Rabbi David Etengoff
Dedicated to the sacred memories of my mother, Miriam Tovah bat Aharon Hakohen, father-in-law, Levi ben Yitzhak, sister-in-law, Ruchama Rivka Sondra bat Yechiel, sister, Shulamit bat Menachem, Yehonatan Binyamin ben Mordechai Meir Halevi, Shoshana Elka bat Avraham, Tikvah bat Rivka Perel, the Kedoshim of Har Nof and Pittsburgh, and the refuah shlaimah of Yakir Ephraim ben Rachel Devorah, Mordechai ben Miriam Tovah, and the safety of our brothers and sisters in Israel and around the world.
The Tanach contains a number of instances when Hashem or his malach (angel) calls to individuals and repeats their name within the same verse. For example, immediately prior to the Almighty’s command to Avraham to cease offering Yitzhak upon the altar (Akeidat Yitzhak), we find: “And an angel of G-d called to him from heaven and said, ‘Abraham! Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’” (Sefer Bereishit 22:11, this and all Tanach and Rashi translations, The Judaica Press Complete Tanach) In his Commentary on the Torah, Rashi (1040-1105), basing himself upon Tosefta Berachot I and Sifra Vayikra I, explains that this and, by extension, other cases wherein a name is reiterated, reflect Hashem’s love for the person that is so called.
In contrast, our parasha contains a pasuk (verse) that is outside the general rubric of name repetition: “And it came to pass when Moses descended from Mount Sinai, and the two tablets of the testimony were in Moses’ hand when he descended from the mountain, and Moses did not know that the skin of his face had become radiant while He had spoken with him.” (Sefer Shemot 34:29) This is by no means your classic case wherein Hashem summons people by repeating their names, since our verse is narrative and not dialogical in nature. In addition, this is the only verse in the five books of the Torah of which I am aware wherein a name is found three times. Taken in tandem, this suggests that Moshe’s name is not repeated because of Hashem’s love for him, but, rather, for some other significant reason.
In his Commentary on the Torah, the great Spanish exegete, Rabbi Don Yitzhak Abarbanel (1437-1508), addresses the issue of the three-fold repetition of Moshe’s name within our pasuk, and suggests two complementary reasons for this unusual formulation. Both of these focus upon the spiritual-physical change that Moshe underwent, as depicted in the conclusion of our verse, “and Moses did not know that the skin of his face had become radiant while He had spoken with him.” The Abarbanel notes that under normal conditions, one would have thought that Moshe’s transformation would have rendered him unrecognizable by the Jewish people. This, however, was not what emerged:
One ought not to think that as a result of the emanation of the brilliant Divine light the Jewish people were no longer able to recognize Moshe’s face. [Although] this lack of recognition takes place regarding an individual when their friend’s face changes because of a variety of reasons, this was most assuredly not the case regarding Moshe. Instead, the Jewish people perceived Moshe’s face as they always had done, and recognized that this was, indeed his face ─ even with the brilliant Divine light coming forth from him. (This and the following translation my own)
In my estimation, it was crucial for our ancestors to continue to identify Moshe’s face, as this would eliminate the dire possibility of their once again proclaiming, “Come on! Make us gods that will go before us, because this man Moses, who brought us up from the land of Egypt we don't know what has become of him” ─ as they had a mere two chapters earlier at the outset of the incident of the Eigel Hazahav (Golden Calf, Sefer Shemot 32:1). As such, in the mind of our forebears, Moshe remained the Moshe they had always known, and his, and their, continuity remained intact.
As we have seen, the Abarbanel’s first reason for the three times we find Moshe’s name in our pasuk reflects our ancestors ongoing ability to recognize that “Moshe was Moshe.” His second reason, once again focuses upon the brilliant Divine light that emanated from Moshe’s countenance, and teaches us about the singular nature of his prophetic experiences, and his unique manner of receiving Hashem’s Word:
And the second matter that is made known to us regarding Moshe, and the [mystical] activity of the Divine light emanating from his face, is that he neither sequestered nor removed himself from his four senses ─ unlike the actions of all the other prophets at the time of their prophetic experiences. We know this to be the case, since he, himself, after receiving the Word from Hashem, returned his own veil to his face. This demonstrates that he never ceased to be aware of his senses, and that [during his prophetic communications] he was totally awake in the same exact fashion as he had been prior to receiving his prophecy.
Given the Abarbanel’s trenchant analysis, we are now in an ideal position to briefly explore the exceptional elements of Moshe’s prophetic engagements. We are fortunate that the Rambam (Maimonides, 1135-1204) addressed precisely this topic in his classic work, Perush HaMishnah:
Moshe and his prophetic encounters were unique in the annals of Jewish history. As the Torah teaches us, “And there was no other prophet who arose in Israel like Moses, whom the L-rd knew face to face” (Sefer Devarim 34:10, underlining my own) While none of us are capable of achieving his exalted level, each of us can do our utmost to reach out to Hashem, and establish a meaningful connection with Him. With the Holy One’s chesed and rachamim (kindness and mercy) may this be so. V’chane yihi ratzon.
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