Parshat Shoftim and the Role of Prophesy


By Frank Kurtz

Parshat Shoftim opens with passages that have a constitutional message. Tzedek tzedek tirdof – justice justice shall you pursue – works like a kind of preamble to set the tone of a sustainable civil society. Moshe is instructing his descendants how to set up governing structures that replace his personal authority and maintain adherence to Torah and the mitzvot. There are four elements to this governing system:

First, shoftim v’shotrim, magistrates and officials, who are tasked with upholding the law and administering it with fairness and impartiality.

Second, the possibility (but not requirement) of a king, who is to be chosen through divine intercession from among the Israelites and who is enjoined to be knowledgeable of Torah and who must avoid excess opulence and unbridled power over the people.

Third, a hereditary clergy consisting of the Kohanim (descended – I maintain – from an Egyptian priestly caste) and their acolytes from the tribe of Levi; these priests are prohibited from controlling land unlike their Egyptian forebears, but must subsist from the sacrificial system supported by the participation of all Israelites.

Fourth is the most intriguing group of all, the prophets. Moshe specifically announces the emergence of the prophetic tradition after first listing a series of prohibitions. Occult practices of all kinds are outlawed: witchcraft, sorcery, augering the future, and anyone who “consigns his son or daughter to the fire” by way of sacrifice or propitiation. Once we know what a prophet is NOT, Moshe models the Israelite prophets to himself. He recalls that the people fled in the face of divine revelation and asked Moshe to be the intermediary, to deliver the divine message through his own words. He also states that the prophet will be chosen by G-d and will deliver messages that are always true, implying that anyone who becomes a self-selected prophet will inevitably deliver a false message, which is how we should know the difference.

The prophetic tradition as we experience in Judaism grew and developed into a major component of our scriptures and moral foundation. Of the four sections of governance enumerated by Moshe, two (the judges and the sovereign) have been subsumed into the general community, and the hereditary clergy was bypassed by the destruction of the Temple. There is little that they said and did that influences us today or how we live our lives. The prophets, however, became timeless because of the words they left behind and the wisdom that underlies much of what they said. Who were these people? What impelled them to do what they did? Why do we venerate them by including their words and stories week after week after reading from the Torah itself?

In the words of Encyclopedia Judaica, “The institution of prophecy is founded on the basic premise that God makes his will known to chosen individuals in successive generations. A prophet is a charismatic individual endowed with the divine gift of both receiving and imparting the message of revelation. As the spokesman for the deity, he does not choose his profession but is chosen, often against his own will, to convey the word of God to his people regardless of whether or not they wish to hear it.”

In the Tanakh, we read of prophets railing against immorality and idolatry, chastising rulers for their misdeeds, predicting the demise of the Israelite kingdoms as a result of their shortcomings and the machinations of regional superpowers, and providing support and encouragement after the trauma of destruction and exile leading to a new commonwealth and a firmer commitment to the monotheistic Israelite deity. Often their words call us to our better nature in soaring poetic language. At no time is this more the case than the High Holy Days we celebrate in a few weeks. On the second day of Rosh Hashanah we hear the comforting words of Jeremiah:

“…thus said Adonai: Cry out in joy for Jacob, shout at the crossroads of the nations! Sing aloud in praise, and say: Save, O Adonai, your people, the remnant of Israel. I will bring them in from the northland, gather them from the ends of the earth – the blind and the lame among them, those with child and those in labor – in a vast throng they shall return here. They shall come with weeping, and with compassion will I guide them. I will lead them to streams of water, by a level road where they will not stumble. For I am ever a Father to Israel, Ephraim is my first-born.”

On Yom Kippur we hear the admonition of Isaiah:

“Declare to my people their transgression, to the House of Jacob their sin. To be sure they seek me daily, eager to learn my ways. Like a nation that does what is right, that has not abandoned the laws of its God, they ask me for the right way, they are eager for the nearness of God: Why, when we fasted, did you not see? When we starved our bodies, did you pay no heed? Because on your fast day you see to your business and oppress all your laborers! Because you fast in strife and contension, and you strike with a wicked fist! Your fasting today is not such as to make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast I desire, a day for people to starve their bodies? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush and laying in sackcloth and ashes? …No, this is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke and let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe them, and do not ignore your own flesh…then shall your light shine in darkness, and your gloom shall be like noonday.”

