Friday, June 24, 2016

Prophets: Real Isn’t Always the Real Deal / Parshat B'haalotekha

How do you know if a prophet is the real deal? Let me acknowledge from the beginning that you might not believe that prophecy itself is real, but rather that the words and ideas of self-proclaimed prophets derive from their own minds and agendas, and lie along a spectrum from truly righteous teachings to dangerously incoherent rantings. In fact, history is riddled with false prophets, and they leave a trail of death and destruction in their wake (David Koresh and Jim Jones jump to mind). False prophets have two things in common: charisma and narcissism. It’s no surprise that the Rabbis were very wary of self-proclaimed prophets and pronounced the age of prophecy closed.

In Parshat B’haalotekha, we meet Eldad and Medad, who seem to be ecstatic prophets. Torah tells us that Moses gathers the seventy elders of Israel around the Ohel Mo’ed (Tent of Meeting). God descends in a cloud, siphons off some of the divine spirit that God had given Moses, and transfers it to the elders. The elders then “prophesied” (some translations suggest “spoke in ecstasy”) but did not continue. This is where Eldad and Medad enter the picture.

 וַיִּשָּׁאֲרוּ שְׁנֵי-אֲנָשִׁים בַּמַּחֲנֶה שֵׁם הָאֶחָד אֶלְדָּד וְשֵׁם הַשֵּׁנִי מֵידָד וַתָּנַח עֲלֵהֶם הָרוּחַ, וְהֵמָּה בַּכְּתֻבִים, וְלֹא יָצְאוּ, הָאֹהֱלָה; וַיִּתְנַבְּאוּ, בַּמַּחֲנֶה.  כ וַיָּרָץ הַנַּעַר, וַיַּגֵּד לְמֹשֶׁה וַיֹּאמַר:  אֶלְדָּד וּמֵידָד, מִתְנַבְּאִים בַּמַּחֲנֶה.  וַיַּעַן יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בִּן-נוּן, מְשָׁרֵת מֹשֶׁה מִבְּחֻרָיו--וַיֹּאמַר:  אֲדֹנִי מֹשֶׁה, כְּלָאֵם.  וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ מֹשֶׁה, הַמְקַנֵּא אַתָּה לִי; וּמִי יִתֵּן כָּל-עַם יְהוָה, נְבִיאִים--כִּי-יִתֵּן יְהוָה אֶת-רוּחוֹ, עֲלֵיהֶם. וַיֵּאָסֵף מֹשֶׁה, אֶל-הַמַּחֲנֶה--הוּא, וְזִקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

Two men, one named Eldad and the other Medad, had remained in camp; yet the spirit rested upon them—they were among those recorded, but they had not gone out to the Tent [with the seventy elders]—and they began prophesying [or: “spoke in ecstasy] in the camp. A youth ran out and told Moses, saying, “Eldad and Medad are acting the prophet in the camp!” And Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ attendant from his youth, spoke up and said, “My lord Moses, restrain them!” But Moses said to him, “Are you wrought up on my account? Would that all Adonai’s people were prophets, that Adonai put [the divine] spirit upon them!” Moses then reentered the camp together with the elders of Israel. (Numbers 11:26–30)

This account of Eldad and Medad raises numerous questions. If Eldad and Medad are prophets, why are they not among the seventy elders, or at least with them? How does Moses know they are the genuine article? What is the content of their prophecy? (Torah doesn’t tell us.) Why is Joshua upset and why does he want Moses to restrain Eldad and Medad? What are we to make of Moses’ democratizing view of prophecy?

The Bavli (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 17a) has an interesting view of this whole affair. It begins by telling us that Eldad and Medad were authentic prophets, as evidenced by their humility: they considered themselves unworthy for the role.

