Shiur #12: Mirror Images Vayikra Rabba 1:14-15

  • Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan

Section 13 of Vayikra Rabba, which we examined in the last lecture, detailed the differences between Jewish and Gentile prophecy. Now, the midrash in section 14 turns to discuss the difference between Moshe’s prophecy and that of other prophets. The midrash already briefly alluded to the special nature of Mosaic prophecy in the previous section. In taking up this theme, the midrash returns to the dominant motif of the first parasha of Vayikra Rabba, the unique greatness of Moshe Rabbeinu.


The crucial discussion in the Torah of the difference between Moshe’s prophecy and that of others is in Bemidbar 12:6-8, the end of Parashat Be-ha’alotekha. God appears to Aharon and to Miriam and berates them for having spoken out against Moshe:


And He said, Hear these My words, when a prophet of the Lord arises among you, I make myself known to him in a vision (ba-mar’a), I speak with him in a dream.

Not so with My servant Moshe, he is trusted throughout My household.

With him I speak mouth to mouth,

Plainly (u-mar’eh) and not in riddles, and he beholds the likeness of the Lord.


The basic meaning of these verses is clear. Unlike other prophets, Moshe encounters God in an unmediated fashion. However, the exact meaning of these verses is not as clear. Among the difficulties presented by these verses is the appearance of the term M-R-A-H (ba-mar’a, u-mar’eh) to describe both Moshe’s prophecy and that of other prophets. The JPS translation cited here interprets these terms as having opposite meaning. When referring to other prophets it means a “vision," emphasizing the indirect nature of most prophecy. On the other hand, when it refers to Moshe, it means “plainly," emphasizing the direct nature of Moshe’s encounter with God. The question remains, what is the meaning of the terms ba-mar’a and u-mar’eh and what is the relationship between the two?


We are now ready to consider the midrash’s comments on this matter:


What difference is there between Moses and all other prophets?

R. Judah b. Il'ai and the Rabbis [gave different explanations].

R. Judah said: Through nine mirrors did the prophets behold [prophetic visions].

This is indicated by what is said, ‘And the appearance of the vision which I saw, was like the vision that I saw when I came to destroy the city; and the visions were like the vision that I saw by the River Chebar; and I fell upon my face’ (Ezek. 43:3).

But Moses beheld [prophetic visions] through one mirror, as it is said,

‘With him do I speak... in a vision, and not in dark speeches’ (Num. 12:8).


The midrash here compares the vision of God as it appears to prophets viewing an individual through mirrors (The Hebrew aspeclaria comes from the same Greek-Latin root as the English “speculum”). This is, in fact, a derasha on the word mar’a which, as we have seen, is used to describe prophecy. In biblical Hebrew this term usually means a “vision.” However, it can also mean “mirror.” The idea that prophetic vision is like seeing through a mirror emphasizes the indirect nature of revelation. The prophet sees not “the Thing Itself,” but only a reflection of God.


This interpretation reflects a striking re-reading of the verses in Bemidbar. These verses emphasize that Moshe’s encounter with the Divine, unlike that of other prophets, was completely unmediated. However, the midrash picks up on the fact that the Torah uses the term ba-mar’a / u-mar’eh to refer both to other prophets and to Moshe. The midrash understands this to mean that, like other prophets, Moshe saw God only indirectly. The difference between Moshe and the other prophets is thus a matter of degree. Moshe sees God at only one degree of separation where as other prophets see Him at nine degrees of separation.


The rabbis here have a clear theological agenda guiding their interpretation. Despite the simple meaning of these verses, the rabbis cannot accept the notion that even Moshe could have seen God directly. Indeed, God has already denied Moshe’s request to see His face. The rabbis thus feel compelled to interpret even these verses as stating that Moshe’s vision of God was a mediated one.


The midrash goes on to cite a verse from Ezekiel to prove its contention that the other prophets see God as if through nine mirrors. Of all the prophets, Ezekiel is most associated with visions of God, most famously his vision of the divine chariot at the beginning of the book.  Not coincidentally, Ezekiel is also the prophet who most frequently uses the term mar’eh in describing his revelations. The rabbis thus naturally turn to Ezekiel in our context.  The verse they focus on describes Ezekiel’s vision of God as He appears to him as part of his vision of the Third Temple. This verse is most curious in that it repeats various permutations of the root r-a-h, “to see," including the term mar’eh, no less than eight times. If we count the plural mar’ot as two references, this gives us a total of nine. This is the source for the notion that God appears to the prophets, even Ezekiel, as if through nine mirrors.


