On the Weekly Torah Portion of Naso


Yeshayahu Leibowitz

The last part of the weekly Torah portion of naso (Numbers 4:21-7:89), which is the longest portion in the Torah, is an elaborate and long description of the inauguration of ohel mo’ed, the “Tent of the Meeting” (the tabernacle)—the “place” where Moses “hears” the voice of God and receives the instructions.

Let’s remind ourselves: the first time we hear about the Tabernacle is in the Torah portion of trumah, which opens with God’s instruction to Moses:

וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם:
“They shall make me a tabernacle, and I will dwell within them.” (Exodus 25:8)

As a number of Hassidic rabbis commentators remarked: “within them” should be understood as “within each and every one of them.” Thus, the construction of the tabernacle can also be interpreted as opening up a sacred space within oneself for God to dwell within (or, rather, for realizing that God has been dwelling within all along).

The very last verse of this week’s portion seems to echo this understanding. It says:

וּבְבֹא מֹשֶׁה אֶל אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לְדַבֵּר אִתּוֹ וַיִּשְׁמַע אֶת הַקּוֹל מִדַּבֵּר אֵלָיו מֵעַל הַכַּפֹּרֶת אֲשֶׁר עַל אֲרֹן הָעֵדֻת מִבֵּין שְׁנֵי הַכְּרֻבִים וַיְדַבֵּר אֵלָיו:
When Moses went into the Tent of the Meeting to speak with Him, he would hear the Voice speaking to him from above the cover that was on top of the Ark of the Pact between the two cherubim; thus He spoke to him. (Numbers 7:89)

The key words here are “speaking to him”, which in Hebrew are middaber eilav. From the context one would assume that “speaking to him” means God speaking to Moses, as indeed most translators have assumed.

But that is not what the Hebrew says. As Rashi points out, middaber (מִדַּבֵּר), while spelled the same as medaber (מְדַבֵּר), is in a grammatically different form—the reflexive form of hitpa’el. This means that the “him” in the expression “the Voice speaking to him” is not Moses, but God himself.

Here are Rashi’s own words:

מדבר. כמו מתדבר, כבודו של מעלה לומר כן, מדבר בינו לבין עצמו ומשה שומע מאליו:
“…speaking to him: Heb. מִדַּבֵּר. [This form] is [grammatically] the same as מִתְדַּבֵּר [the reflexive form, meaning] “speaking to himself.” It is out of reverence for the Most High to express it in this manner. [God] speaks to Himself, and Moses hears it spontaneously.”

One of Israel’s preeminent Judaic scholar and teachers, the late Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz, noted in response: “This not an acoustic event, in which a voice [or a sound, kol] reaches Moses, but rather a process within Moses’ consciousness, who… hears God speaking to Himself within Himself.” And he also points out that with this radical interpretation of the text, Rashi preempts Maimonides’ theory of prophecy by about two hundred years.

Indeed, the tabernacle is that sacred space within where a prophet can “hear” the voice of God. And we are all called to do that. Moses said, “Would that all of Y‑H‑V‑H’s people were prophets, and Y‑H‑V‑H put His spirit upon them.” (Numbers 11:29). We each are called to erect that sacred space, that Tent of the Meeting, within ourselves.

Thus, the construction of the Tabernacle can be seen as a meditative process. We create the sacred space within oneself through loosening our grip on our thoughts, loosening our grips on the inner noise, letting everything be and just BE—thereby giving that kol dmama daka, the “sound of subtle silence” (also known as “still small voice”) to be heard.

What a perfect subject of contemplation before Shavu’ot.

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Leibowitz points out that the only translator of the Bible who noted this grammatical form of middaber and translated correctly was Martin Luther. In his German Bible he translated it as “redend zu sich” (speaking to himself). Leibowitz wonders, could Luther have been familiar with Rashi?

And another German teacher, although much earlier than Luther, who understood God’s speech as an something that occurs within one’s consciousness was Meister Eckhart (1260 – 1327). See previous mention, on the commentaries of both Acharey Mot and Beshalach.