R. Shimon said, “[Eldad and Medad] remained in the camp. When the Holy Blessed One told Moses, Gather to Me seventy of the elders of Israel, Eldad and Medad said, ‘We are not worthy of this greatness.’ The Holy Blessed One said, ‘Because you have humbled yourselves, I will add yet more greatness to your greatness.” What greatness did [God] add to them? All the prophets [the seventy elders] prophesied and stopped but [Eldad and Medad] prophesied and did not stop.”

This, in itself, is a fascinating point: Prophecy is a reward for their humility. Moreover, genuine prophets (whether the source of their message is God or their own inspiration) are not narcissistic, self-aggrandizing, publicity-seeking, power-hungry, or self-absorbed. That disqualifies a great many people throughout history who have dubbed themselves prophets.

The Talmud then offers three opinions concerning the content of Eldad and Medad’s prophecy, a subject that Torah does not mention.

And what was the content of their prophecy? They said, “Moses will die. Joshua will bring Israel into the Land.”

Abba Chanin said in the name of R. Eliezer, “They prophesied concerned the quails, ‘Arise, quails! Arise, quails!’”

Rav Nachman said, “They prophesied concerning Gog and Magog, as it is said, Thus says the Lord our God: Why you [Gog] are the one I spoke of in ancient days through My servants, the prophets of Israel, who prophesied for years (shanim) in those days that I would bring you against them! (Ezekiel 38:17). Do not read shanim (“years”) but rather sh’nayim (“two”). Which two prophets prophesied the very same thing at the very same time? You should say: Eldad and Medad.”

The first view is that Eldad and Medad forecast the death of Moses, and Joshua’s succession to leadership, suggesting that they sought to influence the power structure of Israel. The second view, attributed to Abba Chanin, is that the prophetic duo delivered messages of immediate concerning; this entire account is set against the background of the Israelites’ complaint that they are tired of manna and long for tasty food. According to this view, as prophets, Eldad and Medad are focused on the timely needs and concerns of the nation. The third view, attributed to Rav Nachman, is that Eldad and Medad’s  prophecy concerned eschatology: they spoke about the end game of history.[1] 

Despite Talmud’s claim that Eldad and Medad are the picture of humility, it appears that they are full of themselves: they prophesy inside the camp. Even the seventy elders “licensed” by God to prophesy do so outside the camp. How can this be a problem if their prophecy comes from God? Perhaps it is the very fact of their charisma, which attracts people to their opinions and pontifications and threatens to derail the leadership structure of the nation. Most of us have had experience with, or seen the effects of, charismatic figures, who are consummate communicators and strike a deep, emotional chord with their listeners. The first experience I was conscious of and recognized as problematic occurred in fourth grade. A charismatic girl who was sufficiently powerful determined who could be friends with whom and who could play with whom, both on the playground at recess and after school in our private lives. While my rational side watched and said: “This makes no sense; people decide who they want as friends,” both the reality and the pain this caused was staring me in the face. I saw the effects of charisma as a teen in the world of dating; charismatic figures seemed to have a mystical hold on people and often exploited them. And time and again, we’ve all seen charisma at work in the world of politics: charismatic narcissists whose only priority and agenda item is themselves, yet they have beguiling influence on others who are inexplicably drawn to them. Although Eldad and Medad’s prophecy was genuine, I suspect the problem the both Torah and Talmud have with them is their charisma.

Returning to the Talmud’s discussion of the content of Eldad and Medad’s prophecies, the Rabbis reject all three opinions, but especially the second and third. They are uneasy with Eldad and Medad, just as Joshua is. Joshua goes so far as to request that Moses shut down their prophecy booth in the camp; he seems to perceive them as competition for the authority he is being groomed to assume when Moses is no longer able to lead Israel. In this sense, the first Talmudic opinion is the least threatening because it reconfirms Joshua’s position after Moses’ death; for the Rabbis, it is inappropriate, not incorrect. Yet on the basis of the second and third opinions, Joshua, whom Torah goes to the trouble to tell us had been Moses’ attendant from his youth could find himself in competition with these prophetic upstarts who are riding the wave of their charisma. Talmud’s second opinion concerning what Eldad and Medad said speaks to the current administration and leadership of Israel: they are co-opting Moses’ position of authority by prophesying about the quails. The third opinion similarly threatens to undermine the current leadership by suggesting a direction the nation should pursue—follow Eldad and Medad, of course. This is as dangerous as the rebellion of Korach and his minions, who attempted to seize the reins of power and steer Israel off course.

