Friday, August 24, 2012

A Prophet Like Me

Parshat Shoftim

by Rabbi Avi Billet

The shofar sound this past Sunday began the wake-up call of the month of Elul that reminds us that Rosh Hashana will soon be upon us. As I look back at notes from previous years, I have found that the commentary of Rabbenu Bachaye on these coming parshas has found an important place in my own Elul and Teshuvah-focused experience. This week we will look at one of his important teachings.
In the context of reminding the Israelite nation not to follow the influence of the necromancers of the nations that surround you, a seemingly uncharacteristic comment escapes Moshe's lips: "A prophet from among you, from your brethren, such as myself, will be whom Hashem your God establishes for you – listen to him [the prophet]." (18:15)

In Hebrew, the "comment" is all of one word: "Kamoni," or "such as myself."

Many commentaries suggest that this comment refers to the previous word "me'achekha" – from your brethren – that Moshe is saying any prophet you will have will be from the Israelite nation. Not only that, but unlike some of the "prophets" who were discussed last week (Chapter 13), he will teach you the ways of God and will not steer you in the direction of idolatry or the occult, "kamoni" – meaning "along the lines as I have properly led you."
Rabbenu Bachaye points out, for example, that one might think "Achekha" includes a prophet from the children of Eisav or Ishmael. This is another reason why Moshe is clear to say "Kamoni," only from a direct Israelite lineage.
All these disclaimers are nice, but the fact remains that if Moshe needed to bring an example, he could have just as easily used his brother's name, or he could have pointed at Yehoshua as he did in Bamidbar 27 and Devarim 1 and 3 saying, "A prophet… such as Yehoshua who will be taking over when I am gone." Why did he say what seems like a hubris statement – "You'll want a prophet like me"? After all, if we know Moshe was the humblest of people (Bamidbar 12:3), certainly this comment is out of character!
Not one to miss an opportunity, the Baal Haturim notices that "Kamoni" (כמוני) has the same numerical value as "Anav" (humble) (ענו) (both equal 126). Moshe does not want to say "I am humble." But he does want to suggest, in code, what is a good quality of a leader.

Humility is not defined as thinking you are a nobody. Humility means knowing who you are, and not making a big deal about it. It means understanding your role, as you understand that you are a nobody in comparison to God. Most importantly, a humble leader knows that circumstances have brought him or her to a position that commands respect or is an inspiration to others, but it's the position which is respected before the person filling it earns the respect – based on one's deeds.
Rabbenu Bachaye explains Moshe's word-choice as follows. "The prophet should be like me, meaning he should follow my precedent. He should not add nor subtract or uproot a single mitzvah from the Torah, unless he is an established prophet and the specific circumstance warrants it (eg Elijah bringing sacrifices on Mt Carmel during the time of the Temple). Ours is not a religion in which we believe in Moshe as prophet and leader on account of the signs and wonders he did. It is all on account of our having heard God's word directly from Him [at Sinai], as did Moshe. We know it, we were witnesses to it, as it says (Shmot 19:9), 'Behold I am coming to you in a thick cloud so that the nation will hear when I speak with you, and they will believe in you [as My chosen leader] forever.'"
Rabbenu Bachaye quotes Maimonides (Foundations of the Torah Chapter 8) as the source for his position, and Maimonides continues the point saying every sign Moshe did was to get them to follow him to Sinai. But every sign also gets people thinking "Maybe this guy is a magician." The Sinai experience changed all of that forever.
When Moshe says, "God will appoint a prophet Kamoni," he is saying "It will be so clear in your eyes who is a true prophet, because he stands for Torah, is guided by the Torah, and doesn’t change the Torah." He needs to use himself, and not Aharon or Yehoshua, as an example, because it was Moshe who was on Sinai. This is not arrogance. This is knowing and understanding what his role was, is and remains forever.
Judaism has always been a religion in which the Written and Oral Torahs are sacrosanct. In different circles, and across a large spectrum, it has become about many other things. Chumras, how "frum" you are, what clothes you wear, how you look, where you send your kids to yeshiva/school, social action, social justice, right wing politics (more common in observant communities), left-wing politics (more common in non-observant communities), and "tikkun olam."
The shofar and Elul remind us, as does Moshe, that we need to look to and follow the examples of leaders and leadership that help us maintain our focus – a Jewish experience that follows the model set at Sinai, of a commitment to and observance of God's word, in which nothing (beyond certain social changes as fitting to the world in which we live) is added to or subtracted from the Torah.

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