Parashat Re’eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17)
By Rabbi Jordan D. Cohen D.D.,
Temple Anshe Sholom
, Hamilton, Ontario
According to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in his classic work
, “The prophet is a lonely man. He alienates the wicked as well as the pious, the cynics as well as the believers, the priests and the princes, the judges and the false prophets. But to be a prophet means to challenge and to defy and to cast out fear” (Abraham J. Heschel,
, Jewish Publication Society, 1962, p.18).
I’ve often considered the condition of the prophet, standing against the people and the figures of authority, representing the word of God, but with little authority in the eyes of those to whom he speaks. The prophetic figure is always suspect, always challenged, and always alone. It is, indeed, a lonely position. No wonder that so many have been reluctant to assume the mantle of prophecy.
In our Jewish tradition, there is an inherent conundrum in the relationship between the prophet and the people to whom he prophesizes. The role of the prophet, simply put, is to speak the word of God. The mission of the prophet, however, is to change people’s behaviour. Hence the standard if/then formulation of our classic biblical
: “If you don’t clean up your act and do as our God commands, then bad things are going to happen!” And here is where the tension occurs: how do the people know that the prophet is a true prophet? How can they know that what the prophet says is actually the word of God?
If the prophet sufficiently encourages the people, and they do change their behaviour, then nothing further is going to happen. The prophet is successful in terms of his mission, but the people will never know if he actually is a true prophet, because that which he warned did not need to happen. This is the case of Jonah, the only truly successful prophet in the Bible.
But if the prophet fails in his mission, and is not successful in convincing the people to change their behaviour, then the people will indeed know that he is a true prophet when the consequences of his warnings come to be. Through plague or destruction or exile, the prophet is affirmed. But the prophet is also a failure.
Certainly there must be an easier way to know whether a prophet is true or not.
Our Torah portion this week presents us with a surer test of prophetic integrity. Parashat Re’eh warns us sternly against following false prophets, those who would exhort us to follow other practices and worship gods that we do not know. The false prophet seduces us by telling us that, “this is the will of God” as they try to exercise their own will upon us and lead us astray. The Torah makes it very clear: we are not to follow them. The false prophet is to be put to death, not only because of their own wickedness, but because they tried to lure others into wickedness.
But how are we to know? How are we to tell if one who speaks in the name of God is leading us astray? The answer is simple: “Follow none but the Eternal your God and revere none but Him; observe His commandments alone and heed only His orders, worship none but Him and hold fast to him” (Deuteronomy 13:5).
As it states in Ecclesiastes, אֵין כָל-חָדָשׁ תַחַת הַשָמֶשׁ – “There is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). Any figure that comes along and tells you in the name of God to do something new, to worship a different deity or adopt new behaviours or worship practices, we are not to heed to their words. Any true prophet, anyone who God selects to channel the divine word, will never tell us anything new. That is the essence of prophecy. The prophet does not provide any new information. The prophet only tells us what we already know: to follow the commandments and uphold our covenantal commitment to our God.
This message is not new, but, truth be told, we have never been very good at following it. That is why we continue to read the words of our literary prophets today – they are speaking to us, because we have not yet heeded their message. The word of our God endures unchanged. Our God is a tested God and our tradition has withstood the test of time. In Jewish tradition, there is no need for “new and improved”. But we certainly have a lot of work to do to encourage “understood and observed”. God is eternal and the God’s word is eternal. The challenge for us as Progressive Jews is to make the teachings of our tradition relevant for each time and place in which we live.