with the passage of time, why wouldn't the same statute of limitations apply to the miracle of prophecy?

The response to this may seem revolutionary at first glance but it constitutes one of the basic pillars of Judaism. In fact, prophecy is not miraculous at all! It is a human faculty that is built into all Jews and functions automatically with proper experience and training. In other words, Judaism views prophecy as a human faculty. A Jew who takes a prophecy course delivered by a qualified teacher, himself an experienced prophet, and implements the information he learned in his life will automatically experience prophecy, just as someone who studies physics in university will automatically be a qualified physicist.

Anyone can be a prophet; the reason why there aren't a lot of them around is due to the difficulties of qualifying. To understand the requirements, let us consult Maimonedes once again (Yesodei Hatorah 7:1):

It is one of the foundations of our religion that God communicates by prophecy with man. Prophecy 'falls' only upon a very wise sage, a person of strong character who never allows himself to be overcome by his natural inclinations in any regard.

A person who is full of all these qualities and is physically sound [is fit for prophecy]. When he enters the Pardes [the study of the Torah's hidden meanings and secrets] and is drawn into these great and sublime concepts, if he possesses the correct perspective to comprehend them he will become holy. He will advance and separate himself from ordinary people who are occupied with the darkness of the world under time. He must continue and diligently train himself not to have any thoughts whatever about fruitless things or the vanities and intrigues of the times.

Instead, his mind should constantly be directed upward, bound beneath God's throne, striving to comprehend the holy and pure forms and gazing at the wisdom of God in its entirety from the most spiritual form until the navel of the earth, appreciating His greatness from them. After these preparations the spirit of prophecy will immediately [i.e. automatically] rest on him.

[Incidentally, one of the implications of this passage is that a claim to prophecy can only be taken seriously when it is advanced by a person to whom this entire list of qualifications can be credibly applied. Anyone who does not fit the description claiming prophecy can be safely institutionalized in a suitable facility for the mentally disturbed.]

Let us begin to bring all this information down to earth by assuming that man has a soul. What does a soul do? Is it a type of muscle? A sort of spiritual organ that helps drive the human machine? Obviously not! The soul is immaterial and incorporeal. In fact the soul is a communication device. It allows man to obtain information about the world that is not accessible through the application of his senses to physical reality.

Without the soul, any information about abstractions can only be accessed through the processes of induction and deduction, the logical tools employed by science. While these are no doubt invaluable tools, they have two major defects when it comes to revealing information about God. First of all, any information about God produced by logical reasoning is unverifiable. Deductions about the world can be tested by experiments. Deductions about God cannot.

Even more fundamentally, the most important function of science is to explain to us how and why things happen. All human beings always knew that apples fall, and that the planets have orbits. Science didn't uncover these phenomena. It merely explained them. In the process of explaining them certain new ways of understanding the common phenomena of our world were developed which in turn led to the discovery of things like atoms and electromagnetic waves, things that aren't visible to the naked eye. But invariably, the basic phenomena that are the subjects of scientific study are readily visible to anyone.

In contrast, divine phenomena are by definition invisible. There is no common part of our world that requires Divine phenomena to comprehend it except for existence itself.

This brings us to the crux of the issue. Knowledge of God is obviously not scientific in nature. Science has no answer to the origin of the 'big bang,' and many great scientists duly deduced the existence of God from the fact of existence itself. Einstein rejected quantum theory on the grounds that God doesn't play dice with the universe. Stephen Hawking talks about discovering the workings of God's mind. Scientists duly deduced God's existence as a logical necessity, but this did not induce them to be religious. Religion is based on relationship with God, not on knowledge.

The God of Israel is real to me only insofar as He has feelings and relates to me according to my perceptions of Him. He loves me and watches over me, he plans my life and worries about my future. To accept all this I must be able to relate to Him as a personality. To be able to do this I must be able to get to know Him as I would get to know a person. The only way to get to know people is to meet them and spend time with them.

My knowledge of people is not scientific and is based on empathy. I know that some people are kind but not responsible whereas others are both kind and responsible not so much through experimentation, but through a feeling for another's character that is a byproduct of the unique communication that can develop between kindred souls.

Religion therefore rests on prophecy and not on scientific proof. If I can discover God as an abstraction I will have the same feelings about Him as I do toward atoms and quarks. It will not make me religious. If God planned to have a relationship with human beings, He had to implant in them the capacity to reach a state of empathy with Him that is comparable to the one that exists between fellow human beings.

