Friday, July 13, 2007

Would That They Were All Prophets: A Personal Interpretation

(For Ezzie Goldish and The Man in the Yellow Hat)
    כח וַיַּעַן יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בִּן-נוּן, מְשָׁרֵת מֹשֶׁה מִבְּחֻרָיו--וַיֹּאמַר: אֲדֹנִי מֹשֶׁה, כְּלָאֵם.
    28 And Joshua the son of Nun, the minister of Moses from his youth up, answered and said: 'My lord Moses, shut them in.'

    כט וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ מֹשֶׁה, הַמְקַנֵּא אַתָּה לִי; וּמִי יִתֵּן כָּל-עַם יְהוָה, נְבִיאִים--כִּי-יִתֵּן יְהוָה אֶת-רוּחוֹ, עֲלֵיהֶם.
    29 And Moses said unto him: 'Art thou jealous for my sake? would that all the LORD'S people were prophets, that the LORD would put His spirit upon them!'

    ל וַיֵּאָסֵף מֹשֶׁה, אֶל-הַמַּחֲנֶה--הוּא, וְזִקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
    30 And Moses withdrew into the camp, he and the elders of Israel.

    ~Numbers 11:28-30
I feel like I finally understand this passage in Tanakh.

Moses wants so much for everyone to be capable of what he has, for everyone to have the ability to prophecize. He wishes that everyone could be prophets. He wants to share the grandeur and glory of God with everyone else.

But have you ever considered what that would really mean? If every single person was a prophet? Each person connected to God, each person giving over his own understanding of the law? Perhaps they wouldn't even be consistent with one another! There are plenty of times in Tanakh where God speaks to two different people during the same time period and gives them conflicting messages or ways of understanding. Imagine the chaos that would ensue if everyone were prophets.

Damn it, but Moshe wants it so much. Can you understand how lonely Moshe must have felt, being the one man able to speak to God in that way, without anyone to understand him, anyone to truly stand beside him? Even the slightest touch of understanding moved him; he was glad, yes, glad, glad in a fierce and terrible way when others attained what had been forced upon him.

The difference between Moshe and I is that what I believe to be an ideal is not an ideal outlined by God. We can all agree that prophecy is an ideal state to reach, man's highest connection with God. When it comes to human ideals, we can debate them and see that perhaps they are not ideals at all.

But leaving that aside: let's take something I believe to be an ideal. I believe in a thinking society of interested, committed individuals, and I believe this can work within a Modern Orthodox structure and educational system. I believe it has worked for me, though God knows there are plenty of people who wouldn't hold me as any kind of example. And I want so much to share everything that moves and motivates me with others, and I imagine the way to do it is by wishing that they could all think and did think and in some ways, were like me.

Of course this is wrong, because creating people as reflections of yourself is never a good thing to do; you must accept that people are different. And this is terribly difficult for me, because I am used to thinking of things as being "better" and "worse," not equal, and I believe and feel that it is far, far better to think than not to think or wear blinders. Though of course we could all argue the extent of thought; perhaps I too am wearing my blinders unlike people who are truly searching. But that is tangential.

Anyway, a couple insights that have been afforded me lately:

1. Chana, you cannot judge everyone by yourself

2. Until you can come up with a workable system that offers a practical solution to the flaws in the current system, you have no right to argue

3. You must accept that people are different (I've been given this example a thousand times, but in an army, there are commanding officers and people taking orders. And I would be very bad at taking orders, because what if I saw a different and presumably better way to go about things? Creative thinking has no place at certain times and in certain venues. And perhaps there are people who really don't and really can't think creatively, much as you Chana don't want to accept that!)

4. People do think differently and/or they think on different levels

5. It is possible, that much as you don't want to admit this, and much as you hate this, and much as you resent this answer because it was given to you as an excuse for everything that ever hurt you, you Chana may not be the norm. And what works for you may in fact only work for the minority of people.

There's more, of course, but that's what I'm turning over in my mind at the moment. And oh, I hate it! I hate it so much when something that seems so good and true for me may not be good and true for others.

