A People’s Prophet, A Prophet’s People
In Parashat Balak, the ruler of Moav calls on Bilam to curse Israel. God ends up putting words of blessing in his mouth, and he speaks prophetically about the people of Israel. The episode raises questions about prophecy—when it is and isn’t present, and for whom.
Interpreters across generations and genres have wondered why God is speaking to a prophet who isn’t Moshe—and isn’t even part of Israel. Does Torah suggest that other nations have authentic prophets, and if so, does that in some way detract from Israel’s authenticity and relationship with God?1 The fact that God speaks through Bilam could be theologically destabilizing, even though the story “ends well” with blessing. Many interpretations point out differences in Bilam’s prophecy, to assert that he wasn’t a “real” prophet like Moshe.2 These interpretations reflect a sense of insecurity about God having a relationship with prophets from other nations. Yet the plain text itself seems to harbor no self-consciousness regarding God speaking to Bilam.
The hassidic teacher R. Yehudah Aryeh Leib (Sefat Emet) engages a midrash that takes a different approach to Bilam the prophet. In the local narrative, the story of Bilam is mostly about how God saved Israel from potential curse, but in this midrash, Bilam represents something much larger. God’s fairness is at stake. The midrash assumes it was only fair that God should speak to prophets in other nations.3 Otherwise, they would have had a real claim against God, saying something like: “It’s not our fault that we didn’t follow Your ways—it’s Your fault, since You didn’t give us anyone to reveal Your ways!”4
Out of fairness, God gave Moav the prophet Bilam.5 This was the moment God offered non-Israelites to enter into relationship. However, this attempt failed. The midrash contrasts the cruelty of Bilam with the merciful tone of Israelite prophets—towards all nations (obviously it is a bit selective in the passages from prophets it quotes) and concludes:
וזה אכזרי עמד לעקור אומה שלימה חנם על לא דבר לכך נכתבה פרשת בלעם להודיע למה סלק הקב"ה רוח הקדש מעובדי כוכבים שזה עמד מהם וראה מה עשה.
This cruel one attempted to uproot an entire nation for nothing! Therefore, the parashah of Bilam was written to make known why the Holy One removed prophecy from the idol worshiping nations, for this one arose from them and look what he did!
There is a paradoxical interplay between universalism and particularism here. In theory, there is a universalist picture of prophecy. However, in the end only Israel has prophecy because they use this particular privilege to express universal compassion. This interplay between universalism and particularism explains both why God spoke to Bilam and why God doesn’t speak to prophets from other nations.
The midrash is meant to silence any doubts about the Jews’ unique relationship with God through prophecy, but it actually exposes a deeper question. To the extent that it is somehow reassuring for a sense of Jewish authenticity to establish that the other nations had no more prophets, at this point in history, neither does Israel. The midrash has explained why God gave—and took away—prophecy for other nations, but we are left to wonder what it means that God took away prophets from Israel too. It is this latter issue, exposed but unaddressed by the midrash, that becomes the primary focus of the Sefat Emet.
In his homily from the year 1889, he turns the midrash inside out, to expose this more pressing question:
הענין היא כי הנבואה הוא להוציא הכח אל הפועל בדיבור כי הנביא הוא בכלל פיהן של ישראל…לכן תלוי כח הנביא בעבודת כלל בנ''י כדכ' נביא מקרבך כו' יקום לך ויותר ממה שבנ''י צריכין אל הנביא צריך הנביא להם...
The issue is that prophecy seeks to actualize the potential through speech, for the prophet can be defined as “the mouth of Israel.” …Therefore, the power of the prophet depends on the avodah, the spiritual work, of all of the people of Israel, as it is written in Deuteronomy, “A prophet from amongst you God will establish for you” (Devarim 18:15). And more than the people of Israel need the prophet, the prophet needs them.
Here the Sefat Emet makes the simple move that a prophet speaks from the people, or of the people, as opposed to what we might have thought, and what the midrash seems to assume, that the prophet speaks from God to the people. This is a key shift, for now the power of the prophet depends on the people.
Based on this interdependent system, the Sefat Emet explains that when God gave the other nations Bilam, he wasn’t really a prophet, but a potential vessel of prophecy [כלי נבואה]. The other nations were not ready to support prophecy, so he did not actualize this potential. When the midrash says that God could point to Bilam to justify why he gave no more prophets to the other nations, the Sefat Emet understands that as pointing to the people’s own inadequacy.
