Shoftim - 22nd August 2009 - 2nd Elul 5769
In his enumeration of the various leadership roles within the nation that would take shape after his death, Moses mentions not only the priest/judge and king but also the prophet:
“The Lord your G-d will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him.”
Moses would not be the last of the prophets. He would have successors. Historically this was so. From the days of Samuel to the Second Temple period, each generation gave rise to men - and sometimes women - who spoke G-d's word with immense courage, unafraid to censure kings, criticize priests, or rebuke an entire generation for its lack of faith and moral integrity.
There was, however, an obvious question: How does one tell a true prophet from a false one? Unlike kings or priests, prophets did not derive authority from formal office. Their authority lay in their personality, their ability to give voice to the word of G-d, their self-evident inspiration. But precisely because a prophet has privileged access to the word others cannot hear, the visions others cannot see, the real possibility existed of false prophets - like those of Baal in the days of King Ahab. Charismatic authority is inherently destabilizing. What was there to prevent a fraudulent, or even a sincere but mistaken, figure, able to perform signs and wonders and move the people by the power of his words, from taking the nation in a wrong direction, misleading others and perhaps even himself?
There are several dimensions to this question. One in particular is touched on in our sedra, namely the prophet's ability to foretell the future. This is how Moses puts it:
You may say to yourselves, "How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the Lord?" If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him.
On the face of it, the test is simple: if what the prophet predicts comes to pass, he is a true prophet; if not, not. Clearly, though, it was not that simple.
The classic case is the Book of Jonah. Jonah is commanded by G-d to warn the people of Nineveh that their wickedness is about to bring disaster on them. Jonah attempts to flee, but fails - the famous story of the sea, the storm, and the "great fish". Eventually he goes to Nineveh and utters the words G-d has commanded him to say - "Forty more days and Nineveh will be destroyed" - the people repent and the city is spared. Jonah, however, is deeply dissatisfied:
But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. He prayed to the Lord, "O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate G-d, slow to anger and abounding in love, a G-d who relents from sending calamity. Now, O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live." (Jonah 4: 1-3)
Jonah's complaint can be understood in two ways. First, he was distressed that G-d had forgiven the people. They were, after all, wicked. They deserved to be punished. Why then did a mere change of heart release them from the punishment that was their due?
Second, he had been made to look a fool. He had told them that in forty days the city would be destroyed. It was not. G-d's mercy made nonsense of his prediction.
Jonah is wrong to be displeased: that much is clear. G-d says, in the rhetorical question with which the book concludes: "Should I not be concerned about that great city?" Should I not be merciful? Should I not forgive? What then becomes of the criterion Moses lays down for distinguishing between a true and false prophet: "If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken"? Jonah had proclaimed that the city would be destroyed in forty days. It wasn't; yet the proclamation was true. He really did speak the word of G-d. How can this be so?
The answer is given in the book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah had been prophesying national disaster. The people had drifted from their religious vocation, and the result would be defeat and exile. It was a difficult and demoralizing message for people to hear. A false prophet arose, Hananiah son of Azzur, preaching the opposite. Babylon, Israel's enemy, would soon be defeated. Within two years the crisis would be over. Jeremiah knew that it was not so, and that Hananiah was telling the people what they wanted to hear, not what they needed to hear. He addressed the assembled people:
He said, "Amen! May the Lord do so! May the Lord fulfill the words you have prophesied by bringing the articles of the Lord's house and all the exiles back to this place from Babylon. Nevertheless, listen to what I have to say in your hearing and in the hearing of all the people: From early times the prophets who preceded you and me have prophesied war, disaster and plague against many countries and great kingdoms. But the prophet who prophesies peace will be recognized as one truly sent by the Lord only if his prediction comes true."
Jeremiah makes a fundamental distinction between good news and bad. It is easy to prophesy disaster. If the prophecy comes true, then you have spoken the truth. If it does not, then you can say: G-d relented and forgave. A negative prophecy cannot be refuted - but a positive one can. If the good foreseen comes to pass, then the prophecy is true. If it does not, then you cannot say, 'G-d changed His mind' because G-d does not retract from a promise He has made of good, or peace, or return.
