Skip to content

Parashat Re’eh 5772 – 08/15/2012

Parashat Re’eh

Submitted by Robert Rabinoff

If there should arise among you a prophet or a dreamer of dreams… (13:2)

But it is also possible that Scripture is alluding to what is in some sense true, for in the souls of some people there is a prophetic power through which they know the future.  The person does not know where this power comes to him from, but he secludes himself and a spirit enters him inducing him to say, “This is what will happen in the future regarding such and such a matter.”  The philosophers call such a person kahin [in Arabic].  The cause for the phenomenon is not known; nevertheless, the matter has been verified by observers.  Perhaps the soul of that person, in its acuity, clings to a “separate intelligence,”[an intelligent being which has no physical body] to which it is directed to know the future.  And this person is justifiably called a “prophet,” because he does prophesy, and this is why “the sign or wonder comes about” (v.3).  (Ramban ad loc)

In our discussion of Parashat VaEtchanan we looked at the means by which one can gain religious knowledge, that is, knowledge of the Divine.  We noted that one of the arguments our Sages have made for the veracity of our knowledge of Gd is that Gd appeared to the entire people at Mt. Sinai, and that on this basis the Jewish people would believe in Gd and in Moses’ prophecy “forever.”  We also noted that since the chain of transmission from Moses’ time to the present day has, in many cases, gotten rather frayed, this argument has perhaps lost some of its force.  We surmised that in fact the ultimate arbiter of knowledge of the Divine has to have a component of personal experience, and that the tradition of knowledge itself must provide techniques by which this experience may be achieved.  Our parashah, and Ramban’s commentary on it, contain some fascinating hints as to the potential range of experience that human beings are capable of.


As Moshe Rabbeinu was delivering what both he and the people knew to be his final oration, the question that must have been on everyone’s mind is: Moshe has a unique connection to Hashem; we believe he speaks Hashem’s Will to us and we have accepted upon ourselves to obey him.  But soon he will be gone, and with him that unique connection.  What do we do now for direction?!  In answer to this Moshe promises the people that in future times Gd will “raise up a prophet from among your brethren like me” and one is required to listen to such a prophet.  Now in the early years of the conquest, apportionment and settling of the tribes in the Land of Israel, prophecy was not an uncommon phenomenon; Moshe passed the torch directly to Yehoshua, who passed it on to the Elders (many of whom were also prophets), who passed it on to the Prophets (those whose words are recorded in Tanach and many others as well) who passed it on to the Men of the Great Assembly (under Ezra at the beginning of the 2nd Temple period) [Pirke Avot 1:1].  In addition, when questions arose the Urim and Tumim, an oracular part of the Kohen Gadol‘s vestments, could be consulted through the end of the First Temple period.  Thus, prophecy was available to Israel for roughly a millennium after Moshe Rabbeinu.  Afterwards, at least throughout the Talmudic period, lesser forms of prophecy (ruach hakodesh / Holy spirit and bat kol / heavenly voice) are attested to.  After the Talmudic period we have certainly had great and inspired leaders, but all of them would agree, I think, that as the generations came and went, the level of direct contact with the Divine has gotten more and more tenuous.


Since we have never had a prophet of Moshe Rabbeinu’s stature since his departure, and since Gd has not chosen to reveal Himself again, we are faced with the question of verifying when someone who claims to be a prophet really is one, and even if he has been established as a prophet, we still need to verify that what he is instructing us to do is correct.  Without being prophets ourselves, how can we do this?  Our passage gives us some rules.  First, if someone declares himself to be a prophet, until he is established he must give either a “sign” (‘ot – a prediction of a future event) or perform something quite out of the ordinary (mofet), also that he has predicted.  Once he has established that he has extraordinary insight, and perhaps control, over the subtle workings of creation, we examine his actual statements.  If he advocates worshiping any power in the universe other than Gd, he is automatically considered a navi sheker / false prophet, and he is executed – his apparent power, combined with his leading his followers astray are a danger to society and he must be removed.  This is the case as well where an established prophet attempts to innovate a new mitzvah – since he is attempting to “amend” the Torah he creates the same danger for society as the one who commands worship of strange gods, and he suffers the same fate.  The only exception to this latter rule is if an established prophet commands a temporary suspension of some aspect of halachah, for a specific purpose, such as Eliyahu’s offering on Mt. Carmel in his confrontation with the prophets of Ba’al.  In such a case we are enjoined to obey him.


