Last Shbbat I offered a Dvar Torah in honor of my mother, Sarah Harmelin, ז”ל, who passed away a little over a year ago. The portion of the week was Beha’alotcha (בהעלותך).
One of my mom’s favorite books was The Good Soldier Švejk, by the Czech writer Jaroslav Hašek. Švejk is a funny shleymazel soldier in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War 1, and through his seeming foolishness we get to know ourselves better.
One evening in Prague he was searching intently for something under a street lamp. A friend asks him:
–“What are you looking for, Švejk?”
–“I lost my key,” Švejk responds.
–“Where exactly did you lose it?”
–“Over there,” says Švejk, and points to a field enveloped in darkness.
–“So why are looking here?” wonders the friend.
–“Because here is where the light is!” says Švejk.
I laugh, but am I that different? Particularly with regards to my spiritual life: don’t I try to look under the lamp? Don’t I want my religious/spiritual life to fit neatly into my lifestyle, under the light? Do I dare to search in the darkness of unknown fields? How much do I really want to find the key to the Kingdom?
I was trying to imagine what would happen, for example, if Elijah came and knocked on my door one morning just as I was about to go to work. “Oh, Elijah, so good that you have finally come! We’ve been waiting for you for generations! Please, come in, make yourself at home. There’s the coffee, here’s the remote. I’ll be back in the evening and we can talk.”
Elijah-Shmelijah, life has to go on!
I was thinking of this in the context of this week’s Torah portion. We are told that Moses invited seventy of the elders of the community to venture with him out of the camp and stand around the Tent of the Covenant. As the spirit of God descended upon them, they had an experience of prophecy.
This was not given to them as a prize but in the hope of them embodying the spirit that animated Moses so that they can assist him in the task of dealing with the unruly liberated slaves, who just thought of their convenience and lifestyle and lost the plot when it came to the big picture.
This is scene number I: the 70 are gathered around the tabernacle, receiving a taste of prophecy. In scene II, the camera moves back to the camp where two people, Eldad and Medad, are also touched by the spirit and are having a prophetic experience. Obviously, the spirit didn’t get the memo that it was only supposed to rest upon the seventy! Sure enough, pandemonium ensued:
A youth ran out and told Moses, saying, “Eldad and Medad are prophesizing in the camp!”
[That little snitch…]
And Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ attendant from his youth, spoke up and said, “My lord Moses, jail them!”
Lock them up! Lock them up!
Joshua was obviously scared. Things got way out of control, way out the range of the street lamp. But Moses set him straight:
Moses said to him, “Are you jealous on my account? Would that all Adonai’s people were prophets, that Adonai put His spirit upon them!”(Numbers 11:27-29)
Did you hear that? Moses is saying that we should all be prophets! And he is not the only one, either. Here is what we read in the book of Joel:
After that, I will pour out My spirit on all flesh; Your sons and daughters shall prophesy; Your old people shall dream dreams, And your young people shall see visions. I will even pour out My spirit upon slaves in those days.(Joel 3:1-2)
But what does it mean to be a prophet? Does it mean that we should don robes and sandals, stand in the town square and with a great voice admonish everybody? “O ye people of New York!…”
There were other kinds of prophets in our tradition. There was Bezal’el, the divinely inspired artist who designed the tabernacle; we had Myriam, Moses’ sister, whose prophecy expressed itself in dance and music; there was King David, the divinely inspired warrior and poet whose inspired Psalms have been uplifting billions for millennia; there was Elisha, the healer and wonder-worker; and there were surely many others, whose divine inspiration did not necessarily translate into any remarkable doing.
Indeed, we are told by some of our luminary teachers, such as Rabbi Yehuda Halevi and the great Maimonides, a prophet is not primarily about doing; a prophet is about being—about dwelling in a state of consciousness of total surrender to the Almighty. Any action of such a person, however mundane, is an expression of divine inspiration provided they are pure of heart and of good morals (an important caveat, especially in our day and age). That may be the meaning of the Hassidic story, about a rabbi who was preparing to travel to visit the great Maggid of Mezeritch, and said: “I am not going to the Maggid in order to learn Torah from him; I am going to watch him tie his shoelaces.”
The prophet Jeremiah tells us that this state of consciousness is a basis for a new covenant with God:
But such is the covenant I will make with the House of Israel after these days—declares Adonai: I will put My Torah into their inmost being and inscribe it upon their hearts. Then I will be their God, and they shall be My people.(Jeremiah 31:32)
The implication is very clear: unless the Torah is alive in our innermost being and inscribed on our hearts, Adonai is not our God and we are not Adonai’s people! A covenant with God should ideally culminate in a transformation of self, even on the level of the hardware, of the body.
And what would the result of such a transformation be? Jeremiah doesn’t leave us guessing:
No longer will they need to teach one another and say to one another, “Know Adonai”; for all of them, from the least of them to the greatest, shall know Me—declares Adonai.(Jeremiah 31:32)
If everyone is touched by prophetic consciousness, who needs to admonish whom?
So yes, the kind of prophecy, or intimacy with the divine that we are invited to has to do with refining our hardware, our machinery of cognition: “I will pour out My spirit on all flesh”; “I will put My Torah into their inmost being and inscribe it upon their hearts”; and there are the famous words of Moses, “The word is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it.”
It is the same in other traditions. The Qur’an says, “Allah is closer to you than your jugular vein.” Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God is within you.” St. Paul wrote, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you?… Glorify God in your body.”
The Hassidic Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl, the “Maor Einayim”, famously said: “I am alive; and who is this aliveness in me? [not “what is the aliveness,” but rather “who is this aliveness?”] Is it not the Holy Blessed One?” In other words, this aliveness, this mysterious thing that differentiates me from a piece of meat, is the portal to the divine.
If all this sounds unfamiliar, strange, or even scary—that’s fine. The key is not found under the street lamp; it lies in the dark field. But those who venture into this path, the mystic path, find it very luminous, albeit with a different kind of light.
I’d like to end with a very famous quote. These words were made famous by Nelson Mandela who used them in his inaugural speech as president of South Africa. But they were not his—he was quoting from a book by a Jewish contemporary spiritual teacher, Marianne Williamson, who is now a contender for the democratic nomination for presidency. This is from her famous book, “Return to Love”:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.Marianne Williamson
This is the light that lies in the seemingly dark field.
Let’s ask ourselves, let’s inquire, what it would mean to walk outside the range of the streetlight and find the great treasure, the source or living water, within our own consciousness.