The Midrash now presents an alternative contrasting of Mosaic and other prophecy:


The Rabbis said: All the other prophets beheld [prophetic visions] through a blurred mirror,

as it is said, ‘And I have multiplied visions; and by the ministry of the prophets have I used similitudes’ (Hosea 12:11).

But Moses beheld [prophetic visions] through a polished mirror,

as it is said, The similitude of the Lord does he behold (Num. 12:8).


The Rabbis suggest a slightly different usage of the mirror imagery. The prophets’ visions are compared to the reflection in a blurry mirror whereas Moshe’s vision is like the reflection in a polished mirror. R. Judah’s use of the mirror image emphasizes the fact that the prophets are more removed from God than is Moshe, who encounters Him through only a single degree of separation. The Rabbi’s image emphasizes more the superior clarity of Moshe’s vision.


It is not clear to me how the Rabbis read the verse in Hosea to suggest that prophecy is like seeing through a blurred mirror. Perhaps the Rabbis see in the phrase “multiplied visions” the sort of fragmented image that is reflected on an uneven surface. Alternatively, the phrase “I used similitudes” (adameh) is understood to suggest an imperfect representation.


The Rabbis’ use of the passage from Bemidbar 12 once again displays a subtle theological transformation of the words. I would argue that the phrase “u-temunat Hashem yabit” literally refers to seeing God, as in Psalms 17:15, “Then I, justified, will behold Your face; awake I am filled with the vision of You.” It suggests an unmediated encounter with God. Once again, the rabbis reject such a possibility as contrary both to the fundamentals of Jewish theology and to other explicit verses in the Torah. In the Rabbis’ reading, the verse comes to tell us that even Moshe saw only a temuna, a likeness of God, but not God Himself. The difference between Moshe and the other prophets is that he views a more accurate likeness of God.


Next, the midrash proposes a mashal to further elucidate the nature of Moshe’s vision of God:


R. Phinehas said in the name of R. Hoshaya: This may be compared to a king who allowed himself to be seen by the members of his houshold [only] by means of his image.


This translation is based on the text as it appears in the printed editions. The word ‘image’ translates the word eikonin (= “icon”). In this reading the nimshal is quite clear. Just as the king does not allow himself to be seen by the members of his household directly but only shows an image of himself, so too God does not appear to Moshe (“trusted throughout my household” Num. 12:7) directly, but only through a reflection or an intermediary. In this reading, the mashal focuses on the fact that even Moshe does not encounter God directly.


The problem here lies not with the nimshal, but with the mashal itself. Why would a king do something so bizarre as hide behind his own image? The mashal makes sense only as an explanation of the biblical text but not as a self-contained story. The reading found in the manuscripts, in contrast, makes sense both as a mashal and as a nimshal. Instead of eikonin the manuscripts read otanin, from the Greek othonion, meaning “linen garment.” In this reading, the king appears to the members of his household in a linen garment.  Professor Saul Lieberman, in his notes in the back the Margoliot edition of Vayikra Rabba, suggests that this linen garment is a more informal sort of dress than the formal robes the king would wear in court. A king or other dignitary would only wear such dress among people with whom he was comfortable. It was also perhaps a simpler form of dress. Meeting someone in his otanin was a more authentic encounter, just as today we might feel that we had a more intimate acquaintance with a person we met in a bathrobe than in a business suit.


In this reading, the mashal serves to emphasize the immediate nature of Moshe’s encounter with God. Other prophets encountered God only in a formal setting in which a certain distance was inevitable. Only Moshe achieved a level of intimacy with God.  It is as if Moshe met God in his private living quarters.


Finally, the midrash takes a somewhat unexpected turn:


In this world the Shekhina manifests itself only to chosen individuals;

in the Time to Come, however, ‘The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all the flesh shall see it together; for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it’ (Isa. 40:5).


Up until this point in its discussion of prophecy, the midrash has focused on two sets of distinctions: between Jewish and Gentile prophecy, and between Mosaic and other forms of prophecy. In both cases, the midrash has emphasized, and, indeed, celebrated the fact that prophecy is an exclusive club. In fact, the highest level of prophecy is limited to a single individual, Moshe. Now, the midrash suggests that this exclusivity is far from ideal. It is a product of the imperfect nature of the world in which we live. When the Messiah comes, the highest level of prophecy will be available to all. This democratic vision of revelation stands in stark contrast to the emphasis on the uniqueness of Moshe that pervades the rest of this parasha.


