How to Judge a Prophet

Image: President Donald Trump listens as Dr. Anthony Fauci speaks during a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House, Friday, March 20, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Lately there have been a lot of people making predictions about the future: that the country will open back up over the next month or so, that if we do open up it will be a disaster, that the coronavirus is some kind of hoax, that the U.S. is on its way to being the pariah among first-world nations, this one will will the next election, no that one will….etc., etc.

Torah teaches us to be wary of people who claim to know the future. There’s an interesting passage in the Book of Deuteronomy which lays out the Rules for Prophets.

First of all, it sets out what prophets are not: they are not augurs, soothsayers, diviners, sorcerers, casters of spells, or consulters with ghosts. They were not necromancers or magicians. All those jobs are described as “abominations.” (Deut. 18:12)

Next the passage lays out a discussion about the reasons for, and requirements for prophets. A Hebrew prophet was an ordinary Hebrew whose life was taken over by God, God used that person as a mouthpiece whenever there was an important message to convey, which could be hazardous for the prophet. The role did not guarantee honor or even respect: Jeremiah suffered horribly for his prophecies, and died in a deep pit in Egypt for his trouble.

Just after that, the Torah asks an interesting question: how do you tell a false prophet from a true one? The answer it gives is slippery: if they speak in the name of God and what they say comes true, then the prophet is genuine (Deut. 18:22) If their words don’t come true, then they are false prophets and we shouldn’t listen to them.

For Jews, the Age of Prophecy is closed, but we still sometimes have to decide whom to believe when it comes to predictions about the future. That has been a sharp issue when it comes to the current pandemic: there is a lot of variation in the predictions, and the information seems to change every day. The disarray in information is extremely stressful, a state that also isn’t good for our immune systems.

Worse yet, there are all sorts of conspiracy theories circulating, and accusations about who is hoaxing whom.

Torah cuts through all of that with a simple question: what sort of track record does the speaker have? Has he expertise in this matter? What level of expertise? Do they have a track record managing pandemics? Or if not a medical expert, on what basis is this person making their claims to expertise? And what about past prognostications: is this just the latest sensational click-bait theory or have they been right about things in the past?

Torah encourages us to ask for credentials and a track record, whether we are questioning a prophet or the modern-day variations on that theme. As they say in Missouri, “Show me!”

Talking Amongst Ourselves: Voices of Torah

Image: Voices of Torah, Volumes 1 and 2.

Every quarter, I write one or two divrei Torah (words of Torah, short reflections on a bit of Torah) for the newsletter of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR.) Many other rabbis write similar short articles, bringing their learning and insight to the other portions. Rabbi Amy Scheinerman edits each piece, making it much better, and then it appears in a little rabbis-only newsletter. And for years, that was that.

Now the CCAR Press has collected these words of Torah into Voices of Torah, Volume 1 and Volume 2. They are arranged by Torah portion, from Bereshit (Genesis 1:1-6:8) through V’Zot Habrachah (Deuteronomy 33:1-34:12,) with a few additional pieces for holidays (High Holy Days, Purim, Passover, et al.) I’m honored that several of my little pieces were included in Volume 2.

Each short d’var Torah (word limit 250 words! practically Haiku!) is written about a specific Torah portion. Each was written by a rabbi for their colleagues: for rabbis, by rabbis. Some of them are little gems. The editors have polished them up for a lay audience, de-obfuscating the jargon and translating the rabbi-speak into Standard English. It is now a nice resource for someone seeking insight into a particular Torah portion, or someone who needs to give the d’var Torah for a meeting.

The books are for sale directly from CCAR Press or from other online bookshops, including Amazon and Powell’s.

Divrei Torah on Parashat Miketz

I associate memories with certain Torah portions. I remember Shelach Lecha as the week I  became a Jew, and the week I left home for rabbinical school. I remember Yitro as the first time I first chanted Torah for the congregation. And I remember Miketz because it was the portion I was assigned for my first d’var Torah in rabbinical school.