It is therefore only when the prophet offers a positive vision that he can be tested. That is why Jonah was wrong to believe he had failed when his negative prophecy - the destruction of Nineveh - failed to come true. This is how Maimonides puts it:
As to calamities predicted by a prophet, if, for example, he foretells the death of a certain individual or declares that in particular year there will be famine or war and so forth, the non-fulfilment of his forecast does not disprove his prophetic character. We are not to say, "See, he spoke and his prediction has not come to pass." For G-d is long-suffering and abounding in kindness and repents of evil. It may also be that those who were threatened repented and were therefore forgiven, as happened to the men of Nineveh. Possibly too, the execution of the sentence is only deferred, as in the case of Hezekiah. But if the prophet, in the name of G-d, assures good fortune, declaring that a particular event would come to pass, and the benefit promised has not been realized, he is unquestionably a false prophet, for no blessing decreed by the Almighty, even if promised conditionally, is ever revoked . . . Hence we learn that only when he predicts good fortune can the prophet be tested. (Yesodei ha-Torah 10: 4)
Fundamental conclusions follow from this. A prophet is not an oracle: a prophecy is not a prediction. Precisely because Judaism believes in free will, the human future can never be unfailingly predicted. People are capable of change. G-d forgives. As we say in our prayers on the High Holy Days: "Prayer, penitence and charity avert the evil decree." There is no decree that cannot be revoked. A prophet does not foretell. He warns. A prophet does not speak to predict future catastrophe but rather to avert it. If a prediction comes true it has succeeded. If a prophecy comes true it has failed.
The second consequence is no less far-reaching. The real test of prophecy is not bad news but good. Calamity, catastrophe, disaster prove nothing. Anyone can foretell these things without risking his reputation or authority. It is only by the realization of a positive vision that prophecy is put to the test. So it was with Israel's prophets. They were realists, not optimists. They warned of the dangers that lay ahead. But they were also, without exception, agents of hope. They could see beyond the catastrophe to the consolation. That is the test of a true prophet.
A Good Sense of Humour is Simply Divine
The poet WH Auden used to quote the following as one of his favourite examples of Jewish humour. "Maybe," sighed the sage after a lifetime of contemplating human suffering, "it would have been better not to have been born. But how many are so lucky? Not one in a thousand!" From the earliest days, humour seems to have been part of the Jewish personality. The great third-century teacher Rav would always begin his classes in Jewish law with a joke. The Book of Esther, with its terrifying theme of attempted genocide, is nonetheless shot through with as many reversals and misunderstandings as a Whitehall farce. Even the Genesis story of the Tower of Babel contains wonderful touches of Divine humour. Men have decided to build a "tower whose top will reach the heavens". But G-d has to "come down" to see it, so minute is it from the perspective of heaven. Thus is man's hubris mocked. A sense of humour is not something we normally associate with the realm of faith. The religious personality is more likely to be linked in our mind with images of austere puritans or stern, unbending Victorians such as Gladstone, than with storytellers who have a twinkle in their eye.
If religion is a capacity to invest life with ultimate seriousness, then humour is precisely the opposite, an ability to say, "nothing is so serious that we cannot laugh". Jews though, and not only Jews, would disagree. It was Peter Berger, the American sociologist, who put it best when he spoke of the sense of humour as one of the "signals of transcendence" that break through into the human situation and remind us of something beyond. We are part of nature, but there is a dimension of human consciousness that lies beyond nature. We are physical beings, but there are aspects of the human spirit that cannot be reduced to physics - and the ability to understand a joke is one of them. Could a computer have a sense of humour? Probably not. The reason, I would guess, is that humour has to do with our ability to see things differently, to escape from the cage of tragedy, to affirm the freedom of the mind.
What we can laugh at, we can rise above. Perhaps that is why Jews, along with other groups who have suffered much and suffered long, have developed a sense of humour as their defence against despair. Humour has something to do with hope. CS Lewis wrote: "Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice... Men propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffolds, discuss the last new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec and comb their hair at Thermopylae." There is something majestic about a human nature that can detach itself from the immediate and float in the free air of the ultimate. And perhaps laughter - our ability not to take ourselves too seriously - is related to our ability to take other things very seriously indeed. Be that as it may, I am moved by the fact that the first child of the covenant was named Isaac, meaning "he who will laugh". His was not an easy life. As a child Isaac was almost killed. As a father he was deceived. For the last years of his life he was blind. However, his ability to laugh was the victory of faith over fate. And humour remains G-d's gift of humanity in a sometimes inhuman world.