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This parsha strikes me as an opportunity to think a little bit about prophecy. Prophecy plays such a central role in Judaism that it can be, ironically, easy to overlook. Our entire religious tradition is based on the prophetic experiences of our ancestors as recorded in the Torah. We’re familiar with the prophets, the speakers of prophecy, and with prophecies, the content of their statements. But what can we actually say about the institution of prophecy itself?
We might say that a prophet is someone to whom God speaks. In a certain sense, this is true. When we are first introduced to Moses he is an infant. Flash forward a number of years, and he is a young man enraged at the mistreatment of a Hebrew slave, then a husband and sheepherder in the land of Midian. Only after he hears the word of God calling from the burning bush–”Moses! Moses!”–does his career as a prophet truly begin. And yet, as the rabbis remarked, he was Moses before God had spoken to him, and Moses after God had spoken to him. Might we perhaps regard his slaying of the Egyptian overseer, as well as rising to the defense of Jethro’s daughters at the well, as prophetic acts?
At its most basic level, prophecy is about the right to speak, to innovate, to have one’s words and actions carry authority. For our tradition prophecy represents the wellspring of religious inspiration, the impassioned word that shakes up the status quo in the name of God’s moral imperative and establishes a new order, a new understanding, a new way of doing things. How people have understood this creative impulse has changed over the generations, as has our understanding of who has the right to speak prophetically and under what conditions. Nevertheless the impulse–in one form or another–has been with us throughout history and, I would argue, is with us still today. It is the constant companion of the Jewish people, the itch that refuses to allow us to rest comfortably while there is injustice in the world.
There’s an episode in chapter 11 of this week’s Torah portion where Moses, frustrated as usual by the people’s complaints, complains bitterly to God about the burden of leading such a difficult, intractable people. God responds by commanding Moses to gather together seventy elders “of whom you have experience as elders and officers of the people.” (11:16) These elders will have a portion of the prophetic spirit which Moses enjoys placed upon them, so that they can share in the burden of the people with him. Moses does as God commands, and as the Torah puts it, the elders “spoke in ecstasy, but did not continue.” (11:25)
Meanwhile, back in the camp, two men named Eldad and Medad have not joined the other elders with Moses at the mishkan. Nevertheless, they too begin to prophecy, and this fact is reported to Moses. Joshua, who serves as Moses’ attendant, protests that he should put a stop to this, presumably indignant that prophecy should be “springing up wild,” as it were, among the people, outside of the carefully orchestrated transfer of authority taking place at the tent of meeting. Moses, however, tells Joshua to be still. “Are you wrought up on my account?” he says, “Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD put his spirit on them!” (11:29) And nothing much more is said of the matter.
The lesson I take from this episode is that although the broad sweep of the narrative we find in Torah is linear, focusing on a successive chain of great leaders with uniquely powerful connections to God, whose struggles and triumphs shape us and our relationship of God to this day, we should not assume that everything that can be said about and in the name of God must come from the mouth of a Moses or an Isaiah. Even in the time of Moses, the greatest of the prophets, there were things God wanted the people to understand that God apparently felt were better communicated by other mouths than his.
According to one source in the Talmud, after the deaths of the last prophets recorded in the Tanakh, the holy spirit–that is, the genius for prophecy–departed from Israel. Some connect this with the destruction of the second Temple. According to this narrative, out of all the world only the Temple at Jerusalem was considered a worthy resting place for the divine Presence, and until it is rebuilt in the messianic age we remain cut off from the powerful experience of God that prophecy represents.
Personally, I take more comfort from a statement recorded of R. Avdini of Haifa, who said, “Ever since the Temple was destroyed, prophecy was taken from the prophets and given to the sages.” I think we can interpret this statement to mean that in some small way the prophetic impulse is present in anyone willing to look at the world with eyes eager to better understand what God asks of us. Can any of us ever be a Moses or an Isaiah? Of course not, but neither do we need to. They had their own extraordinary tasks to achieve, and we reap the benefits of their encounters with God to this day. But neither should we ever deny ourselves the authority to speak, to broaden and deepen in whatever way we can the understanding of those who came before.