On the one hand, the stories in Miketz have been favorites of mine ever since I was little: Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams! Joseph becomes the Prime Minister of Egypt! Joseph faces his brothers again! And on the other hand I was going to speak before the whole school, and I wanted to say something profound about the Joseph story. Rabbi Dr. Michael Marmur was assigned to me as a mentor for the first sermon, and I was as intimidated by his reputation as Joseph’s brothers must have been in Pharaoh’s court.

I didn’t say anything profound that week. It was a fine learning experience: Rabbi Marmur taught me how to dig into the text for something coherent to say, and as far as I recall, I performed adequately. I remember, with blushes now, my overblown ambitions for that sermon.

However, I have some wonderful divrei Torah for you from people with more practice at it than I had back in 2002!

Rabbi Ellen M. Umansky — Forgiveness and Reconciliation with the Past

Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild — Mikketz: how knowledge and understanding still requires wisdom if we are to avert environmental disaster

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat — Miketz: Letting Yourself Dream

Rabbi John Rosove — Jewish Survival is not a Given

Rabbi Aaron D. Panken z”l — Joseph and Potiphar: The Named, The Neutered, and the Neutralized

Vayeshev: Journey to Leadership

Image: Caterpillar, pupa, butterfly: this animal completely transforms over its lifetime. (Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)

This week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev, shows us the transformation of Joseph from a spoiled favorite-child to a leader. Seems to me that’s useful information in light of the world’s troubles right now.

Joseph was the spoiled youngest son of a rich man, doubly spoiled after his father began trying to compensate for the death of his mother Rachel. Often first-time readers feel a sharp sympathy for his brothers, who hated him so much that they debated killing him and then settled for selling him into slavery. I’ve never gone that far – I don’t think anyone deserves to be murdered or enslaved, certainly no young person – but there’s no doubt that the young Joseph was obnoxious.

The older Joseph is wiser, not just because he has suffered but because he as used his time well. Midrash tells us that he spent his years in prison learning: he learned to speak every language spoken in that prison, he learned the life stories of everyone in the prison, he became a student of human nature and indeed, all the humanities.

The boy who was interested only in his own aggrandizement became curious about others.

The boy who wanted everyone to listen to him learned how to listen to others.

The boy who said things thoughtlessly learned to hold his counsel and measure his words.

I think, from now on, this is how I’m going to judge candidates for office. Not: will they be good for me? But: will they be wise in office?

All politicians are human beings. They will have flaws, and sometimes voting seems like an exercise in choosing which flaws I’m willing to live with. But looking at the Joseph story, what I see is the qualities that make for good leadership in unpredictable times: a willingness to listen, curiosity, a need to understand others so pressing that languages became important.

At any rate, it’s a different way to see a candidate, and with all the manipulation from media and outside influences, new paradigms for seeing might be really helpful. I know that the presidents who in my opinion have failed us had the qualities I associate with young Joseph: self-involved, wanting to be important, too quick to speak, too quick to judge, and greedy. The greatest leaders, in my opinion, have been the ones who were willing to listen to everyone, who did so not for an advantage but out of curiosity.

I’m not going to say which were which. I just invite you to join me, as the next election approaches, to try asking these questions:

  1. Is this person curious?
  2. Is their education over, or ongoing?
  3. Have they ever suffered real misfortune? How did they respond?
  4. Can they be quiet when quiet is called for?
  5. Do they learn from mistakes?
  6. Do they seek fame and/or fortune, compared to the other candidates on offer?
  7. What are their relationships with others like?

No policy there at all – just a question, are they closer to Joseph the Spoiled Kid or Joseph the Tzaddik?

Shabbat shalom.

P.S. – If you use the comments to endorse a political candidate, I will delete the post. I’m not going to use this space to advocate for a particular candidate, nor am I going to provide it for that purpose.

Vayishlach: Pain & Confusion

Image: The sciatic nerve, which is where Jacob was injured. (Lightspring/Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)

Vayishlach “and he sent” is the name of this week’s Torah portion, a portion full of pain and confusion. It is so chock full of things to write about that I almost failed to write about any of them.