Why, then, does Moses respond that he wishes everyone in Israel could be a prophet? Wouldn’t that undermine the leadership and authority structure of the nation even more? Or would it be a democratizing phenomenon, affording everyone access to God’s will and hence foreclosing the possibility that Israel could be deceived by a false prophet?

Clearly, Eldad and Medad are full of themselves: they prophesy inside the camp; even the seventy elders “licensed” to prophecy by God do so outside the camp. How can this be a problem if their prophecy comes from God? Perhaps the unarticulated concern in both Torah and Talmud is that charismatic leaders are highly volatile. Their prophecy may be genuine today, but once they have the ear and pull the heartstrings of the people, who is to say that they will not infuse their prophetic pronouncements with their own views and agendas? Writing in the context of the world of business, Margaret Heffernan[2] poses an important question and supplies an interesting answer:

How do you spot a charismatic leader? Most people will say you know them when you see them but if in doubt, go looking for award winners or the CEOs most frequently decorating the covers of magazines. According to [Christian] Stadler[3] [Professor of Strategic Management at the Warwick Business School, who surveyed a century of European business leaders], six out of the last 18 Chief Executives who won the title "Manager of the Year" in Germany presided over huge strategic blunders. By contrast, he says, you can spot the "intelligent conservatives" who are the better bet. They're most likely to be insiders who know the company from top to bottom. And in a meeting, they always stand out because they're the ones doing all the listening.[4]

This could well explain why Eldad and Medad are prophesying inside the camp, rather than outside, as the seventy elders did. Proximity to the people allows them to exercise their charisma more effectively. Stadler, together with his co-authored Davis Dyer, observe:

The problem with charismatic leaders is that exceptional powers of persuasion make it easy for them to overcome resistance and opposition to their chosen course of action. If your company is heading in the right direction, a charismatic leader will get you there faster. Unfortunately, if you’re heading in the wrong direction, charisma will also get you there faster.[5]

They conclude:

We don’t mean to imply that charisma is a calamity. A leader with a gift for being the center of attention can still have a very productive career. However, such a CEO is more likely to succeed if he or she spends more time learning and listening than cheerleading.

It’s not too hard to translate Stadler and Dyer’s business terms into biblical prophetic and leadership terms. Leaders and prophets are listeners, not just talkers. As Sara Bareilles sings of another context,King of Anything,” You’ve got the talkin’ down, just not the listening.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

[1] The prophet Ezekiel was a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem before it was destroyed in 586 B.C.E. He prophesied its destruction and went into Exile in Babylonia with his people. In chapters 38 and 39 of the Book of Ezekiel, Gog is presented as the ruler of the country of Magog. The prophet says that Gog will lead the people of Magog into battle against Israel, Israel will prevail, and then a third Temple will be built and God will reign supreme. Later Jewish writings present Gog and Magog as persons, and the war as eschatological in nature. Hence the war with Gog and Magog comes to be seen as a prelude to the coming of the messiah.
[2] Heffernan authored Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril, which explores a repeating phenomenon: after major blunders, people invariably look back and ask, “How could we have missed that? Why didn’t we see the obvious?” Heffernan explores the work of psychologists, neurologists, and people in business that explain why individuals and groups are blind to impending crises even though the signs were visible. It turns out we choose to ignore much in order to feel secure, avoid conflict, and reduce anxiety. This thesis could well apply to our reading of the parashah.
[3] Heffernan is referencing this article:

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