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?

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