By Lawrence F. Layfer, Guest Torah Columnist
Torah Portion: Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18–21:9)
G-d will raise up for you prophets from amongst your own people… Deuteronomy 18:15
One of the delights of doing this column is the discovery of a new book that jump-starts a re-look at familiar Torah teachings. In “Path of the Prophets,” Rabbi Barry Schwartz describes for us the nature of those called to “speak in G-d’s name and deliver G-d’s message.” He writes: “the classical (Biblical) prophets criticize, cajole, and comfort, often intercede on G-d’s behalf to the people, but sometimes on the people’s behalf to G-d.” He quotes Heschel’s description of prophets as “the most disturbing people who ever lived,” noting that for them “a minor commonplace sort of injustice assumes almost cosmic proportions” and that despite their “stinging rebukes of ruling elite and indifferent masses…they criticized and cajoled out of love.”
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks sees the driving compulsion and constant refrain of the prophets as “economic inequality…inequality of power, and the abuse of the weak by the strong. Amos (2: 6-7) speaks of those who “sell the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes; who trample on the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed.” Micah (2:1-2) inveighs against people who “covet fields and seize them, houses and take them away; they oppress householder and house, people and their inheritance.” And the author of this week’s Haftorah portion, Isaiah cries (10:1-2): “woe to those who make unjust laws and issue oppressive decrees … making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless”; and as read on Yom Kippur this cry: “is this the fast I desire, a day for men to starve their bodies…no, this is the fast I desire: unlock the fetters of wickedness, untie the cords of the yoke, let the oppressed go free, share your bread with the hungry, take the wretched poor into your home, clothe the naked and do not ignore your fellow man.” Nor were the concerns of the prophets limited to the individual alone, but also with the character of nations. Isaiah’s words describing G-d’s expectations of international cooperation are carved on the wall of the United Nations: “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”
Rabbi Binyamin Lau sees that “in their own days in real time, there is hardly an ancient prophet who (was able to) redressed the social, religious or political wrongs of Israel the words, (still) the words of the prophets have been preserved for us, their descendants, so that we may learn what is right in the eyes of G-d and man.” The Talmud (Baba Basra) teaches that although since the destruction of the Temple prophecy has ceased, the voice of prophets has been transferred to the “wise” of each generation. And Hillel suggested that we should look to the collected voices of the wise amongst us, for “if they (Israel) are not prophets, at least they are the children of prophets.” All this suggests that there are voices in our time that echo the message of the ancient prophets. But be warned, for the Talmud also notes that amongst those purporting to be these heirs of the ancient prophets are some who speak like “children and fools.”
So where do we look to find in this day those “wise” voices to guide Israel and the Jewish people in the third try at national sovereignty? Perhaps here: in a recent Jerusalem Report article, Rabbi Reuven Hammer suggests that we have heard such voices amongst us, a collection of the wise who demonstrated that though “we may no longer have prophets, but we do have the teaching of the prophets and of the tradition that can do what the prophets did.” He directs us to the words of Israel’s founders, as inscribed in its Declaration of Independence: “The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the ingathering of exiles; it will foster development of the country for the benefit of its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisioned by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights for all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the charter of the United Nations.” To all of us, as individuals, in the communities we form, and in the way we deal with other nations, Abraham Joshua Heschel warns: “prophecy ceased (but) the prophets endure and can only be ignored at the risk of our own despair.”
Dr. Lawrence Layfer is Emeritus Professor at Rush Medical College and former Chair of Medicine at NorthShore-Skokie.