Tuesday, September 16, 2014 Elul 21, 5774

Prophecy Seems to Be About Compassion

September 4, 2008 By:
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman
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It's not just Wall Street, Las Vegas and the lotto that all need to know the future. Nature itself puts a premium on such a trait. Lower orders of animals, for example, use acute sensory perception to predict weather changes and the threat of predators. Humans have traded in such sensory acuity for the brain power to speculate on longer-term predictability, such as consulting economic forecasts and actuarial tables.

Over the course of millennia, we have tried tea leaves, animal entrails, seances, Ouija boards, horoscopes and the evil eye -- all of which Judaism prohibits as not just nonsense, but downright idolatry, since only God knows what is yet to come.

As the rabbi and commentator Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno explains, "In ascertaining the future, do so only through God, or God's prophets." But prophecy has ended, so how do we go about this perfectly normal desire to know the future?

No reputable Jewish position nowadays advocates anything but science, the essence of which is predictability. Since God created the natural order, investigating its patterns is equivalent to consulting priests and prophets. But now that they are gone, science is all we have.

But prophecy may not be altogether finished. Immediately after warning against augury and soothsaying, Moses promises that God will "raise up from among you a prophet like myself." Practiced readers of Torah jump to the end of Deuteronomy, which admits, "Never again did there arise a prophet like Moses." What shall we believe? That God still promises that prophet? Or did we give up on it when Deuteronomy got put together?

Tradition has not capitulated on the hope for such a prophet. What we have conceded is that even the finest prophet will never predict the future, because despite Sforno's pre-scientific grasping at prophetic straws, we can see now that prophecy is not only -- or even essentially -- about prediction. Science is the exercise of discovering truths; prophecy is an education in showing compassion.

Even Moses, the greatest of all prophets, is so far from knowing the future that he is regularly surprised at the turn of events: Pharaoh hardens his heart; the Israelites build a golden calf; the Korahites rebel. Moses is a prophet because whatever happens, he understands our despair, pleads our case and keeps us going when we've all but given up.

The other prophets also console more than they predict. Just a few weeks ago, we read Isaiah's famous advice: "Take comfort, take comfort [nachamu, nachamu] ... Speak tenderly to Jerusalem." To be sure he does predict "her iniquity is expiated," but the promise is secondary to the conviction that Israel has suffered sufficiently.

So, too, Amos ends with what looks like God's promise -- "I will restore my people" -- but really, this is a final note of consolation. The most famous example is Hosea, whom we read on Shabbat Teshuvah (between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) because of his certainty that no matter how much we sin, God will reward repentance with love. The prophetic point is always about compassion; prediction is just conviction drawn from faith in God's compassion.

Our primary use of the prophets is for Haftarah readings, which we characterize as n'chemta, a note of "consolation" with which every reading of Torah must end.

The Talmud stipulates "40 gates to binah," which means "understanding," not "knowledge." Knowledge is a matter of fact. Understanding is a matter of discernment. We cannot know the facts of the future, but we can understand the suffering that accompanies fear of the present, if the present gets no better. Prophets specialize in binah and, as the Zohar reminds us, in its discussion of this sedra, "Binah is the source of chesed," compassion.

No wonder, then, that the Talmud explains Moses's greatness as a prophet on the grounds that he had the key to all but one of the gates to binah. No wonder that our commentaries hope the prophet predicted in our sedra may not know more, but will understand better.

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is a professor at HUC-JIR in New York.


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