Jeremiah and Isaiah are among what scholars term the “classical prophets”, – along with Ezekiel they are the “major” prophets, plus the 12 minor prophets – those whose written legacy is what has resounded throughout Jewish history. The classical prophets are characterized as loners, proclaiming their visions and oracles from a place of singular distinction rather than as closely integrated members of their communities. The stories of the “pre-classical” prophets are also compelling. Although they left no canonical books, we know of them through third-person narratives in the books of Samuel and Kings. Most reknowned among them was Elijah, battling with the priests of Baal, performing miracles, predicting the coming of the Messiah, and rising up to heaven in a chariot of fire. We remember Balaam, a non-Israelite who nontheless invokes the Israelite deity as he blesses the tents of Jacob despite his nefarious motive. There are a couple of others worth mentioning.

As related by Shimon Bakon, Nathan the prophet was an adviser to King David and a key supporter of Solomon in his successful quest to succeed David. His brother Joel was one of The Thirty, an elite group in King David’s army. David told Nathan that he was unhappy with the fact that he lived in a mansion of cedar, while the Ark of the Covenant was in a tent, surrounded only by curtains. Nathan’s first reaction was to tell David to do whatever was in his mind because God was with him; however, that same night, God appeared to Nathan in a vision and told him to say to David that his son would be the one to build the Temple, not David.

After David sent Uriah to his death and hastily married his pregnant widow Bathsheba, Nathan came to David and told him a parable of a rich man who owned many sheep but took his poor neighbor’s lamb and cooked it to honor a traveler. David, not understanding the allusion, became angry and threatened to punish the rich man for his lack of pity. Nathan told him (2 Samuel 12:7): “That man is you!” David then recognized that he had sinned. Nathan told him that he would not die, but the baby would. The baby became seriously ill and died. Later, Bathsheba gave birth to another son, whom they called Solomon.

David grew old, and the succession to the throne, after the death of Amnon and Absalom, was disputed between Adonijah, the eldest remaining son, and Solomon son of Bathsheba. Joab, the commander of the army, and Abiathar the Priest supported Adonijah, whereas Nathan, the priest Zadok, Benaiah, and other powerful men wanted Solomon to be king.

Nathan, realizing that Adonijah was getting the upper hand, instructed Bathsheba to go to the aged and ailing king and say to him, “Did not you, O lord king, swear to your maidservant: ‘Your son Solomon shall succeed me as king, and he shall sit upon my throne’? Then why has Adonijah become king (1 Kings 1:13)?” Nathan added that while she was talking with the king he would come in and confirm her words. Their ploy succeeded, and David commanded Nathan and Zadok to take Solomon on the royal mule to the spring of Gihon and anoint him king.

After the death of David, Solomon placed the sons of Nathan in high positions: Azariah was in charge of the officials responsible for the 12 tax districts, and Zabud became the trusted adviser of the king.

Another presence in our prophetic stories is Elisha, a protoge of Elijah, another political operative and miracle worker who could cure barren women and bring the dead back to life, sometimes called “Ish Elohim”, a man of G-d. The Book of Kings held Elisha in high regard. The true prophet, the messenger of God, wields spiritual authority far above those who have worldly power. It was a young Israelite girl, captured by roving Aramean bands and brought into the household of Naaman, who was responsible for spreading the fame of Elisha beyond the borders of Israel. Naaman suffered from leprosy, and in her naiveté this young girl told her mistress I wish master could come before the prophet in Samaria, he could cure him of it’ (II Kg. 5:3). Naaman informed his King, who promptly dispatched him with a letter to the King of Israel, stating: ‘When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent my courtier Naaman to you, that you may cure him of his leprosy’ (5:6). When the King of Israel read it he rent his clothes, fearing that the King of Aram was seeking a pretext against him. On hearing about it, Elisha sent a message to the King requesting that Naaman ‘come to me, so he will learn that there is a prophet in Israel’ (5:8).