Moses wanted everyone to be prophets and everyone to have the ability he had, because he had such a desire to share what he saw and felt and knew of God.

But not everyone can be prophets.
And perhaps it is unfair to expect it of them.

And that, that is what I don't like to realize at all; I hate to think that people can't attain or won't or choose not to take ideas that are so good and healthful and pure- though of course, they may only be this way for me. I assume that every person has the ability and the desire to climb to the highest of heights, to think and create and to be Howard Roark, to be creative man, and I also selfishly assume that this must be done by being intellectually honest and dealing with problems rather than avoiding them.

Maybe I have to accept that people really don't have the ability to deal with problems?

But for me, that's thinking less of people, that's saying that they've given up, that they're choosing not to see because they can't deal with the truth, and I don't want to say that; I think so highly of people- I don't want to think less of them! I don't want to hold anyone and I don't want anyone to hold me to less than the highest standard (whose standard? Good question...)

You know in the movie A Few Good Men where Colonel Jessep says, "You can't handle the truth?"

I have always, always thought that everyone should, can and must be made to be handle the truth, to deal with facts.

But perhaps, even though I hate this, I am wrong, and not everyone can.

Or perhaps I am the one who is really messed up here; I am the one who is making this pursuit of questions and delving into ideas and attempting to be intellectually honest, who believes in exposure to the world and different types and system of thought, who believes that people must live examined lives because the unexamined life is not worth living- into an ideal when it really isn't. Maybe I'm just crazy.

Well then, isn't this pleasant. Either I have to believe that people cannot attain the supposed ideal and standards I set for them or I have to believe that I'm crazy. Unless there are middle sections here that I'm not getting because I am incapable of nuanced thinking.

Oh, this is not the happiest morning for me.


Shoshana said...


I admire your pursuit of the truth very much, but I think the key is to respect those who choose not to make the same journey. Honestly, I don't think the world could handle it if everyone were a Howard Roark. He might have had vision, but he wasn't especially nice and he didn't care about anyone else. I wouldn't want everyone to be like that.

Chana said...

Right, hence it'd be Roark tempered by the Rav.

And how can you respect someone if you see them as a coward? And how can you refrain from seeing them as a coward to begin with? If I knew the answer to that, I'd be a much better person.

Anonymous said...

"But not everyone can be prophets.
And perhaps it is unfair to expect it of them."

Maybe prophet is not the ideal?

Chana said...

I don't have Halakhic Man in front of me because it is in New York with all my other college gear, but the prophet is definitely the ideal according to Rabbi Soloveitchik (and perhaps there are differing views, but that's the one I go by.)

Anonymous said...

"Prophet" in what sense?

Anonymous said...

"I am incapable of nuanced thinking."

I doubt that, maybe lateral thinking :)

Anonymous said...

"perhaps there are differing views"

"but that's the one I go by"

...and here you have, in my opinion, the answers to most honestly approached questions.

Scraps said...

Some people have to face their problems, their demons that haunt them by day and by night. But some people...well, for some people, ignoring their problems really DOES make them go away. Strangely enough. I don't think it is cowardice for such people "not to face reality", because for them, reality is what they make of it, rather than the objective reality we are used to.

It's hard for me to wrap my mind around also, that for some people to face their issues creates far more problems than it solves.

Ezzie said...

I have a lot to say, but I think that G and particularly Scraps summed up what I'd say best.

Irina Tsukerman said...

But perhaps people DO deal with their problems... not by ignoring them necessarily, but in their own way which is not always visible on the surface. Perhaps there are different WAYS of being a prophet... because as you've written, sometimes people got conflicting messages.

e-kvetcher said...

Wow, did I have a totally different understanding of that verse...

I guess I took it in the context of Moses continual sense of burden and responsibility for the nation. Just above your quote he says "I am not able to bear all this people myself alone, because it is too heavy for me." I assumed when he talks to Joshua later he is saying "I don't want to carry this responsibility of being between the nation and G-d, I wish you guys would bear your own burdens!"

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Tobie said...

