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Look into the mirror

“Miriam and Aharon spoke about Moses…” Miriam the Prophetess and Aharon the High Priest criticized their younger brother, more about Moses, for separating from his wife (as the sages explain) and immediately God revealed Himself to them and informed them of the essential difference between Moses’ prophecy and that of all other prophets. “If there be prophets among you, [I] Havayah will make Myself known to him in a vision; I will speak to him in a dream. Not so is My servant Moses; he is faithful throughout My house. With him I speak mouth to mouth; in a vision and not in riddles, and he beholds the image of Havayah. So why were you not afraid to speak against My servant Moses?”

What connection is there between Moses’ prophetic rank and the fact that he separated from his wife? The sages explain, “Moses did well to separate from his wife since the Divine Presence revealed itself to him frequently and there was no set time for speaking” (Rashi). This was illustrated to Aharon and Miriam when God revealed Himself to them “suddenly” when they were impure. Although the verses deal with the level of Moses’ prophecy in general and not with the frequency of his prophecy, this detail is obviously the essential issue of Moses’ prophecy for which he had to separate from his wife. So, let’s meditate on the comparison between Moshe Rabeinu and the other prophets and by doing so we will gain better understanding of the different levels of prophecy and their consummate manifestation in Mashiach.

Two mirrors

The sages refer to Moses’ prophecy as a “shining lens” in contrast to other prophets who prophesied through a “lens that does not shine” (as Rashi points out in his commentary on the above verses). What exactly does it mean to prophesy through a “lens?” There are sages of the opinion that this is like a glass partition through which we can see through to the other side and there are others who say that this is like a mirror that reflects the image before it. Combining these two interpretations, we come to the understanding that the “shining lens” refers to a clear glass through which one can see, while the “lens that does not shine” refers to a mirror. This fits in nicely with the different expressions that appear in the abovementioned verses: regarding all the prophets it says, “In a vision I will become known to him,” whereas concerning Moses it states “In a vision and not in riddles.” The word the Torah uses for “vision” (????????) in the first verse and in reference to the prophecies of all prophets but Moses, also means “mirror.” As we recall, this level of universal prophecy is described as the “lens that does not shine” [as in the copper “mirrors” (???????) that the women donated to the Mishkan, which were used to make the washbasin.] In contrast, the word the Torah uses for “vision” (???????) in the second verse and in reference to Moses’ prophecy is a completely translucent lens. One more point: the prophets’ “vision” (????????) is in the feminine form, whereas Moses’ “vision” (???????) is in the masculine form, which further illustrates the faculty of a mirror to reflect the vision, like a female who receives from the male.

What does this mean? In general, we are taught that Moses integrates his prophecies with completely clear intellectual insight, in contrast to the prophets who see visions, riddles and allegories, but cannot visualize Divinity itself. Moses integrates the prophetic vision itself as it descends from above and even though he has a personality of his own, and he lives in a physical body, nonetheless, his ego is transparent, like clear glass, and his person does not obstruct his vision at all. In contrast, all other prophets have an obstruction that blocks God’s word as it descends from above, and they can integrate it only when it “hits” the lowest reality, as if they held a mirror in their hand and gazed at the Divine light reflected in it. If we compare the Divine light to sunlight, then Moses was able to gaze directly at the light through a single clear lens without it blinding him, while other prophets can only look at the light once it is reflected back from the earth, becoming “returning light.”

[In Kabbalistic terminology, a mirror (???????) corresponds to the sefirah of kingdom, the lowest sefirah, which “has nothing of its own,” and only reflects the light and the essential content that reaches it from the sefirot above it. In contrast, a vision (???????) represents the sefirah of beauty, the principal sefirah of all the sefirot (the persona of “the small countenance”) which emits a revelation of Divine light. Beauty is the male and kingdom is the female.]

Moses separates from his wife

What we learn from this is that Moses did not need our mundane world to receive his prophecy. He stood directly before God, “mouth to mouth” and “face to face,” “he gazed at Havayah’s image.” This is why Moses had to eventually separate from his wife. A couple must always retain mutual positive communication, looking into one another’s eyes and transmitting the message, “I love you.” But Moshe Rabbeinu, who at every moment was ready to receive his prophecy, could not allow himself to be distracted by turning his gaze away from the Divine vision; he was therefore forced to separate from his wife, Tziporah. Moses knew that it is impossible to simultaneously look upwards at the Divine Presence and downwards at his beloved wife. He therefore had no choice but to leave Tziporah to marry the Divine Presence, as it were. Miriam the Prophetess and Aharon the High Priest, who were both happily married (Miriam to Caleb ben Yefuneh and Aharon to Elisheva bat Aminadav), did not understand at first why Moses had to separate from Tziporah, until the Almighty Himself explained Moses’ exceptional level of prophecy and how it required his total devotion, making it impossible for him to engage in normal family life.

