“Va-y’hi b’yom kalot Moshe l’hakim et ha-mish’kan – On the day that Moses finished setting up the Tabernacle, he anointed and consecrated it and all its furnishings ….” (Numbers 7:1)
This final chapter of Parashat Naso then lists in detail the names of the tribes and their offerings, concluding in verse 89:
“When Moses went into the Tent of Meeting to speak with Him, he [Moses] would hear the Voice addressing him from above the cover that was on top of the Ark of the Pact between the two cherubim; thus He (God) spoke to him (Moses).”
All seems straightforward enough, but there’s an odd grammatical irregularity involving a single “dot” (called a dagesh) in one of the letters in one of the words in this final verse that doesn’t seem to belong.
The verb l’dabeir (Hebrew root – daled-bet-resh – “to speak”) appears three times in this verse:
“When Moses went into the Tent of Meeting to speak (L’da-beir) with Him [God], he [Moses] would hear the Voice addressing him (m’da-beir) from above the cover that was on top of the Ark of the Pact between the two cherubim [winged angels]; thus He (God) spoke (va-y’da-beir) to him (Moses).”
Grammarians teach that the verb “l’da-beir – to speak” is a piel construction. Every piel verb includes a dagesh (a dot) in the middle letter of the three-letter Hebrew root sometimes changing the sound of the letter and sometimes not – in this case the dagesh changes the vet to a bet. However, the verb m’da-beir as it appears here has two dageshim, one where we expect it (in the middle letter bet) and the other in the first letter of the three-letter root, daled, where we do NOT expect to see it.
A little thing; an insignificant thing not worth worrying about! Right!?
Not so fast. There are twenty such occurrences in the Hebrew Bible of a dagesh appearing in the first letter where it doesn’t normally belong, and in six of those times the dagesh is in this particular verb – daled-bet-resh. (Genesis 32:29, Exodus 34:33, 1 Samuel 25:17, 2 Samuel 14:13, and Psalms 34:14; 52:5. I am grateful to Rabbi Michael Curasick who pointed this out.)
What does this dagesh-dot indicate in our verse – m’da-beir? That’s the question, and as you will soon see, that little dot changes the meaning of the verse itself and shines a theological light on what might have really taken place between God and Moses in the Tent of Meeting.
Abraham ibn Ezra (11th century Spain) and Rashi (11th century France) both conclude that this verb m’da-beir is not in the piel verbal construction at all, but rather is a hit’pa-el verb, and so the dagesh in the first letter daled isn’t an emphasis mark but rather stands in for a missing letter – tav – making the original word not m’da-beir, but mit’da-beir.
Piel verbs tend to be active and intensive verbs – hit’pa-el verbs tend to be reflexive. If Ibn Ezra and Rashi are right, and it makes sense that they are given the twenty other occasions where this occurs and the special relationship between God and Moses, our verse doesn’t mean that “[God’s] voice spoke (m’da-beir) to Moses …” but rather “God was speaking to Himself and Moses overheard.” (Rashi)
Rabbi Bachya ben Asher (13th century Spain) explains further that God intended that the words He spoke in the tent of meeting were meant only for Moses to overhear, and that no one else, not Aaron, not any of the tribal chieftains could do so, thus demonstrating “the enormous spiritual stature of Moses compared to all other subsequent prophets…that Moses had attained the ultimate level of spirituality that is possible for a human being to attain while alive on earth.” (Rabbeinu Bachya, translated by Eliahu Munk, vol. 6, p. 1955)
Everett Fox (The Five Books of Moses – The Schocken Bible, Volume 1, p. 695) translates m’da-beir as a “voice continually-speaking,” as though Moses walked into the Tent and the radio was on all day long.
There are several lessons here for us?
First, none of us is a Moses, and whether or not we can hear God’s voice or not is irrelevant to the truth that God is “continually-speaking” not only in the Tent of Meeting, but everywhere.
Second, it is consequently upon us to strive always to evolve spiritually, to attune ourselves intently to every sound around us, however slight, to listen carefully for God’s voice in the multiplicity of ways that are possible, as well as to our own inner voice and to the voices of others.
And finally, hearing ourselves and hearing each other more acutely may be the path for us to be able to hear God’s voice too. After all, does not God’s voice speak through each one of us?