That's why God gave me a soul. My soul can meet Him and talk to Him and get to know Him. The Derech Hashem explains [Part 4] that the object of the human faculty of prophecy is not the delivery of Divine orders but the attainment of knowledge of God. A prophet may also receive a divine message to convey, but the essence of the prophetic experience is revelation itself. The prophet literally experiences meeting God as a personality. Just as our knowledge of people is encounter based so is our knowledge of God.

In fact there are two sorts of human knowledge. The ordinary sort of knowledge that we are all familiar with is a capacity of our minds. But we can also know the world through our souls. But it should hardly surprise us to discover that in order to be able to access knowledge through our souls, we must learn the language in which this sort of knowledge is transmitted first.

Suppose a person with genius level I.Q. is raised on a farm in Iowa. He never finishes high school and joins the family farm as a teenager. Had he gone to university he could have developed into a world-renowned scientist but as it is he spends his life on the farm with cattle and sheep. He is undoubtedly a very gifted farmer, and is probably known far and wide in the region as the person to consult if you have a farm related problem but that is all.

He never learns about atoms or Beethoven symphonies. Although possessed of a gifted mind, his experience of the world of knowledge is extremely limited. Capacity without development leaves even the most gifted blind to the richness of the universe.

The human soul is no different then the human mind. Lack of exposure to the seemingly esoteric knowledge described by Maimonedes, man's innate capacity for prophecy remains unexploited. Before one can develop into a prophet he must master the Torah knowledge that opens the gateway to be able to perceive and appreciate the knowledge delivered by the soul.

Being a prophet himself, Moses knew all this. He was confident that if the Jewish people experienced prophecy en masse, their belief in him and in the power to prophesize would never fade. The prophetic experience of Sinai would reveal to them that the phenomenon of prophecy is not miraculous at all but is a natural part of the human repertoire. Anyone can become a prophet if he wants it hard enough.

While prophecy itself is beyond us today, its close cousin, known as ruach hakodesh, or the holy spirit, is still with us. The sages of Israel still have it and use it. It is impossible to describe the experience of meeting a human being who perceives the world through his soul rather than his mind. Fortunately the experience is open to anyone. Whoever would like to taste it should hop on a plane and visit R' Chaim Kinevsky in Bnei Brak. His perception of what is possible for a human being to attain will never be the same.

Published: December 29, 2001

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Visitor Comments: 5

(5) Anonymous, December 24, 2007 9:41 AM

moreh nevuchim

the Rambam states in Book II quite clearly that G-d must CHOOSE the ripe, and even fully mature sage, individual, person. If not, there will be no prophecy for that person. (Also, the Guemara states there is no prophecy outside Eretz Israel. except for dogs, children and [the crazy -- so why, if the latter is true, why would they be [institutionalized?]) However, the Derekh Hashem combined with Messilas Yesharim, would offer a gradual approach toward heightened "spiritual awareness", through Relationship (religion)rather than the Medieval step ladder of the Sciences, to which Maimonides adhered (i.e. mathematics, geometry, astronomy, and so on). Although he was overtly against Astrology, this was considered a divine science and tool of prophetic knowledge through the ages ( and even in the Derech Hashem... (!!!).
thank you for an excellent article (again and again)

(4) Michael Conti, March 6, 2002 12:00 AM

Prophecy is the key to the Book

If you truly believe that anyone with the potential and the Laws of Moses has the ability to become a prophet, then I would like to submit myself for schooling. I Know Who I Am

(3) Avraham Slater, January 7, 2002 12:00 AM

Parsha Sh'mot

This was GREAT! I always look forward to your Torah e-mail, but this was outstanding. I had never thought of prophesy this way.

(2) Anonymous, January 1, 2002 12:00 AM

Many times when deep ideas from the Torah are discussed and explained something is enlightened, and maybe clarified. However, the questions just double, and I am left with the thought that I can not comprehend it with my limited knowledge, but I believe because it is Torah. I felt the same way over here.

(1) Anonymous, December 31, 2001 12:00 AM

Thank you for your insightful commentary. Learning only teaches us how little we know. This spurs us onward to know more about God and in knowing the more.....may we come to know Him.

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