Rabbi Moshe Pinchuk
Former Rosh Kollel (Melbourne, 1998-2001)
Currently Head of the Beit Midrash in Netanya College
Maimonides (Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 7:7) discusses the two meanings behind the position of the prophet:
The prophet may receive prophecy that pertains solely to himself in order to expand his heart and to increase his knowledge until he knows that of which he was previously ignorant. He may also be sent to one of the nations of the world or to the people of a particular city or government in order to right them and inform them as to what they should do or in order to prevent them from their present evil activities.
The prophet is personally on a spiritually elevated level in which he enjoys a relationship and a connection with Hashem.
The prophet is the source of authority, a tool/intermediary at the service of Hashem, passing along His words and rebuke to humankind.
The prophet as a source of authority is discussed here along with other authority figures in Am Yisrael. Our parasha reveals a surprising dimension regarding the birth of prophesy as an authority:
At Matan Torah, Bnei Yisrael feel that they are not able to stand up to the experience of hearing Hashem speak and they make a brazen request: “And they said to Moshe: you speak with us and we will hear and G-d will not speak wth us lest we will die” (Shemot 20:17). They request to forego hearing the word of G-d one on one and request a go-between to relate the word of G-d.
It becomes clear that this request is not a one-time occurrence to be forgotten, but rather it has far reaching implications:
A prophet from your midst, from your brothers, like me, shall Hashem, your G-d establish for you and to him you shall listen. According to all that you asked of Hashem, your G-d, in Chorev on the day of the gathering, saying, “I can no longer hear the voice of Hashem, my G-d, and this great fire I can no longer see, so that I shall not die.” Then Hashem said to me: They have done well in what they have said. I will establish a prophet for them from among their brethren, like you, and I wll place My words in his mouth; He shall speak to them everything that I will command him. (Devarim 18:14-18)
In order to fulfill their request Hashem introduces a new idea and institution in Judaism—prophecy as a source of authority:
The Jewish people accept upon themselves to believe and accept the words of the prophet as an intermediary and authority: “You should approach and hear whatever Hashem, our G-d, will say, and you should speak to us whatever Hashem, our G-d will speak to you—then we shall hear and we shall do” (Devarim 5:24).
Nachmanides stresses this point (Devarim 18:17)1:
When they say, “you come forth and listen to all that Hashem our G-d will say and you will speak to us all that Hashem our G-d says and we will listen and we will do” they then accepted upon themselves to believe in his prophets and to listen and do according to all that Hashem commands through them. Therefore he said here “A prophet from among you, like me, will Hashem establish and you will believe in him like you believe in me. Because so did you ask that Hashem’s word be with you through me and that you will listen to me. And if this is the case believe also in all the other prophets that come after me because we are the same. And this is the reason that he improved their words “to believe in My prophets and so I will do for them for their generations.” Perhaps their request at that time was for all generations and they accepted to listen to the word of Moshe when they said “and you will speak to us and we will listen and we will do so for all generations forever.”
When we read about Pesach Sheni and the inheritance of Bnot Tzlofchad it is surprising that Hashem kivyachol “invents” the halacha according to the needs and wants of the people. Here we learn that that beyond this even the institution of prophecy itself, one of the holiest, secure institutions of Judaism was created by the request of Bnei Yisrael!
I would like to put forth a suggestion. In history class we learned not to ask “what if…” questions, but when learning chumash this very question can sometimes enlighten us. Therefore I will pose the question: what would have happened if they had not requested “You should approach and hear whatever Hashem, our G-d, will say, and you should speak to us whatever Hashem, our G-d will speak to you—then we shall hear and we shall do” (Devarim 5:24)? The Rashbam (Shemot 20:17) gives the simple answer: “You should speak to us, and if they hadn’t said this, it is possible to say that Hashem would have told them all the mitzvot Himself.” If Bnei Yisrael would have listened to the whole Torah from Hashem’s mouth what would have been the role of Moshe Rabbeinu? Would he have been Moshe Rabbeinu (our Teacher) or rather Moshe our King or our Leader?
The Emek Davar writes (Shemot 20:17): “They were certain that it was the will of Hashem to speak the entire Written Torah to everyone and that only Moshe would receive the Oral Torah.” There was supposed to be a sharp, clear distinction between the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. At the point that even Moshe participated in the the reception of the Written Torah the distinction between the two areas became blurred. I will leave the reader to ponder the meaning of this and to compare Moshe’s reaction to Bnei Yisrael’s request (Devarim 5:24) to Hashem’s reaction to this request.
1And again in his commentary on Devarim 5:24.