I can’t touch Dinah’s story this week. I don’t have enough emotional armor right now, so I’m not going there. Instead, I will point you to a sermon by one of my teachers and to a brilliant new book on the subject, The Story of Dinah: Rape and Rape Myth in Jewish Tradition by Gavi S. Ruit, with a forward from another of my teachers, Rabbi Dr. Tamara Eskenazi. The sermon is available free online. The book is expensive: convince your synagogue library that they need it, or petition the library for it, because it is worth it.

The first line of Parashat Vayishlach seems straightforward: Jacob has been humbled by his suffering at the hand of the trickster Laban (and Laban’s daughters, Jacob’s wives.) He realizes that he is ready to make peace with his brother Esau. So he sends messengers – melachim – to his brother in hope that they can negotiate a peace and Jacob can return home.

The messengers return from the task, and report that Esau himself is on his way with 400 men. Numbers in the Bible mean all sorts of things, and sometimes nothing at all, but according to my Hebrew grammar instructor in Jerusalem, Yossi Lechem, “400 men” is code for “an enormous army coming to beat the daylights out of you.” Jacob panics and divides his caravan in two camps, then approaches Esau alone, camping for the night by the river. There he is accosted by and wrestles with ish, a man.

The Hebrew words in this parashah are fascinating and somewhat obfuscating. Melachim can mean either messenger or angel. Ish usually means “man” but in this passage may mean “angel” and possibly is a euphemism for “God.” Ish also appears in the phrase arba’ah ish imo, “400 men with him.”

Bottom line: this is a setup for a comedy or tragedy of mistaken identity. Which shadowy figure is God? A man? An enemy? An angel? And after all these years, who is Jacob?

I remember reading this passage when I was still very new at Hebrew, and I found it bewildering. I got something along these lines just from verse 4:

וַיִּשְׁלַ֨ח יַעֲקֹ֤ב מַלְאָכִים֙ לְפָנָ֔יו אֶל־עֵשָׂ֖ו אָחִ֑יו אַ֥רְצָה שֵׂעִ֖יר שְׂדֵ֥ה אֱדֽוֹם׃

Jacob sent angels into the face of Esau his brother, in the Land of Seir, in the country of Edom…

Genesis 32:4, (a very) alternative translation

And frankly, while it is not a great translation (wheredid Jacob get the power to command angels?) it speaks to the mystery, the confusion, and the high stakes of this passage. Jacob has a relationship with the land in Canaan, and he believes his destiny to be tied to it. The land is in the possession of Esau, his twin who became his enemy because Jacob cheated him repeatedly. The only way Jacob can go home to this critical bit of real estate is by making up with Esau.

Then, as if things were not complicated enough, another ish appears by the bank of the river after Jacob is alone and vulnerable. This ish, all alone, beats him in a wrestling match, and gives him a permanent injury to his sciatic nerve (ow!) He also gives Jacob a new name: Israel.

The name is a new translation problem. The usual translation is something like this one from sefaria.org:

Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.”

Genesis 32:29

I’m more inclined to translate ki-sarita “Because you have persisted” and va-tukhol “and you have proven yourself able.” Thus:

Said [the ish], “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have persisted with deities and human beings, and have proven yourself able.”

Genesis 32:29 (alternative translation)

As I read it, Jacob hasn’t prevailed over much of anyone. He was cheated by Laban. His beloved, Rachel, participated in her father’s scheme. His first wife Leah knows that he doesn’t love her as much as he loves Rachel, and so his household is full of strife. His brother is apparently coming to kill him, and a mystery figure by the river has maimed him for life. The come-from-behind scrapper, the “supplanter” Jacob is now Israel: a fighter, not necessarily a winner, but a fighter.

As I write this, in December of 2019, we are living in a very confusing time. The Jewish community has been divided into two camps, pro- and anti-Trump. It is hard to tell the angels from the messengers. It is impossible to see where it is all going, but right now the Jewish community feels wounded by a resurgence in anti-Semitism worldwide and especially in the United States. Our synagogues are vandalized; our schools and other institutions are under threat.

But Jacob is still Israel: he’s a fighter. He may be terribly wounded, his house may be divided, but he never gives up. He persists.

May we each do our best to live lives of Torah. May we seek out the best in one another and ourselves. May we not be so impaired by our wounds that we give up the fight. May we not be in so much pain that we confuse friends and enemies. We are Israel, and we do not give up. We persist.

