Commentators have often wondered why the Torah makes use of several expressions when discussing prophecy. Two main expressions used are “Zeh Hadavar,” “This is the word,” and “Koh Amar Hashem,” “Thus says God.” We find an example of the first case in Bamidbar (30.2), where the Torah states the laws related to making a vow. “And Moshe spoke to the heads of the tribes of the children of Israel and said, ‘This is the word that God has commanded, if a man makes a vow…'” An example of the second case is in Shemoth (11.4). There Moshe informs the people of Israel that God will soon take them out of Egypt, “Thus says the Lord, ‘About midnight I will go out into the midst of Egypt.'”
When discussing the second case, Rashi makes the following comment:
Moshe prophesied with ‘Koh Amar Hashem’ ‘Thus says God’ and the prophets prophesied with ‘Koh Amar Hashem.’ Moshe, however, added (another kind of prophecy) with the words, ‘Zeh Hadavar,’ ‘This is the word.’
Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrachi (1440-1525), in his classic commentary on Rashi, explains that this relates to the difference between Moshe’s prophecy and that of the other prophets. He hints to the famous Talmudic observation that the prophets prophesied “be’aspeklaria she’ena me’ira” via an unclear glass, meaning that they were only able to receive prophecy while in a trance, in a dream or asleep. Moshe, however, was able to receive prophecy at any time, even when he was awake, and it was as if nothing stood between him and God, i.e. “be’aspeklaria sheme’ira,” “through a clear glass.” In that case, the expression, “Koh amar,” would mean “So says God,” as an example of prophecy revealed through “an unclear glass” as in the case of the other prophets. Commentators make the point that such a prophecy does not have to include the literal word by word repetition of the divine prophecy, and, therefore, it says, “Koh Amar Hashem” “This is about what God said,” while “Zeh Hadavar” means “This is the exact word,” a literal, word by word conveyance of God’s word. (1) Based on this principle one could argue that before Moshe received the Torah he prophesied on the level of all other prophets (“Koh Amar Hashem”), but once he spoke with God “in person” on Sinai, his prophecy became of a higher quality, and he started to prophesize with “Zeh Hadavar” “This is the exact word.”
Maharal, (2) however, makes the correct observation that we find cases where Moshe prophesied with “Koh Amar” even after the Sinai revelation. In that case, the earlier distinction can not be justified. Consequently, Maharal suggests another differentiation, which touches on the very nature of the Torah and its supreme prophecy.
There are two kinds of prophecy: One is of a temporary nature, and one is of an eternal nature. When Moshe tells the people that God said that He would take the Israelites out of Egypt, this is of a temporary nature. In that case the words, “Koh Amar Hashem,” “So says God,” are sufficient. But when God reveals His will in the form of mitzvoth, commandments, these are of an eternal nature, and therefore require a different and more direct expression, “Zeh Hadavar,” i.e. “This is the word (forever and therefore eternal).”
Maharal, with his usual profundity, states that such a distinction is of great significance. The first kind of prophecy is one of change, for instance, our case, where Moshe tells the Israelites that God will bring about a change and take them out of Egypt. This is a finite affair and belongs to the world of time and space, since change is a function of the physical. The second case of prophecy, the revelation of mitzvoth, is, however, not rooted in finitude. The mitzvoth are the result of the world of eternity touching on the physical without becoming part of it. As such, they have no part in the physical world; they only have an influence on this world. Therefore, they are introduced with “Zeh Hadavar,” “This is the unchangeable eternal word.”
Because of this explanation Maharal is able to respond to a fundamental question. Why was God not willing to give the Torah to the Avoth, the Fathers, Avraham, Yitschak and Yaacov? If, indeed, the Torah is of such profound meaning, why hold it back for so many generations?
Following the earlier observations, the matter becomes crystal clear. One cannot give something eternal to that which is finite. As long as Jews are individuals (like Avraham, Yitschak and Yaacov) who are mortal they cannot receive the Torah. Their finitude makes this impossible. Only after the Jews left Egypt and turned into a chosen and religiously distinct nation they became eternal, and only then were they able to receive the Torah of eternity.
(1) See, however, Haemek Davar of Neziv, who rejects this interpretation (ad loc).
(2) Gur Aryeh (ad loc).