At a more profound level, we touch here upon an important issue regarding the relationship between a husband and wife. A woman uses a mirror profusely to adorn herself and to examine her looks and her beauty. But a man does not usually need a mirror and in fact, halachah (Jewish law) forbids a man to look at himself in the mirror like a woman (as part of the prohibition, “A man shall not wear a woman’s dress”)! This gender difference stems from a very deep source: a woman’s experience of selfhood is based on her appearance to others around her. She needs to see her reflection, as it were, in order to experience herself. A man’s experience of self starts from within, therefore men take less interest in how others see them. [To put it another way, looking in the mirror (be it figuratively or literally) does not help men see themselves for what they really are because of their inherent bias to how they see themselves from the inside. But, women, are less subjectively biased and therefore gain from looking into a mirror.]

Yet the truth is that a man also has (and needs) a mirror?his wife! By looking at his wife, a man can see himself as he truly is. [An experiment for the men reading this article: if you are not sure how you feel, simply look at your wife; she reflects your feelings perfectly.] Moses however, was incapable of looking at his wife in this way, because he was totally, “the man of God” for whom it is unfitting to stare at reflections of reality. Moses constantly had a prophetic vision in sight, “the real thing” literally face to face with God.

Mashiach returns to his wife

We have explained why at his level of prophecy, the highest attainable, Moses had no other option but to separate from his wife. Yet, from our own non-prophetic perspective, this conclusion seems to arouse a sense of cognitive dissonance. We have all been brought up on the merits and importance of raising a strong Jewish family, centered around the loving relationship between husband and wife. Is this spiritual apex not the true apex of Jewish life? Does Moses’ separation from family life imply that there is some higher calling?

The truth is that although Moshe Rabbeinu is the greatest of all prophets, who ever have been and ever will be—“Never again has there been appointed a prophet for the Jewish people equal to Moses”—the Mashiach’s level will complement his level, and will bring us all to a higher status. Indeed, in Chassidut it is explained that although Moses was right to separate from his wife, Mashiach will not follow suit.

In order to sense this messianic revelation to some extent, let’s return to the difference between the two lenses. Meditating more deeply, it becomes clear (as explained in Chassidut) that the “lens that does not shine” actually has a certain advantage over the “shining lens.” As much as we are able to gaze directly at Divinity, facing God, nonetheless our intellect and insight are limited. Even with the clearest of lenses, with the clearest insight, we can reach only so far in our perception. As we ascend further and further, going from “strength to strength,” we will always find that beyond the horizon, there lies another horizon; beyond the vision we have perceived, there remains an infinite expanse. And yet, “the lens that does not shine,” the mirror that lies below and only reflects higher realities has no such limitation. It is able to reflect light from the highest realms, revealing it to us in the form of sparks of holiness that have been extracted from below. This means that when the mundane has become a polished mirror that can reflect Divinity, there is an advantage to perceiving God through it.

We can say that Moses himself took the first step in this direction. Although he was not allowed to completely return to his wife, Tzipporah, nonetheless it seems plausible that after hearing his sister Miriam’s criticism, he understood that just looking at his wife would not necessarily stand in contradiction to his dedication to the Almighty (and even when one cannot be intimate with one’s wife, just looking at her with a loving gaze is allowed and desirable.)

The loving gaze between husband and wife will reach its highpoint with the Mashiach, whose soul is Moses’ soul. Mashiach will clarify that when a couple gaze at one another, with sanctity and purity, they see in each other a special revelation of the Almighty, who is called the third “partner” in a Jewish home. This consummate bond between man and wife does not remain visual only, but also manifests as actual physical union, without requiring the husband, as spiritually elevated as he might be, to separate from his wife. Rather, their marital joy can be revealed on every plane of existence. In fact, the more one is sanctified and dedicated to God by freeing oneself of corporeality, the more one recognizes that in fact the highest level of Divine revelation can be experienced by looking at one’s beloved spouse.

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3 Responses to “Look into the mirror”

  1. Michal says:

    Todah Rav!
    Moshe Rabeinu was awesome indeed. He is just about everyones favorite prophet. His entire life fascinates me, from his birth and experience in Egypt, Exile, the Wilderness experience, discovery of the “Burning bush,” talking to G-d face to face and his Divine Mission. His encounter with G-d must have taken him w-a-y outside of himself, into a realm that he never knew existed, a relationship with the Creator, and it came with the price of sacrifice. Moshe was on a mission. Ministry does require adjustment in relationships and marriage. I can understand, that it changed Tziporah’s marriage suddenly, where as Aharon and Miriam’s spouses were in agreement of the cause at hand. Was Moshe Rabeinu married twice or was Tziporah and the “Cushite” woman mentioned the same person?

  2. Christina says:

    Thank you Rabbi Ginsburg,

  3. Nevio says:

    Toda raba ראב