Toldot: The Best They Could

Image: Two men arm wrestle for cash. (Ryan McGuire / Pixabay)

Poor Rebecca: she is beloved of her husband Isaac but her kids fight something awful.

It started even in the womb:

The children struggled in her womb, and she said, “If so, why do I exist?” She went to inquire of the LORD, and the LORD answered her, “Two nations are in your womb, Two separate peoples shall issue from your body; One people shall be mightier than the other, And the older shall serve the younger.”

Genesis 25: 22-23

The phrase “If so, why do I exist?” always catches my heart. What does it mean?

?אִם־כֵּ֔ן לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה אָנֹ֑כִי

Genesis 25:22

Rashi says that what she means is, “If the pain of pregnancy is so great, why did I want to become pregnant?” But that is not what she said in this week’s Torah portion.

She feels the children inside her, and she exclaims, “If so, why do I exist?” She questions the whole meaning of her existence as she feels the children “crushing” each other (v’yitro’tzatzu.) The verb means more than “struggle” – it means “crushing” – a battle for absolute dominance. They are trying to kill each other, she feels, and they are not yet even born! Even as they are born, they are fighting, with Jacob trying to pull his older brother back into the womb so that he can be born first.

Rebecca is aware from pregnancy that her sons dislike each other intensely. At the very beginning of their lives, Rebecca cries out, ” If so, why do I exist?” – “If these two hate each other, what is the point of my life?”

One of the developmental tasks of being a parent is the understanding that the child is a separate person. For biological mothers, it is very easy to understand: that baby came out of my body, they were once a part of me, I fed them from my body, I am biologically linked to them by hormones and similarities in our DNA. So how come this kid is doing something I would never do – like try to “crush” his sibling, whom I also love?

Why do parents exist? We human beings are slow developers. Children need care for years after birth, to find food and shelter, to survive predators, to learn the things one needs to learn in order to survive. Children need adults to nurture them, to sacrifice for them, to take sometimes unreasonable risks for them, because otherwise the species would not survive.

We do this for our children, who will always be separate people from us, people who will make different choices than we might have made. Rebecca is feeling the division between the two sons, and it is agony because she still identifies strongly with both.

Ultimately she and Isaac deal with their sons’ mutual animosity by each choosing a favorite child: Isaac preferred Esau, and Rebecca preferred Jacob. Patriarchy and primogeniture set them up for disaster: Isaac identified with the older son, who would presumably inherit everything of worth. Rebecca identified with the underdog, who was much like her: clever and willing to manipulate people and situations for benefit.

This may have been the best they could do. The combative twins are a contrast to their peace-loving parents. Isaac seems to be a mild gentleman, content to stay near home and cultivate his fields and flocks. Instead of waging war on neighbors, he negotiates. He walks in the fields in the evenings to pray. Rebecca is known for her kindness to animals, and her tender care of Isaac. And yet these two peaceniks beget the battling twins, Esau and Jacob! They must have felt completely outgunned by their children.

One of the wonders of the book of Genesis is how bluntly our patriarchs and matriarchs are portrayed in all their fallibility. These are not idealized pictures of saintlike ancestors. Instead, they are real people, who have children they don’t understand.

In my darker moments as a parent, I have thought a lot about Isaac and Rebecca. They wanted to be good parents. I am sure they did the best they could.

Shabbat Shalom — Lech Lecha

“Lech lecha” – “Get yourself” or “Go, you!” or “Go forth” is from the first line of this week’s Torah portion:

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃

The Eternal said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” – Genesis 12:1

As often happens, the ambiguity of translation gives us lots of room for interpretation. This is a story about a leap of faith, about a journey, about a dream. What does it say to you, in this particular year, in your particular situation?

Some words from our online darshanim [preachers]:

The Making of a Covenant with Both Men and Women by Rabbi Ellen M.Umansky

“To Boldly Go:” on Lech Lecha and Star Trek – Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Smashing Idols – Rabbi Dan Fink

Sojourners for Justice – Rabbi Nina Mizrahi

Sarah: Blinded by her outward appearance… – Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

A Letter from Abram by Rabbi Bruce Kadden