In his commentary Ramban appears to take a somewhat naturalistic approach to prophecy.  First, let’s note that there are several places in Scripture where it is indicated that one can prepare oneself to receive prophecy.  Miriam and Aharon are “surprised” by Gd to make this specific point – they needed to prepare themselves to receive prophecy whereas Moshe Rabbeinu did not – he was always ready.  In the early prophetic writings there are indications that prophecy could be taught, and was taught in academies (the sons of the Prophets).  Indeed, just as Moshe passed on some of his gift to Yehoshua, Eliyahu passed on some of his gift (actually “double” his gift) to his disciple Elisha.  Scripture appears to be indicating that communication with the Divine is an innate human capability, but one that, due to our gross, physical nature, must be cultivated to manifest itself.


Presumably these “schools” of prophecy taught various techniques that allowed the students to transcend the material level of existence and bring the mind in contact with the subtler levels of creation.  Just as the atomic level of physical creation is more powerful than the molecular level, so subtler spiritual levels are more powerful than more expressed levels; thinking or acting on subtler levels therefore gives us more knowledge and more power over the more expressed levels.


This possibility is quite alluring, and therein lies a certain danger.  It is apparently possible to learn to think and act on subtler levels of creation before one’s personality is totally refined.  Without this refinement of the personality, that is, without having transcended our individuality to the extent that our actions are totally in accord with Gd’s Will, it is possible to misuse this great power.  Thus Torah must warn us against false prophets, of which the prophetic writings give us several examples.  This is also undoubtedly the reason why our esoteric tradition is not widely disseminated.  The same issue is raised in other traditions as well – the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali warn the student not to get distracted by any “supernatural” powers he might develop, but to maintain focus on achieving transcendence.


Where does this leave us, who may not be so spiritually gifted that we experience prophecy?  We are faced with the problem of recognizing true prophets from false ones (and the false ones, like Shabtai Zvi, can do enormous damage)   How do we do this, if we are not at a similar level?  Rambam tells us that we must simply follow the halachic criteria.  It is certainly possible that a false prophet could fool the community for some time before being unmasked, but if we are not at that level, we have no other criteria we can reasonably use.  We are responsible for doing our due diligence according to the halachic principles that have come down to us from Gd through Moshe Rabbeinu – and this is a prophecy we do trust completely.  The outcome is, as always, in Hashem’s Hands.  Ultimately however, as we discussed two weeks ago, it is up to us to focus our attention every day, as much as we possibly can, on our spiritual growth, through prayer, meditation, Torah study and performance of our mitzvot.  Then we will, as much as is humanly possible, know Gd.  In that state, there is no room at all for any doubt.


Pirke Avot, Chapter 5

Mishnah 3

There were ten generations from Noach to Avraham, which teaches Gd’s patience.  For all those generations continuously angered Him, until Avraham our forefather came and received the reward of them all.

Rabbi Lau, quoting Sforno (16th century) delineates the difference between Noach and Avraham: although [Noach] rebuked people for their depravity … he did not teach them to know Gd and walk in His ways.  He was a blameless and righteous man … [But] a righteous man who perfects only himself can save only himself… one who tries to perfect others can save them as well.  Perhaps this difference is also reflected in the difference between a false prophet and a true prophet.  A false prophet is focused on himself.  He may in fact achieve an impressive degree of self-development, but ultimately his lack of ability (or maybe desire) to transcend himself acts like a slow-acting poison, until eventually all his achievements count for nothing.  A true prophet achieves perfect transcendence.  From this ego-less state he can focus on benefiting others and bringing them to the knowledge of Gd.  As the truest prophet, Moshe Rabbeinu, put it: Would that all Gd’s people were prophets! (Num 11:29).