Num. 12:6 introduces us to the concept of prophecy. God says:
“If a prophet of the Lord arises among you, I make Myself known to him in a vision”.
Whilst priesthood comes from lineage, prophecy is personal. For Judah HaLevi, it is a Divine grace: for Maimonides, it comes from reaching up to God. One can train to be a prophet, though God can reject him, and no prophet can oppose the Torah. Instead of wandering ecstatics, dervishes and religious mercenaries, Biblical prophets were men of moral insight and courage, challenging the establishment, castigating the unrighteous and envisioning a perfect society.
They were not necessarily kohanim or sages. The kohen has a ritual function: the prophet goes wherever the word of God leads him. The sage is erudite: the prophet is a poet and visionary. The prophet has an extra sense and draws conclusions from events and trends. Where right and wrong are blurred, he is sure that disaster is inevitable: but after destruction will come redemption.
Christianity emphasised the prophet as prognosticator. It said that Isaiah was predicting exact events and that Jesus was the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53. Judaism did not acknowledge him as a prophet, either as a foreteller or a forthteller. It said prophecy was in limbo:
“When the Temple was destroyed, prophecy was given over to fools and children”. Prophetic insight was gone, but “fools and children”
never lost their innocent ability to see and believe. One day prophecy would be restored and the prophet Elijah would return to solve the world’s problems and proclaim the Messiah.
The major problem of prophecy is how it is possible at all. How can a non-physical God relate to a material world and physical creatures? Ahad HaAm says that the prophet is “a man of truth. He tells the truth not because he wants to but because he ‘can no other’. The Prophet is an extremist. He can accept no compromise. He is also a man of justice, which is truth in action”.
“The prophet is a man who feels fiercely. God has thrust a burden upon his soul, and he is bowed and stunned. Frightful is the agony of man; no human voice can convey its full terror. Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony. It is a form of living, a crossing point of God and man.”
A CUSHITE WOMAN
Moses’ siblings complained because he had married a Cushite woman (Num. 12:1). One view says Cush is Upper Egypt; another that it is Ethiopia. The rabbis took the passage to refer to Zipporah even though she was a Midianite (Mo’ed Katan 16b). Regardless, the problem seems to be that she was dark-skinned. God sternly rebukes Miriam and Aaron for criticising Moses, thus rejecting their apparent prejudice.
The Bible itself has no problem with Cushites, and the Psalms (68:32) speak of Egyptians and Cushites wanting to serve God. When people objected to Cushites, the prophet Amos emphasised that God was colour-blind:
“Are you not as the children of the Ethiopians to Me, O Children of Israel?”
“Cushite” is not a code-word for unacceptable; the Talmud says that Cushites are handsome – despite their colour… and ethical – despite their appearance! Says the Tanchuma (Tzav 13), “If a boy is good-looking, his father calls him ‘Cushite’”.
Everywhere in modern Israel you see Jews of many backgrounds and skin colours. One might quote and adapt a famous rabbinic passage which arises out of the discussion of whether a court may impose the death sentence, “Who says your blood is redder than his (the criminal’s)?”
In the field of racial discrimination, one might say, “Who says that God loves palefaces more than people with dark skins?”
GRUMBLERS OR NOT?
An interesting phrase: “The people were like murmurers, which was evil in the ears of the Lord” (Num. 11:1). It doesn’t say they actually were murmurers but they were like murmurers.
We seem to have here a parallel to a verse we read a few weeks back about a possible plague in a house. The Torah says, “K’nega nir’ah li babayit” – “Something like a plague appears to me (to be) in the house” (Lev. 14:35). When we see something that looks unacceptable, we should not be in too much of a hurry to pass judgment. We can say, “It appears to be a plague”, not, “There is definitely a plague”.
Let me illustrate this with a memory of a member of my first congregation. He told me that at a company directors’ meeting he was rather certain that the chairman was not telling the truth. But instead of saying, “Mr Chairman, you are a liar!” he said, “Mr Chairman, you appear to have permitted yourself to be misinformed”. The Torah does not say, “The people were murmurers”, but “The people were like murmurers”.
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem. Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com