Parashat Terumah / March 3rd, 2017 / Rabbi Noa Kushner
1. Prophecy 1.0
The Prophets of old were big personalities.
You can picture their names on a marquis: JEREMIAH. ISAIAH.
They had big, bold messages.
R. Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that it wasn’t what the prophets heard
It was what they saw
They saw with eyes of God
Channeled the vision of God to other people
They pointed out the places of muddled injustice
Offered profound messages of equality and fought against hypocrisy.
But if we’re looking at a model for getting something done
There are limits to that purity and ALL CAPS approach.
Right? First off, in case you are considering the prophetic life,
It is not an easy life.
No one wants to be your friend.
Maybe you even have a friend who is prophetic.
You don’t always take their calls…
You have come to realize it is best to hang out in small doses.
Remember — prophets were famous for being alone
There was no league of prophets, no club for prophets, no union of prophets.
I think we could say about our moment in history,
And possibly the problem with us here at The Kitchen,
(And it is probably my fault)
Is that we lean old school prophetic.
Don’t get me wrong.
There is a time and place for full on prophecy
Not to mention the prophets have this purity of thought and commitment
That is thrilling and affecting and afflicting in the best ways.
But if we all consider ourselves prophets,
Or, more accurately, if we all even just speak to one another as if we were prophets,
If we all scream our truths at each other,
That does not build a society, that does not build a community
It just further entrenches us in our respective camps.
So, it is clear. Either we need to mix put prophetic in tension with something else
Power, politics, community
Or / And, maybe we need a new kind of prophecy.
Women don’t get equal time in Torah.
Mary Daly was famous for having said that if you took all the patriarchy out of Torah you would have a nice pamphlet.
That is why it is so critical for us to write in all the places where women are not represented, and to embellish all the places where we are.
This is my way of saying that according to the Talmud there are seven prophetesses in Tanakh / in Bible.
Now seven is not a great ratio to however many dozens of men prophets there are but it’s a start. It’s something. I’ll take it.
And here’s the thing:
Esther, Esther of the Book of Esther, of Purim is called a prophetess by the rabbis of the Talmud.
Remember Esther? She essentially joins a herem at her uncle’s request, lives in the palace until she essentially forgets who she is,
and then, when an evil decree comes via you-know-who
(no, I am not going to say that name, you have to come Purim to hear us say it)
When the evil decree comes saying all the Jews will be killed, obliterated, destroyed,
she is so blissed out on royalty and luxury her first reaction to the terrible message is to cover it up and save herself.
Her uncle Mordechai has to shake her via message to tell her to wake up, to tell her
“Darling, if we go, you go too. Don’t you understand?”
Only then does she snap out of it and go to the King.
And all this is a terrific mix of the flawed and the laudible
But it creates a question, a great question that my teacher Avivah Zornberg asks:
How is Esther a prophet?
Because you’ll remember, that one of the distinguishing features of the book of Esther is that there is a very prominent character in Tanakh that not only doesn’t have a part, this character doesn’t even have a line, not a mention —
Who is it? God.
So if there is no God, and prophets connect God to the people, how can Esther possibly be a prophet?
Perhaps it is as R. Yitz Greenberg teaches:
If you want your God supernatural, full of pyrotechnics, a razzle dazzle God,
If you want that, you will be surely disappointed because there is none of THAT Vegas God in book of Esther.
(He doesn’t say it in precisely those words, I am paraphrasing).
Regardless, Greenberg says Esther is the book that teaches us
that divinity is not consolidated in a few special people
or in a full blown miracles but rather
Divinity happens in fits and starts, all over
and the hand of God can be only be summoned, expressed by the acts of flawed humans
So maybe Esther is a prophet simply by virtue of the fact that she does a brave thing, she alerts the king of the plot against the Jews, and in doing so brings God into the world. Maybe the rabbis just get flexible with the designation, “prophet,”
Like Prince, alav ha shalom, forgive me, was not technically a prince…
You get my point.
But maybe there is more.
Avivah Zornberg suggests that what Esther has to do is not just channel a new kind of invisible God, she must do nothing less than re-invent prophecy for a new era.
She needs to reinvent how to get a new kind of prophetic message across.
After all, if Esther just started giving a big prophetic speech, prophet 1.0 style, even if she was channeling God
hers would be a very different story.
She might not have been successful.
We might not be here.
Because the world where Esther becomes a new prophet is a world where everything seems flipped on its head, and an old school prophet would be laughed out of the palace, or more likely, killed.
