This page presents insights by Rabbi Tuvia Bolton on the weekly Torah portion.
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Parshat Shoftim (5768)
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 if a Jew fills the criterion of being a prophet (see Rambam (aka Maimonides), Yesodi HaTorah chapts. 7-1) we must treat him as a messenger of G-d even if he contradicts common sense! (As long as he doesn't contradict the Torah).
This commandment is so essential to Judaism that it is considered one of the 13 Foundations of Jewish faith and its transgression can be punishable by death.
But despite all this throughout history the Jews almost always disobeyed their prophets!!
In fact, this was the reason for the tragic destruction of the First Temple and the bitter exile we are in today; no one harkened to Isaiah, Jeremiah et al to the degree that the Prophet Jonah fled from Israel and was swallowed by a whale because he was sure the Jews would ignore his 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.
He spoke about Congresswoman Shirley 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 fighting for justice. She was intelligent, brave and assertive and proved to be a formidable and outspoken orator. 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 Congress; 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 wanted to make a difference and rendered her impotent to fight for the things she stood for.
She was angry and depressed; she had been cleverly outmaneuvered and totally defeated even before she had begun. The New York Times even poked fun at her in an article entitled, "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn?"
All her plans, dreams and goals went down the drain and there seemed to be no way out. This was all before she even began her stint in Congress.
Then, early one morning, she received a phone call from the office of the Lubavitcher Rebbe Rabbi Menachem Shneerson. One of his secretaries was on the phone; the Rebbe wanted to speak to her.
She was familiar with the Rebbe. The Crown Heights district of Brooklyn where he and his Chassidim live was in her jurisdiction and when she had run for office she visited the Rebbe to request his endorsement. He refused her request saying that he did not get involved in politics but, she quipped afterwards, she must have done something right because everyone in Crown Heights voted for her.
She went to the Rebbe's headquarters, a large red brick building on 770 Eastern Parkway, was shown into his office and sat down at the front of his desk opposite him certain that he wanted to ask a favor.
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. First of all she figured that he was interested in his followers not in the poor of America.
Also, she was still bitter about being sidelined and wanted either to quit or at least to put up a fight. She was having trouble digesting what the Rebbe said but slowly she realized that he was telling her how to transform the situation.
And sure enough things begin to happen.
As soon as she arrived in Washington a Congressman by the name of Robert Dole approached her and began a conversation; he had a problem and needed help. The farmers in his State of Kansas had millions of bushels of surplus grain and other produce which, for years, no one could figure out what to do with. Maybe she as the head of the Agriculture Committee had an idea?
Suddenly she remembered what the Rebbe had said and it occurred to her that at that time there was a small, nascent program called Food Stamps that had barely gotten off the ground. She put the two together.
She expanded and developed the Food Stamp program 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."
Now we can begin to answer our question.
The purpose of the Jewish people is to teach the world to do what Mrs. Chisolm did in our story; transform darkness to light.
That is why G-d sent prophets; to teach the Jewish people.
Maimonides (ibid) points out that there are various types of prophesy but what they all have in common is they inspire man to transform selfishness to selflessness in order to follow the will of the Creator in the Torah (Seven Noahide Commandments for gentiles).
And this is for our benefit; "G-d is Good to all' (Psalms 145:9) but often humans think that even if He is good….. they know and ARE better.
In addition, humans have a tendency to take things 'easy' (i.e. at face value) as the saying goes; 'People and rivers become crooked by following the path of least resistance'.
Just as we saw in our story: for some reason no one thought of feeding the hungry with the extra bounty of the USA.
All combined, the prophets have a very difficult task: to convince people to conquer and transform themselves and then the world around them from bad to good.
Just as in our story; the Rebbe overlooked the apparent difficulties and transformed apparent obstacles into a wonderful solution.
If Mrs. Chisolm hadn't been appointed to the Agriculture department millions might be starving and thousands of farmers would be stuck with even more surplus produce.
But people don't want to change. That is why they rejected the prophets; they don't believe it's possible to be rid of selfishness, hatred, and destructive desires and habits. In other words they become addicted to darkness and exile. To this very day.
But it's never too late.
The Rebbe pointed out that this 'Foundation' of Judaism has no time limit; the commandment to hearken to the prophets still exists and according to all opinions prophesy will return before the arrival of Moshiach (now!).
As we see how the Baal Shem Tov and many of his followers especially the Rebbes of Chabad possessed very high levels of accurate prophesy.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe of our story 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 the Rebbe's greatest and most important prophesy was: "Behold, Moshiach arrives!" namely that we are now in the age of Moshiach and even our smallest efforts can transform the world into a holy, positive, meaningful and blessed place.
As they did in our story.
We just have to learn the teachings of the Rebbe (see your local Chabad Chassid for details). Then even ONE more good deed, word or even thought can tilt the scales and bring a new, happy, meaningful, good world with...
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