Thereupon, Naaman came with horses and chariots to the house of Elisha who, instead of welcoming him, informed him by a messenger to go and bathe seven times in the Jordan River. Naaman, who had expected a mighty spectacle by the prophet and the use of magic, and probably annoyed by the standoffish attitude of Elisha, stalked off in a rage. It was only upon the urging of his servants that he did what Elisha had bidden him to do, and was cured. Elated, and a changed man, Naaman returned with his entire retinue to Elisha, acknowledging that ‘there is no God in the whole world except in Israel’ (5:15). This episode, briefly told and masterfully written, contains three layers of significance, not specifically recorded, but left to the imaginative interpretation of the reader. First, we again note Elisha maintaining the proud stance of the prophet and man of God who towers above men holding worldly power. The second has religious implications. It is the second instance of conversion recorded in the Bible, the first being that of Ruth the Moabite. Elisha, a true prophet in Israel, must have indicated that Naaman’s cure was not accomplished by magic but by the power of G-d. This sanctifying the Name resulted in Naaman’s encomium to the G-d of Israel and his conversion. Finally, this episode served as a stepping stone in Elisha’s rise to fame, enabling him as “kingmaker” to implement his innermost strivings, to eliminate Baal-worship in Israel.

Elisha was an uncompromising loyalist of  G-d, who would wage a relentless war against Baal. Ahab, under the influence of his wife Jezebel, a Phoenician princess, had erected an altar to Baal in a temple he built in Samaria. So deeply imbedded was this idol-worship in the House of Omri that Ahaziah, son of Ahab, mortally injured when he fell through a lattice of his upper chamber, sent messengers to inquire of Baal-zebub (the infamous Beelzebub), god of Ekron, whether he would recover. Elisha fully understood that this was not the proper approach. To eliminate Baal, one had to go to the very source of this evil and root out those responsible for importing this idolatry. Jehu’s military coup, described most dramatically in II Kings 9-10, was successful with Elisha as a co-conspirator. In a bloody and ruthless campaign, which led to throwing the hated Jezebel from a window to her death, Elisha not only eradicated the House of Omri, but also the “Baal of Israel.”

According to André Malraux, “The strength of the prophets of Israel lay in the fact that they proclaimed the Truth when everything was against it.” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel agrees with this notion and casts the prophet not as an intellectual, but as a sensitive soul, a soul so sensitive that he hears the “silent sigh from on high.” So there is a question we need to ask: after the time of the biblical prophets, has prophecy disappeared from the world? A baraita in the Talmud states that the post exilic prophecies of Zecharia and Malachi demarcate an end to this phenomenon in Judaism. And this is a critical issue. In order for our tradition – or any tradition for that matter – to venerate the words of one or more prophets, it is essential to believe that there are no more recent prophecies that we have to take into consideration. After all, a more contemporary prophet might contradict something a previous prophet said, thereby throwing our belief system into disarray. Would Christians accept a messianic savior after Jesus? Would Muslims accept a great prophet after Muhammad? There may be saints, scholars, tzaddikim, various exemplary human beings who advance our knowledge and awareness of our values and beliefs, but none of them are allowed to speak to us in G-d’s name directly as a result of their own experiences, that is, separately and distinctly from experiences that we have collectively or that are potentially accessible to all of us.

I took Muni to my former job at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, which is located near the intersection of Market Street and Van Ness Avenue. Each morning, as I came up from the Van Ness Muni station, I observed as often as not someone in the throes of untreated mental illness. It is evident that there are many people on our streets who are tormented by thoughts and voices over which they have no control, which is making their lives an unrelenting anguish. How are the voices in their heads different from the visions and fantastic imagery of Ezekiel or Jeremiah? That is something we can never know, but it does teach us that our connection to divine revelation is related to our own frailities and limitations. If we accept the notion that there are no more prophets to supercede those whose words and oracles we believe in, we can nevertheless have compassion toward these unfortunate inviduals hearing those voices and create a community where they can attain a level of comfort and acceptance and make their lives more bearable and less destructive. Who knows whether what they might have to say to us has real relevance? There might even be a book in the offing that will be a source of reverence in another two thousand years.