There’s a king that boasts all the time
All he wants to do is to be acknowledged for throwing the best parties
For being in control over all the land
He makes these ridiculous pronouncements against women, all women
And when his wicked advisor (not saying the name) wants to goad him into killing an entire people
That advisor only has to say, “They are not like us” And the king is all in.
If you have having déjà vous I apologize
I am sorry to conjure up the disorientation and spiritual destabilization of living in such a world.
It would be like living in a world where the most sacred thing you could imagine
The gravestone of someone who had died and could not defend himself
The symbol of love and a life lived
It would be as if a gravestone were knocked flat down, many gravestones, so the honor of those people were suddenly made flat like dominos
It would be like a world where the sacred becomes susceptible to ridicule
While the ridiculous — crowd sizes and twitter wars — commands our attention and are thus revered
I can barely imagine such a world, let alone bring it up on Shabbat as our reality.
But this is the world where Esther must re-invent how to prophesize for her day and ours
It makes the question more personal and immediate:
What does prophecy look like now?
First, let’s dismiss the obvious:
We can stop pretending like her world, where all the Jews are in danger, or our world, where we are in some danger and Muslims are in danger and where the lives of immigrants are in a total upheaval
We can stop pretending that these upside-down worlds (painful as they are) present a new conundrum
Because if there is any upside to being part of a thousands year old tradition of intermittent moments of glory with mostly persecution
It is that we know this moment is not unique or insurmountable
In fact, prophecy is usually born in times like ours
So we are left with our question of how you reinvent prophecy without God. Is it just being courageous? Channeling the good?
I think there is a little bit more, I have two ideas.
Remember even in the pivotal argument between Mordechai and Esther
When he wants her to break palace law and go to the King to beg for her life and the life of her people,
Even Mordechai, the one who is supposedly psyching her up
Telling her: “This is your moment!”
Telling her: “You must save us all!”
Even Mordechai, in the middle of his speech, stops and says, “Mi Yodea?” / Who knows?
Maybe you have made it to this place for just this time?”
Avivah Zornberg teaches that this “Mi Yodea” is not rhetorical, it is sincere.
Mordechai says, “Who knows?”
As in, “I don’t know and neither do you. No one knows.
But Esther, try anyway.
“Because Esther that is what it means to be connected to this fraught tradition, and this stubborn people.
There are no guarantees but the alternative is to give up.
There are no guarantees but what will the world become if we all wait for guarantees?”
So there is no God for Esther the emerging prophetess but she still internalizes the weight of the obligation to try. “Who knows?” It might be successful.
In the absence of a conversation with God, Esther accepts the edge of possibility as enough
The edge of possibility, spoken out of the mouth of a loved one, is enough
And in hearing this edge of possibility, she sees into the future and becomes a prophet.
Hearing is only half the job of the prophet
Esther also has to plant that possibility in the world.
And so, Esther fasts, she clothes herself in royalty and goes in uninvited to the King to challenge the decree.
Only once there she just asks, significantly, all she asks is for the king to sit with her and the wicked advisor for a dinner party.
That is all.
And that is enough.
For at that party she will ask for a second party.
And at the third party, she will tell the truth, just enough truth to put the world back on its axis again.
No fireworks, no miracles, no tirades, no shouting.
It is a new way of being a prophet. Less glory but arguably more effective.
The edge of possibility and the bare minimum of meticulously planned action.
So we learn:
When there seems to be no God, we don’t get silent.
Instead: we accept possibility and the responsibility it entails.
Instead: Like Esther we clothe ourselves in royalty
We take on the divine attributes
And we go into the throne rooms of the palaces, even if we were not summoned
We go in stealthily and thoughtfully, the way Esther did
We ask for justice in the language of parties and favors, actions, invitations, and dinners
And instead of yelling out into the street or on twitter to find those who might somehow hear our message
We consider where our carefully placed words will do the most good
We speak our message not from outside of this world as the old prophets once did
Not from above the world
But from within the world.
And so, I will close with this, I have to
In this week’s Torah (don’t think I forgot), parashat Termuah
Which details the building of the mishkan, the holy place where we meet God
As soon as the description of the ark is given
The very next thing on the list
The thing that helps to make the space a holy one
Is not the menorah nor the violet curtains
It is a table,
The table where the priests would be fed
The table, where, the rabbis teach, God would give us food,
Show us we were blessed
It is the table,
Right next to the ark
The place where, we understand now, all us modern prophets show up for work.