Of course, the only next logical, troubling, step is that Israel’s lack of prophets nowadays is also a reflection of inadequacy. And that is exactly the next step the Sefat Emet takes.
וכמו כן נוכל לומר מה שניטל מאתנו הנבואה הגם בעונותינו הוא
We can say the same of why prophecy was taken away from us—that it is also due to our sins.
Instead of prophecy being a unidirectional gift bestowed by God, it has become, in the view of the Sefat Emet, something earned, or even more so, something that is in our hands to enable. If we are as undeserving as other nations, we too lack prophecy.
But this equation is not left as is, in a state of loss. The Sefat Emet goes on to completely reread the midrash, to flip its contents in a way that preserves its meaning.
אבל ג''ע עדות על בנ''י שלא יאמרו אוה''ע ע''י שקרבנו והעמיד לנו נביאים נמשכנו אחריו לכן נלקח מאתנו הנבואה ואעפ''כ בנ''י מתחזקים באמונתו ית' ועוסקין במצותיו להודיע כי הפנימיות נמצא בבנ''י הגם שאין לנו נביאים...
But [the fact that prophecy has been taken away] is also testimony to the people of Israel that the nations of the world do not say, “It is only because God brought us close and gave us prophets that we were drawn after God.” Therefore, prophecy was taken away from us. Despite the fact that we have lost prophecy, the people of Israel hold strong in believing in the Blessed One and engage in God’s mitzvot, to make known that the inner divine is found within the people of Israel, even though we do not have prophets.
Unlike for the midrash, where the burning question was how could God give a prophet to another nation, the burning question for the Sefat Emet is: what does it mean that God took away prophecy from Israel? He concludes that it is for the same purpose—so that other nations cannot claim Israel received privileged treatment. There is nothing inherently different between Israel and other nations. There is just a choice, a desire, to be in relationship with God through belief and mitzvot even without any clear indicator of God’s interest or guidance in that relationship, through prophecy.
The Sefat Emet clearly urges us to hold fast in our beliefs and practices even with nothing to go on. But there is more here, this picture of a shared vacuum of prophecy is not the final word. As he said before, it is within ourselves, as a people, that the potential for prophecy lies; we may in fact be able to create a prophet.
Although it used to be that knowledge of God became widespread through words that issued from the mouth of a prophet, the mouthpiece of prophecy is actually elsewhere in our own world. Knowledge of God is hidden in words of Torah and prayer. He also describes Shabbat as a sort of prophet in our day.6 Instead of amplifying an insecurity about whether other nations have prophets, and whether our own lack of prophets means we are inadequate, Sefat Emet here invites us to focus on our own substantive practice. We can create the prophetic mouthpiece when we open our mouths in Torah and prayer, and when we are open to the insight Shabbat brings.
Worrying about who has or doesn’t have a prophet is just a distraction from the real work. Nowadays, nobody has prophets. We are just like the other nations. There is no external sign of Israel’s “chosenness”—all that matters is choosing to throw ourselves into the work we feel we can do in the world. The strength of our belief in this vision, even with no external explicit prophet, is the essence of prophecy anyway. The moment doesn’t call for debunking others’ prophets or waiting for our own prophet to guide us. The moment calls for becoming the people we can be, and if we do a good job of that, we will have already created the “prophet” we think we need.
2 For example, pointing to the different verbs used, that God called directly to Moshe—ויקרא—but only “happened upon” Bilam— ויקר. Bilam is described as “falling” when he prophesied, compelled to lie down face to the ground, as Rashi explains, so that his uncircumcised body would not be disgraceful to God.
3 It is quite possible that this midrash is responding to an insecurity about Muhammed as a prophet in Islam. Thank you to Elisheva Urbas for pointing out this historical context as a backdrop for the exegetical moves.
4 וירא בלק בן צפור זה שאמר הכתוב (דברים לב) הצור תמים פעלו כי כל דרכיו משפט< לא הניח הקב"ה לעובדי כוכבים פתחון פה לעתיד לבא לומר שאתה רחקתנו, מה עשה הקב"ה כשם שהעמיד מלכים וחכמים ונביאים לישראל כך העמיד לעובדי כוכבים.
Therefore, also on the holy Sabbath, it is written, “To know that I am God” (Exodus 31) for just as the prophet is the mouthpiece of Israel, so too there is in the realm of time the holy Sabbath that is called “witness” and on it the mouth is open and knowledge is revealed.