Translated by Hillel Fendel
One of the unique and greatly significant phenomena during the times of the First Beit HaMikdash was that of prophecy.
Throughout the long period from the inception of the People of Israel and up until the destruction of the First Temple, prophecy was that which characterized Jewish culture.
The ancient world was familiar with prophets, as well as seers, fortune tellers, and magicians of all types, some of whom are even mentioned in the Torah. In general, Judaism relates negatively to the various forms of magic that seeks to know the future or affect the present in non-natural ways. But true prophets were different: They stood for the living, dynamic and perpetual bonds between the Blessed G-d and the Nation of Israel. They also had Halakhic standing in being authorized to issue temporary legal edicts and regulations, and also served as the nation's moral and ethical compass.
At the center of Jewish life and culture is the covenant between Israel and G-d, and therefore one of its most important aspects is the ongoing and vibrant connection between them – and this is expressed by the Prophets. This ranges from everyday matters such as finding the lost donkeys of Sha'ul before he became king, to the ethical behavior of the people, public policies, and the vision of the End of Days.
Jewish prophecy is not "magic," nor is it a "profession." The prophet simply prays to G-d; we see no account of prophetic "technique" (other than where the Prophet Elisha brought a dead boy to life). The wizards and sorcerers, on the other hand, utilize systems involving information and skills that can be passed on to others, just like in any other profession. Our Sages do not deny that these magical systems sometimes work, such as in the case of Bil'am, but rather that they depend on G-d's will. Our natural world runs on laws and rules, such as those of physics, and magic too, and they can be activated by mortal men – with certain restrictions.
Prophecy in Israel, however, does not utilize magic – not because it does not exist, but because it is void of Divine significance. It would be like using a tool purposefully created by G-d while ignoring the basic meaning and essence with which He infused it.
This is thus a basic difference between the Jewish view and that of those who misuse their "super-natural" powers: The latter seek to understand how the world works and harness its powers, while Judaism wishes and works to find G-d and goodness. This has been true ever since the times of the Patriarch Abraham.
Who Can Become a Prophet?
Not everyone who wishes to become a prophet can be one. Even if he prepares himself to become pure, ethical, and ready to pass on G-d's word – this is no guarantee. As opposed to a profession, such as magician, which one can study and be granted a diploma, a true prophet must be "chosen by G-d." There were those who sought to be prophets, and the Bible tells us of groups of "sons of prophets" – but not all of them were privileged to actually become prophets. To acquire the "skill" of prophecy is something beyond natural law and beyond the revealed or hidden mechanism of Creation. It is simply "Divine choice." Some prophets were chosen to give prophecy only once in their lives, and others – much more. The Talmud states that we know of 48 prophets and seven prophetesses whose words are remembered, for their prophecies were "required for generations."
Another important difference between prophecy and sorcery is in their content. As opposed to the "functional" prophecy of the Gentiles, which includes tips on what to do and how, the revelation of secrets such as who is guilty of a particular crime, and the like – Israelite prophecy comprises mainly ethical content that is designed to emphasize and bring to life the deepest parts of our souls. It is predicated on the concept that "closeness to G-d" is a value in and of itself, and not a means by which to attain something else. Jewish prophecy, starting from the Patriarchs and Moshe Rabbeinu, is designed to reveal that which is real and true in our existence: the covenant between us and G-d.
The False Prophets
Who, then, are the "false prophets" that we hear so much about, especially in the Bible? This negative phenomenon sprouted up alongside true prophecy, as often happens with good things in the world. The falsehood of false prophecy is that it preserves the structure of prophecy while replacing its content and essence.
To explain: We know that the Prophet Jeremiah warned the nation of upcoming destruction and exile, while the false prophets reassured them that nothing would happen and everything would be fine. The false prophets took an important value – "The Eternal One of Israel will never lie or change His mind" (Samuel I 15,29) – and falsely interpreted it to mean that He would never punish His people.
The true prophets, on the other hand, had a more difficult message for the Jewish society of the day: "Because of your ethical decay, the Temple will be destroyed." Prior to that, they warned the people that if they change their ways, the decree would be changed. The difference is stark: The true prophets demand repentance and change, while the false prophets comfort the people unconditionally. And this is precisely the falsehood: the lack of a demand for improvement.
Judaism is entirely based on the need for ethical improvement and rectification in the world. And when a "prophecy" is sounded that reassures us that everything will be OK even if we do nothing because there is a Divine promise – this is a lie. True Jewish prophecy demands rectification, and gives genuine comfort when it is based on change.
The prophets of Israel at the time did not succeed. The people did not change, the Temple was destroyed, and the nation was exiled. But the prophecy still had critically important value for generations: It succeeded in imbuing within our souls the covenant, the importance of ethics, and the vision.
Prophecies regarding the End of Days are also a matter of ethics and morals – not only because this is their content, but also because of the way they look at time and history as something that is affected by our actions. We thus learn that everything we do on the ethical plane has consequences in terms of clarifying and learning from experience, resulting in our improvement. The vision of the End of Days is the appropriate end-note for mankind's sufferings, teaching that our tribulations were not for naught.
The Historic Power and Vitality of Imagery
Finally, let us note one other aspect that prophecy has imprinted on our national soul: Via its picturesque wording and imagery, prophecy shows the vitality of the G-d-man covenant in human nature and in the nature in general. The prophetic parables create a picture that includes a beautiful world of animals, fruits, plants, and various human and social situations. We thus learn that the covenant is not merely Divine Will and closeness, but also a covenant that is part of our world.
And this brings us to a very important point: the importance of the longing for the Land of Israel, not only religiously, but also in terms of what comprises a total and correct life – fields, orchards, worlds of animal and plant life and human society. The style of Jewish prophecy and its allegories imbues our national and individual souls with this concept. This longing for complete life was a tremendous force that preserved the nation throughout its Exile, painting an alternative picture to the dreary existence in the Diaspora.
Actually, it did not only preserve the nation, but actually drew it towards the desired objective. Historians are amazed at the Jewish People's capacity to have remembered the Land for so many centuries, when so few of us actually lived there during these years. The credit is due in no small measure to the manner in which our prophets guided us and the vibrant style in which they instructed us; it was this that drew a picture and created
the longing in our souls to return and live so naturally in our Land.
In order to get articles like this delivered straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the Israel National Torah newsletter here.