In the verses we just read from Beha’alot’kha, God takes the spirit which was upon Moses and places it on seventy elders, and all of them begin to prophesy. Then two other men, Eldad and Medad, also begin to prophesy. Joshua, who will be Moses’ successor, urges Moses to stop them. And Moses says, “Are you upset on my account? Would that all of God’s people were prophets!”
When we think of the English term “prophecy,” we think of foretelling the future. But that’s not what a Biblical prophet did. In the Biblical understanding, a prophet is someone who speaks for God. The great rabbi and scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches that it was the prophet’s job to offer a God’s-eye view on the world.
The Biblical prophets spoke on God’s behalf: sometimes words of love, sometimes words of caution and judgement. The prophets bequeathed to us a treasury of writings which call us toward a world redeemed.
In the Jewish understanding, prophecy isn’t about predicting the future. Prophecy seems to mean something like opening ourselves to that Voice from beyond which exhorts us to be better than we think we know how to be.
In this morning’s verses, I hear Joshua’s anxiety. His boss Moses was the only one who had a direct line to God, and now suddenly all of these people are speaking on God’s behalf — even people who weren’t invited. The familiar structure of authority is at risk of breaking down!
I can empathize with Joshua’s fear. And I love Moses’ response: oh, dear one, are you jealous on my account? You think I mind having other people connecting with God? On the contrary — I wish everyone had a clear channel through which divine spirit and wisdom could flow.
Tradition teaches that never again will there arise a prophet as great as Moshe. Today’s verses offer a glimpse of his greatness because they show us someone who was not threatened by others being uplifted too. Moses knew that connection with God is not zero-sum, and that other people opening their hearts to divine wisdom didn’t diminish his ability to do the same.
One of my favorite stories about my teacher Reb Zalman z”l is about how he used to teach at his Shabbos tisch. “Tisch” is Yiddish for “table;” it means a celebratory gathering where students gather to imbibe wisdom from their teacher, usually accompanied by singing niggunim and toasting l’chaim! Following in the footsteps of his Hasidic forebears, Reb Zalman would gather his hasidim around the table, and offer his unique and beautiful Torah, and his students would be nourished by his wisdom.
And then he would do something which his forebears didn’t do. He would invite everyone to rise, and to move one chair to the left. Now someone else was sitting in the “rebbe chair” — the big cushy seat with the armrests at the head of the table from which the rebbe was supposed to offer his teachings. And he would say, “Look inside for the Rebbe-Spark within you — and teach from there.”
And then they would do it again, and again, until everyone at the table had had the opportunity to be the teacher, the giver of wisdom, an open channel for divine grace. Everyone got to sit in the rebbe chair, both literally and metaphorically.
It was important to him that all of us learn that “rebbe” is a function, a role, into which we too can step. That we too have wisdom to give over. That we too can open our hearts to something beyond ourselves and learn to trust that the wisdom which will flow through us will be the right wisdom for this moment. That all of the power shouldn’t reside in one person, because that isn’t good for the rest of us — and it’s not good for the one person in power, either.
“Would that all of God’s people were prophets.” Would that we all felt safe enough to open our hearts and minds to divine inspiration. Would that we all trusted our intuition enough to discern when the voice urging us on is a holy one. Kein yehi ratzon — may it be so.
This is the d’var Torah which I offered yesterday morning at CBI. (Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)
I’ve heard the story of Reb Zalman’s tisch many times. If you’d like to hear about it from someone who was there, I commend to you Reb Arthur’s post Reb Zalman: His Light is Buried Like A Seed — To Sprout.