By Reb David
Torah depicts two types of revelations – the realm of collective experience (Sinai, signs and wonders, manna from heaven), and the realm of the individual heart, mind and soul (e.g. love). Bridging between the two is the prophet. This week’s Torah portion (Beha’alotecha) invites us onto that bridge between the worlds of revelation.
Our ancestors, sick of wandering the desert, complained that they were tired of manna. Their complaints – ungrateful even if understandable – weighed so heavy on Moses that he cried out to God: “I’m not able to carry all this people alone, because it is too heavy for me. If You deal thus with me, kill me, I pray You … and let me not see this wretchedness” (Num. 11:14). God replied by telling Moses to gather 70 elders from Israel, so they could help Moses carry the burden. God’s spirit rested on the 70 and, incredibly, they began prophesying. While that was happening:
There remained two men in the camp, one named Eldad, and another named Medad. [God’s] spirit [also] rested on them … and they prophesied in the camp. A young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp!” Joshua son of Nun, servant of Moses… answered and said, “Moses, forbid them!” Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all God’s people were prophets, that God would put the divine spirit on them!” (Num. 11:26-29).
Already we learn that God chooses prophets who might not be the people we expect. The 70 elders whom God called forward didn’t have a monopoly on divine flow; and Moses, a true leader, understood that neither did he. “Would that all God’s people were prophets, that God would put the divine spirit on them!”
But, what makes someone a prophet? Is it predicting the future? Is it speaking with a prophetic voice, sounding sure and commanding a power so otherworldly that it seems sourced in God? In his moving book, The Prophets, scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) wrote that a prophet burns with God erupting into the human world:
Prophesy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, to the profane riches of the world. It is a form of living, a crossing point of God and man. God is raging in the prophet’s words.
What makes a prophet is not eloquence or blunderbuss but humility, surrendering oneself so completely to God that otherworldly power and wisdom flow through. Often it means speaking truth to power, giving voice to the voiceless, but a prophet is as much medium as message. The prophet sounds like one is on fire – holiness breaking into the human world with such passion and compelling clarity that it reshapes reality. It’s easy to over-use the “prophet” label: a New York Times article debated whether Oprah Winfrey might be a prophet. A prophet is not merely influential but transformational in a holy way: think Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Would that all God’s people were prophets. Would that all people could be possessed of a prophet’s qualities of humility, submission and service. Would that each of us could be a bridge between the human world and spiritual plane. Even if we’re not prophets, we can seek this quality of service. We can strive to hear the “still, small voice” of holiness, and amplify the worthy voices of those whom society tends to hear least.
In this week of Shavuot, the anniversary of Torah’s revelation atop a fiery Mount Sinai, we re-commit ourselves to listening for revelation erupting into our world. We re-commit ourselves to treating everyone as if they might just be a prophet come to teach and transform. Would that all the people would be this way – then truly, all the people might well be prophets.