How to Make a Prophet

It’s not easy to make a prophet.  The Bible contains the writings of many prophets, people who believed they were conveying God’s will and words to the nation of Israel.  What qualities are required to make a prophet?  Passion?  Courage?  Zeal?  The burning desire to stand up for what is right?  By that standard we might consider Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. a modern day prophet, or Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.  How about Congressman John Lewis, who staged a sit-in on the floor of the House of Representatives in order to force Republicans to vote on and pass legislation that might curb gun violence.  We could name a great many people who have lived across the centuries and in recent times who had the personal qualities to become a prophet, if not in the strict sense of literally speaking for God then certainly in the broad sense of working to infuse our society with values and principles that lead to goodness, decency and peace.

This week’s Torah portion contains a story about two young men who wish to step into the role of prophet, and the kind of reception they receive to their efforts.

“A youth ran out and told Moses, saying, ‘Eldad and Medad are acting the prophet in the camp!’ And Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ attendant from his youth, spoke up and said, ‘My lord Moses, restrain them!’ But Moses said to him, ‘Are you wrought up on my account? Would that all God’s people were prophets, that the Lord put his spirit upon them!'” (Numbers 11:27-30)

The Talmud, in Tractate Sanhedrin, comments on the phrase “restrain them” by saying the following:

“Impose actual responsibilities for the needs of the community upon them, and they will become restrained of their own accord.” (Talmud, Sanhedrin 17A)

In other words, Eldad and Medad should be “restrained” from freely engaging in prophecy by having specific responsibilities for the community.  Their idealism, and perhaps criticism, would be balanced by reality.  By caring for the needs of the community, they would be focused on actually getting something done and less on articulating the ideal state of existence for people.  And while idealism and inspiration from the mouth of a prophet are important, actually getting something done is more important.

Rabbi Yoseph Shaul Nathanson, an 18th century Polish rabbi and Torah scholar, suggested that being a prophet requires an enduring commitment to making society better.  Commenting on the reference to Joshua as Moses’ attendant ‘from his youth’ Rabbi Nathanson writes:

“In earlier generations, before a man attained the status of ‘chasid’ he would undertake many labors and extraordinary efforts, enduring painful sacrifices and striving for self-refinement. Nowadays, one can become a rabbi overnight! Eldad and Medad were unknown figures before this, and now suddenly they are prophesying in the camp! It was for this reason that Joshua was angry. He had served Moses since his youth, and knew like no one else all the blood and soul that Moses had expended in his arduous efforts on behalf of the people, the extent of the sanctification and purification Moses had undergone in order to reach the status of prophet.”

Finally, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the greatest Orthodox Rabbi of his generation, writes that we each have the capacity to become a prophet, even a destiny waiting to be fulfilled.  In his classic book Halakhic Man he writes:

“The most exalted creation of all is the personality of the prophet. Each man is obligated to give new life to his own being by modeling his personality upon the image of the prophet; he must carry through his own self-creation until he actualizes the idea of prophecy … Prophecy is man’s ultimate goal, the end point of all his desires”

Prophecy is a mystifying and intriguing aspect of the Bible.  The people who assumed the role of prophets, while striving for the highest ideals of human behavior, were often scorned and ridiculed.  From this portion, we might learn that there is a need for prophecy, in some form, each generation.  We need people who have devoted their lives to making our world a place of goodness.  Rabbi Soloveitchik seems to believe that each of us has that capacity.  Are you up for the challenge?

No Shortcuts

We all ought to feel rage.  A despotic and hateful killer with a twisted religious ideology armed with an assault rifle murdered 49 people and injured scores more in a nightclub just because they were gay, and we should feel rage.  We can’t become numb to such incomprehensible violence just because it’s become all too frequent an occurrence in our country.  We can’t let the fact that it happened in another place, in another state hundreds of miles away, lull us into complacency, believing that it’s somebody else’s problem.  This indecent, ugly, violent act can’t recede into the recesses of our memories, forgetting about it until it happens again somewhere else.  We ought to feel rage.

But more than feeling rage, we ought to do something about it.  Without action, our rage is pointless.  We must do what we can to stem the tide of gun violence in our country.  We must do what we can to keep each other, and especially our children, safe and out of harm’s way.  That will mean taking political action, supporting elected representatives who support initiatives that will reduce gun violence and opposing those who do not.  That will mean supporting organizations like FaithsUnited, whose agenda is simple:  1) Require every gun buyer to pass a criminal background check, 2) Get military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines off our streets, and 3) Make gun trafficking a federal crime.  It will mean supporting organizations like Moms Demand Action, who promote an agenda of reducing gun violence and opposing the NRA’s reckless policy of promoting gun use everywhere.  It will mean writing to our senators and congress people to urge action on legislation before Congress, and supporting those elected officials who vote to reduce gun violence in our nation.  It will mean attending rallies, circulating petitions, and raising money to get the word out.

And lest anybody think that religious institutions can’t be “political,” that synagogues have to talk only about the Torah and not get involved in matters that affect our community, think again.  Faith communities have an obligation to speak out when violence and crime, racism and anti-gay bigotry seep into our community.  We won’t campaign or against specific candidates in an election year (the IRS would have something to say about that), but we can—no, we MUST—take a position on issues that affect the safety and well-being of our nation and our citizens and our children.  If we don’t speak out against violence and bigotry and hate, then who will?  I was so proud that so many Oheb Shalom members attended the vigil in support of the victims of the Orlando Massacre earlier this week.  Now we must translate that rage and shock into meaningful action.