I think that knowing that people can never all be prophets and wishing- longing- that they be so are not mutually exclusive. The capacity to hold both ideas in one's mind at once- realism and idealism- is probably one of the most difficult in the world, but seems to me to be one of the most valuable. And part of the realism is to see those who do not dare as they are- with all of their goodness and all of their cowardice- and to understand the cowardice and love the goodness nonetheless. (Don't worry, I am not so wonderful as to have achieved any of this)

לא עליך המלאכה לגמור ולא אתה בן חורין להיבטל ממנה- or "that is our quest- to follow that star. No matter how hopeless, no matter how far."

Anonymous said...

Chana, I know exactly what you're talking about. It's what I keep trying to tell myself - that according to my own, self-inflicted ideology of infinite ahavat yisroel for EVERY Jew and respect for every human being, this includes people who cannot think; and people who disagree with me. If I truly believe that Judaism should be accepting of all 70 ways of looking at the Torah, then that also includes the Bais Yaakov perspective. It's never fun to admit that stuff you vehemently dislike is also legitimate. But it is an inherent and vital piece of truth, and if you really are searching for truth, you have to accept it wherever and whatever it is, even when it's not fun.

Miri said...

sorry, that was me, I don't know why I was anonymous. And Tobie- nice topical reference there. I'm snickering on the inside.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I've just found your blog. I hope you don't mind me commenting, but you seem to have similar thought processes to me about some things.

I too have difficulty understanding why other people don't question things in depth, don't attempt to devise a philosophically coherent system of thought to live by and so on. One of the hardest things for me to accept is that not everyone will think like me. This doesn't mean they are stupid, but that there are different ways of serving Hashem. The way that works for me is particularly introspective, focused on my understanding of myself, of God and of the world. Other people have different outlooks on life, but it doesn't mean they aren't valid from an Orthodox perspective.

I have recently come to the tentative conclusion that one of the reasons we have so many mitzvot is that they are a philosophical system in action. They make people who would otherwise never think of learning philosophy understand certain keys concepts through action.

For example, there is much debate among philosophers as to whether animals have rights, and if so, what rights. Many people have little interest in this debate. However, the various mitzvot about animal welfare (kosher slaughter; chasing away a mother bird; not killing a mother and calf on the same day; not ploughing with a donkey and an ox etc.) teach a particular philosophical viewpoint: animals feel pain, both physical and psychological; they have the right to have this pain minimised; yet humans have the right to make use of animals, even to kill them. You or I might want to explore this topic in greater depth, yet even someone with no interest in doing this has, by fulfilling these mitzvot, come to understand and apply a particular philosophical viewpoint.

A more basic example is those mitzvot connected to chessed. Through doing these, we imitate Hashem's treatment of mankind and thereby come to understand Him better. Again, many people would never dream of reading philosophical or mystical books on the nature of God, but through giving tzedaka, visiting the sick, comforting mourners etc. they get an instinctive understanding of the chessed Hashem displays to mankind.

The most interesting interpretation of the story of Yosef and his brothers that I've heard is that their quarrel was on how to serve Hashem. I don't have time or space to go into it all here, but the children of Rivka tried to bring spirituality into the physical world, while those of Leah tried to concentrate on pure spirituality away from the physical. Ultimately, they had to realise that both approaches were valid and necessary. I think the same applies more generally. I could not cope with not thinking deeply about things, but maybe other people can and think I'm at fault for not doing some other thing which would never even occur to me. It's not a case of 'right' or 'wrong' (at least, within certain boundaries).

Chana said...

Tobie and Miri,

Thanks to you both. The only thing is, I'd have to find sources for all this before accepting anything as legitimate. I need sources for the 70 ways approach, sources for whatever the Agudah approach is based on, and so on and so forth.


Your answer is fantastic. It helps very much. Thank you. And I'd be very interested in hearing the rest of the idea regarding Yosef and his brothers. It sounds intriguing.

Anonymous said...

I've posted about the spiritual conflict between the children of Rachel and the children of Leah on my own weblog, here.