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Parshat Shoftim (5767)
This week we read about the commandment of the Jewish prophet (18:18).
This commandment is a touchy one. It means we have to believe in people! Not worship them of course, but to follow everything a prophet says as the word of G-d even if it makes no sense! (As long as it doesn't go against the Torah; see Rambam, Yesodi HaTorah chapts. 7-10).
This commandment of following true prophets is essential to Judaism. It is one of the 13 foundations of Jewish faith and is so important that its transgression is punishable by death
But nevertheless, despite all this, throughout history the Jews never listened to their prophets!!
In fact, this was the reason for the tragic destruction of the First Temple and the resultant bitter exile we are in today; no one harkened to Isaiah, Jeremiah and the others and the book of Jonah relates how he fled from Israel and was swallowed by a whale because he was afraid that the Jews would ignore his prophetic message.
Why would G-d make a commandment that is so hard to follow? And, conversely, what is so hard about it? Why did everyone reject the prophets?
And finally, what has this got to do with us today, weren't the last prophets seen some 2,500 years ago?
To understand this, here is a story I just saw in a J.E.M (Jewish Educational Media) video told by a Professor of Political Science by the name of David Lukens.
The story is about CongresswomanShirley Chisolm the first black female to be elected to U.S. Congress.
It happened in the mid Sixties when Black pride and Black Power were becoming major issues and Mrs. Chisolm was right in the middle of it.
She had been a teacher in New York but got interested in representing the blacks and fighting for justice. She was intelligent, brave and assertive and proved to be a formidable and outspoken speaker. So it was no wonder that when she won the election to the House of Representatives for Brooklyn it raised a lot of eyebrows and even before she arrived in Washington she already had a host of enemies
Especially the ultra-conservative Southern contingent in the House of Representatives; they were afraid of her determination and talents and were willing to do anything and everything to neutralize her.
And they found a way.
They assigned her to, of all things, the Agriculture Committee. It was a topic she knew nothing about, far from poverty, housing or education or anywhere that she might make a difference. She had been rendered completely impotent to fight for the things she stood for.
She was angry and depressed; she had been cleverly outsmarted, outmaneuvered and totally defeated even before she had begun. The New York Times even wrote an article making fun of a black New York girl in agriculture entitled "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn?"
All her plans, dreams and goals were down the drain and there seemed to be no way out.
Then, early one morning, she received a phone call from the office of the Lubavitcher Rebbe Rabbi Menachem Shneerson. His secretaries forwarded the Rebbe's message; he wanted to speak to her.
As strange as it might seem she was familiar with the Rebbe. The Crown Heights district of Brooklyn where he and his Chassidim live was in her jurisdiction. Not only that but when she was running for office she visited the Rebbe to request his endorsement, which he refused to give. But, she quipped afterwards, he must have done something right because all his Chassidim voted for her and because of their votes she got into Congress.
She went to the Rebbe's headquarters, entered his room and sat down at the front of his desk opposite him.
The Rebbe welcomed her and got right to the point, "I understand that you have been assigned to the Agriculture Department and are not happy"
"Not happy?" She replied "I'm miserable! I'm angry and depressed that they did such a thing to me and I don't know what to do! My career has been destroyed!"
The Rebbe replied "That is why I wanted to speak to you. You should realize that your appointment is a blessing from Heaven. There happens to be much surplus food in the United States. And there also is much poverty. In fact there are very many people in the United States that are actually hungry for bread. G-d has put you in the agricultural committee to feed these people. You must use this opportunity and your position to do your best."
Mrs. Chisolm left the Rebbe a bit confused but encouraged. This was not at all what she had planed when she entered Congress but it was certainly better than giving up. Slowly she realized that he was trying to transform the situation. But it was so abrupt that she was having trouble digesting it.
And sure enough the Rebbe's advice materialized.
As soon as she arrived in Washington a now famous Congressman by the name of Robert Dole approached her and began a conversation. Eventually he got around to a problem he had. The farmers in his State of Kansashad millions of bushels of surplus grain and other produce they didn't know what to do with. In fact for years no one could figure out what to do with it… Maybe she had an idea?
Suddenly she remembered that at that time there was a small, nascent program called Food Stamps that had barely gotten off the ground and she put two and two together.
She expanded and developed it into the Welfare Stamp program which eventually included millions of people. Because of it myriads of men women and children had meals three times a day.
She attained much recognition for this achievement but each time she was interviewed in the press or on the media she was careful to give credit to the Rebbe. And when she retired from Congress she was quoted as saying,
"If there are poor babies and poor people that have food today it is due to a Rabbi in Brooklyn. He had the vision and optimism to transform everything to good."
This was the purpose of the Prophets; to transform darkness to light.
Maimonidies points out that there are various types of prophesy but what they all have in common is they inspire man to transform bad to good and follow the will of the Creator; the Torah.
Just as the Rebbe saw only what was good despite the apparent difficulties and his positive vision transformed a problem to a wonderful solution. In fact it did so in such a way that we can be grateful for the problem itself; if she hadn't been appointed to Agriculture millions might be starving today and the farmers would be stuck with even more surplus produce.
So also, the purpose of the prophets is to transform the problems of mankind, indeed of each and every one of us, into assets.
But one of the biggest problems of all is that people don't want to change. That is why they rejected the prophets; they don't believe it's possible to be rid of hatred, depression, destructive desires and habits. In other words they become addicted to darkness and exile.
But it's never too late.
The Rebbe pointed out that the commandment to hearken to the prophets still exists today.
According to all opinions prophesy will return before the arrival of Moshiach and in fact we see that the Baal Shem Tov and many of his followers possessed a very high level of prophesy especially the Rebbes of Chabad.
Indeed the Rebbe himself prophesized the outcome of the six day war, the fall of the iron curtain, the tragedy of the Yom Kippur war, the miracles of the Gulf war and much much more.
But his greatest prophesy of all was: "Behold, Moshiach arrives!" namely that because we are now in the age of Moshiach even the smallest efforts on our part to transform the world into a holy, positive, meaningful and blessed place will succeed…..
As they did in our story with Shirley Chisolm… and even more so.
We just have to do all we can to think, speak and act according to the Rebbe's optimistic vision and in order to see a new, good world with...
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