These are the concluding lines of the first parasha of Vayikra Rabba in the manuscript editions. As is common in aggadic compositions, the parasha ends with a reference to the coming of the Messiah. Printed editions, however, contain one more section. This section consists of two parts each of which helps to create a sense of closure for the parasha. The first part reads as follows:


Another interpretation:


Whence do they [derive authority for their statement who] say,

'As for a scholar who lacks sensibility, a carcass is better than he.'

You have proof that this is so.

Go forth and learn from Moses, the father of wisdom, the father of the prophets, who brought Israel out of Egypt, through whom so many miracles were performed in Egypt, and awesome acts at the Red Sea, who ascended to the heavens above, and brought down the Torah from heaven, and occupied himself with the making of the Tabernacle,

and yet entered not the innermost part of the Sanctuary until God called him,



This passage, like the vast majority of the parasha, is focused on the first words of the book of Vayikra. It also focuses on the major theme of the parasha, Moshe Rabbeinu. It presents what is essentially an ode to Moshe, listing his attributes and accomplishments. This is a sort of summary of the discussion of Moshe throughout the parasha.


The interpretation of Vayikra 1:1 is also reminiscent of interpretations of the verse that we have seen previously. It focuses on the very first word of the verse, on the fact that God called Moshe. The midrash places this aspect of the verse in the context of a broader moral lesson, 'As for a scholar who lacks sensibility, a carcass is better than he.'  All a person’s accomplishments in life are worthless if he lacks basic common sense and manners.  Moshe embodies this saying. No one was more accomplished than Moshe. Yet, his reputation ultimately rests not on his great deeds but on the fact that he knew his place. Despite his greatness, Moshe did not seek entry into the Holy of Holies as an entitlement. He waited to be called by God.  Moshe thus possessed proper sense and manners in addition to his other accomplishments.


Next, the midrash compares God’s call to Moshe from the mishkan to His earlier call from the burning bush:


Elsewhere Scripture says, ‘And when the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said: Moses, Moses’ (Ex. 3:4).

[In the account of the episode] at the burning bush,

Scripture inserted an intervening word, viz. ‘elav’ (to him), between the 'calling' and the 'speaking.'

[In our passage] relating to the Tent of Meeting there is nothing intervening.

As to the burning bush incident,

that may be compared to the case of a king who is angry with his servant,

and commands him to be confined in prison;

when giving instructions regarding him to the messenger, he does so outside [the royal residence].

But [what took place] in the Tent of Meeting [may be compared to the case of a king] who is pleased with his children, and with whom the members of his household are pleased; when giving instructions regarding them to the messenger he does so within [the royal residence],

like a man who takes [his child] on his lap, or like one whose hand is [affectionately laid] on his son.

Therefore it says, AND HE CALLED UNTO MOSES.


The midrash here focuses on the fact that when God calls out to Moshe at the burning bush, the verse uses the word elav, “to him,” to intervene between the word vayikra and the content of the speech. This word is absent from the first verse in Vayikra, in which God’s speaking to Moshe immediately follows the word vayikra. The Midrash sees this difference as indicating that God’s call to Moshe from the mishkan was in some way more immediate than His call from the burning bush.


The midrash illustrates the difference between these two calls through a mashal comparing two cases in which a king instructs his messenger with regard to his servant. The way the king relates to the messenger depends on his relationship with the servant. If he is angry with the servant, the messenger is treated in a more indirect manner; he is not even invited into the palace. However, if the king is on good terms with the servant, then the messenger is invited into the palace and embraced as a sign of affection toward the servant. So too, the way in which God relates to Moshe depends on His current relationship with Israel. At the burning bush, Israel was still in exile, not yet worthy of a close relationship with God.  Hence, Moshe is called in a more indirect manner “outside of the palace.”  In contrast, at the time of the construction of the mishkan, Israel was at a high point in its relationship with God.  Thus, Moshe is called directly by God into the Holy of Holies.


This concludes the first parasha of Vayikra Rabba. We have seen how the material in this parasha, much of which was likely first presented in actual synagogue sermons, has been carefully arranged and reworked by the editors of Vayikra Rabba to produce a series of well-developed pieces that are held together by a set of common concerns. On the interpretive level, the parasha focuses on the first verse of the book of Vayikra, offering a wide range of interpretations of the verse. On the thematic level, the focus has been on the figure of Moshe Rabbeinu and his unique stature. Secondarily, the parasha focuses on the institution of prophecy and the very possibility of a Divine-human relationship.