In this week’s parasha, we read that the Kohatites, a tribal clan, were charged with carrying the most sacred objects of the Tabernacle, including the Ark and the Menorah, around the desert on their shoulders using poles.  Other tribal clans carried supplies with carts pulled by oxen.  Why did the Kohatites have to carry the most holy objects on their shoulders?  Because when it comes to something truly special, something truly important, there are no shortcuts.  There are no easy ways around doing a truly important task.

We face a truly important, crucial, life enhancing task—the prevention of gun violence—and there are no shortcuts to getting the job done.  Like the Kohatites did with the Ark of the Covenant, we must carry this task on our shoulders, exert energy, and invest time and resources to make it happen.  Prayers and vigils will not suffice…we must act now with commitment and a sense of purpose and with dedication, for no shortcut will enable us to do what must be done to keep us all safe.

We All Count

It’s a presidential election year, which prompts intriguing questions about whether or not a single vote counts in an election where more than 125 million people vote.  We vote because it’s our constitutional right and our democratic duty, though not necessarily because we think our vote will tip the balance in any given election (though a handful of Floridians could have had an impact on the result in the 2000 presidential election).

This year’s election may present additional compelling reasons to highlight the importance of a single vote, namely that every person possesses an inherent dignity and a voice that deserves to be heard.  Every person matters, every person counts.

It seems that throughout the primary season we’ve heard, from certain candidates, a lot about what’s wrong with other people.  A demeaning, racist, misogynistic pall has fall over the election.  Of course, all elections include attack ads and negative tones, and some are worse than others.  But this election season has caused us to confront issues of bias, profiling and discrimination in a way that we’ve never seen before.  And it’s ugly.

So I take comfort in the teachings of the Torah, especially the portion that we read this week, Bemidbar, the first portion of the fourth book of the Torah.  The Hebrew name of the book, Bemidbar, means “desert,” which tells us that the setting for the book is in the desert, but its English name, Numbers, reveals that a major theme of the book is counting.  The Israelites are counted by means of a census more than once.

Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head. (Bemidbar 1:2)

 The commentators take note of the last phrase in the verse cited here, “head by head,” and wonder if it means that the Israelites are counted like any other commodity is counted, one by one, without regard for its individuality.  The 15th century Spanish scholar Don Isaac Abravanel writes that the verse seems to contradict the method for counting people that we find in the Book of Exodus, which calls on each person to deposit a half-shekel coin in a box, after which the coins, not the people, are counted.

Another Spanish scholar suggests that the verse in our parasha in face teaches that each person matters.  He cites that the verse specifically calls for each person to be counted “by name” as evidence that each person matters.

They were not just like animals or material objects, but each one had an importance of his own, like a king or priest, and indeed God had shown special love towards them and this is the significance of mentioning each one of them by name and status, for they were all equal and individual in status.  (Rabbi Isaac Arama, 1420-1494)

Every person counts, every person matters.  What doesn’t matter is race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, or economic status.  By nature, no single person is inherently better or more deserving than anothe.   We all get one vote, and our votes count equally in an election.

That’s a crucial point to keep in mind when we read this week’s Torah portion, when we watch the candidates for president as they campaign, and when we vote this fall.

Shabbat Shalom.

I hope that you will join me for our annual Tikun Leyl Shavuot (Night of Torah Study) as we begin this year’s celebration of Shavuot on Saturday night at 9:00 PM here at Oheb Shalom.  There will be a campfire (bring a lawn chair, a blanket and a flashlight if you can) and a discussion about what the Book of Ruth teaches us about the current refugee crisis.  The evening should conclude just after 10:00 PM.

City of Peace

In just a few days, the Jewish world will celebrate Yom Yerushalayim, the anniversary of the reunification of the City of Jerusalem. Almost 50 years ago, near the end of the Six Day War, soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces entered the Old City and stood at the Kotel, the Western Wall, where they prayed and wept and sang songs of joy. A city, once divided, was once again whole and open to be explored and enjoyed.

I never tire of being in Jerusalem, more than any other city or town in Israel or anywhere in the world. There is a quiet beauty, an unspoken majesty that is also humble. There is a sense one feels when walking the streets of Jerusalem that the city holds secrets within each stone, that there are stories to be told at each turn of the road, that every corner looks unexplored and is beckoning to be discovered. Jerusalem holds the history of our people from the beginning of our time in this world to this very moment. It is ever changing and modernizing, yet seems to exist serenely blending together the old and the new. Jerusalem is as breathtaking as any place in the world, yet feels like home.

Jerusalem lies at the heart of Jewish consciousness. Its name though, while it triggers beautiful associations and is uttered countless times in prayer and poetry, enters the Jewish lexicon in an unassuming way. Scholars believe that Yerushalayim probably originated as Uru Shalmanu, “our God lives here” in an ancient Semitic language. The voice of the Midrash, waxing nostalgic and hopeful, innovated the popular idea that the name Yerushalayim has its roots in Ir Shalom, or City of Peace. We, their descendants, echo their prayers for peace in the city that we love.

But what does the word Shalom actually mean? In popular Hebrew parlance, Shalom is a greeting that is usually understood as “peace.” But there’s another way to understand Shalom, not as peace or the absence of conflict, but as everything being in its proper place. Shalom is God’s vision of a world where everyone and everything is where it’s supposed to be. If that is the case, then the opposite of Shalom is not war but Galut, exile, scattering. Galut is not a geographical concept, it’s a psychological one. When people or things are out of place, when their lives are out of order, when people are unable to fulfill their potential or live lives of dignity, then there is no Shalom.

Sha’alu Sh’lom Yerushalayim…pray for the peace of Jerusalem, the psalms tell us. On this Yom Yerushalayim, let us pray for shalom, for a world in which everyone and everything is in its proper place, both physically and spiritually. Let us resolve to do what we can to make that happen.