When Moses went into the Tent of Meeting to speak with Him, he 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 spoke to him.
The JPS editorial committee made an interesting choice here. The nature of Hebrew is such that it can be difficult to discern to whom different pronouns and pronominal suffixes are referring. Their translation of the text renders it to mean that when Moses spoke to G”d, Moses would hear G”d’s voice from above the ark between the two angel figurines, thus G”d spoke to Moses.
However, it could be the other way around. The final part of the verse could be read this he (Moses) spoke to Him (G”d.) It is already clear from all that has transpired in the Torah that sometimes conversations with G”d are two-way,and sometimes one-way (and one-way can be in either direction.)
So why does the JPS editorial committee assume the meaning of “thus He (G”d) spoke to him (Moses)” ? There’s certainly theological support for their choice. We’ve already learned that exposure to G”d’s voice can be overwhelming, so perhaps this setup exists to focus G”d’s voice narrowly to the person being addressed (i.e. Moses.) Yet why might it not serve the same purpose in reverse-to focus Moses’ voice to G”d ? After all, it took 400 years for G”d to awaken to the cries of Israel enslaved in Egypt. Maybe this is a sort of megaphone? Actually, that’s a nice metaphor. For Moses, it amplifies and spreads out his voice. G”d voice is narrowed and focused, speaking into the other end. Seems just the right thing.
It’s amusing to imagine this communication system as a device often found in science fiction and fanatasy – the equivalent of the viewscreen, maybe even a holographic projector. While the Torah only specifically mentions audio content, is this perhaps an artifact of the time period, when the idea of visual communication at a distance was not really something thought about (although, in a sense, dreams and visions are just that!)
So, if there was also video content, what, exactly would Moses have seen? Are we in a Wizard-of_Oz-ish “pay no attention to the man behind the screen” situation? Maybe Moses just saw patterns, or an energy cloud, or some other imagery oft imagined in science fiction. Or maybe it was just a one way visual (but then, would G”d really need that?)
Perhaps we need to re-imagine “Raiders of the Lost Ark” with the ark having some sort of Star Trek/Star Wars/Stargate/Blade Runner communication display that appears between the cherubim. Hitler wanted the ark for its unlimited power, according to the movie. So instead, with our new scenario, ask yourself: about what would Hitler want to have a conversation with G”d? Would G”d even answer? (Maybe G”d has switched carriers since then?) For that matter, what gave the writers of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” the crazy idea that G”d’s power through the ark of the covenant would even work for Hitler and his minions? That is, however, a very Jewish take on things. It’s very rabbinic to understand that something created for good could also have its power wielded for evil.
In the end, we’re still left with my original questions: why it is assumed that the communication via the ark was one way from G”d to Moses, and why is such a communication device necessary? I have no answers, only crazy notions like those I’ve shared here. Once again, the Torah has done its job, creating a puzzle for us in which we can delight.
©2010 by Adrian A. Durlester