Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 18 August 2018 / 7 Elul 5778

Parshat Shoftim

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Prophecy: Proof and Purpose

The Torah warns us in two places about the dangers of false prophets. One sign of a false prophet is any contradiction to the law laid down by Moshe. Another sign of a false prophet is mentioned in our Torah portion: If the prophet’s word does not materialize (lo yehiyeh) or come to pass (lo yavo), then he is not speaking the word of G-d. Even if the content of his prophecy is consistent with the Torah, if the miracles or events he predicts do not come about he is to be regarded as a false prophet.

Our Sages teach (Sanhedrin 89b) that a prophet needed to authenticate his mission by means of miracle or prediction only at the beginning of his prophetic career. Once he satisfied this criteria, he was to be heeded, and did not need to repeat the miracle or prediction before speaking in the name of G-d.

And generally speaking, the prophets did not use their power to perform miracles or to predict the future. For this is not the real calling of a prophet. Rather, the purpose of their mission is to give people insight into themselves and into G-d’s ways with them and with other peoples. By revealing an understanding of the present, of G-d’s expectations of them, they warn against evil and encourage good. They inspire faithfulness to G-d and His Torah in all situations.

There are relatively few miracles recorded in our canon of prophetic books. And when a miracle was performed it was not done so as an end in itself. For example, many miracles appear in the lives of Eliyahu and Elisha, with most of them performed in the private lives of individuals. Eliyahu and Elisha operated exclusively in the Kingdom of Israel, as opposed to the Kingdom of Judah. In the Kingdom of Israel the people were corrupted by the influence of their neighboring idolaters. Those people, whose minds and lives were torn between G-d and Ba’al — or in the words of Eliyahu, dancing between two ideas (Kings I 18:21) — were in dire need of clear revelation of one Omnipotent G-d, Whose providence reaches even the small matters of private life.

But in the main, the prophet of Israel was not a miracle-worker or a fortune teller. He was an emissary of G-d, who communicated His word and instruction to inspire people in faith. For that, he did not need to work wonders. When his communication revealed a deep understanding of the present national and human condition, and prodded the people to live up to G-d’s expectations of them, he had fulfilled his mission.

  • Source: Commentary, Devarim 18:22

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