How to Become a Prophet
by Braha Bender
Parashas Tetzaveh introduces the Urim and Tumim. To even begin to describe what these words refer to, we almost have to excuse ourselves from the English language. Watch this:
The Urim and Tumim were the oracle associated with the choshen mishpat (breastplate of judgment) of the kohen gadol (High Priest).
The Urim and Tumim could only be consulted by a king, the Sanhedrin, or a public official in the interest of the entire community. This oracle was in use until the destruction of the First Temple (421 BCE).
When the Urim and Tumim would be consulted, the High Priest would have to wear all eight vestments. Both he and the questioner would face the ark. The questioner would then make his inquiry in such a low voice, that no one else but he would hear it.
The High Priest would then meditate on the stones of the breastplate until he reached a level of Divine Inspiration. He would then see the breastplate with inspired vision. The letters containing the answer would appear to stand out. With his Divine Inspiration, the High Priest would then be able to combine the letters to spell out the answer.
Only one question at a time could be asked of the Urim and Tumim. If more than one question were asked, only the first would be answered.
The Urim and Tumim were necessary even while there were prophets. While a prophet cannot receive a message at will, the Urim and Tumim could be used at any time. Moreover, while an evil decree foretold by a prophet could be changed, the message of the Urim and Tumim was irrevocable.
(Excerpted from The Handbook of Jewish Thought by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, Maznaim Publishing)
The Urim and Tumim were only one of the ten miracles that would take place regularly during the various activities and services of the beis hamikdash. Prophets and prophetesses abounded. And although all of the above may be very interesting, it sure doesn’t sound like real life. Oracle? Meditate? Divine Inspiration? Help!
In English these things sound incomprehensible, but the Torah wasn’t written in English, phonetically or culturally. Comprehending the Torah’s supernatural phenomena doesn’t require a suspension of reason or a leap of faith. It just requires a bit of definition.
Up Close and Personal
Like a lot of other words in the English language, the word “prophet” is rather murkily defined. Isn’t a prophet some deranged fellow with a bird’s nest of hair, ranting and raving about upcoming dooms day?
No, that’s Jerusalem Syndrome, a clinically documented form of psychosis making a small percentage of visitors to Jerusalem abruptly begin to tie white bed sheets into togas, shout biblical verses in public, and earnestly believe that they are the messiah. Not kidding. Just visit the Old City and you’ll see. Or the Knesset.
But prophecy in Torah Judaism doesn’t look anything like Jerusalem Syndrome.
Judaism is really a very pragmatic religion. As far as religions go, we don’t really buy into spirituality in any typical way. Ever seen religious Jews studying Talmud? We aren’t interested in being indoctrinated. When the Torah says “prophecy”, it doesn’t mean “superstitious feel-good mystical experience.” When it says “Urim and Tumim”, it doesn’t mean “ancient ritual good-luck charm”.
To appreciate the Torah definition of prophecy, you have to appreciate the Torah perception of reality. We are not, as in some other paradigms, living in a physical universe run by some impersonal heavenly bureaucracy. And let me make this perfectly upfront: we are not living The Secret either. I’m not G-d and neither are you.
Rather, Torah explains that the Almighty is the infinite source of all reality. One of the names Jews assign to the Infinite is HaMakom which literally means The Place. To paraphrase that title, the Almighty is the Context that you and I live within. Another name, HaRachaman, The Compassionate One, is related to the word rechem, womb. He holds us within Him.
Just as a mother is greater than her fetus can know, so the Almighty is infinitely greater than we can comprehend. Yet, nonetheless, we live finite lives in the context of an infinite Creator. It isn’t such an easy idea to wrap your head around.
The thing is, what with all our being limited, physically-bound human beings as opposed to His incomprehensible infinitude, there is one aspect of our being that is a direct expression of His essence. That aspect of every human being, called a nefesh or neshama, is actually as infinite as He is. The word neshama is etymologically related to the word neshima, breath. As the Torah describes, the Infinite figuratively blew from the innermost of His being a breath of life into an inert clod of earth and called the new creature Adam.
Of course, that was where things began to get interesting.
Breaking the Rules
If you find yourself feeling a little confused at this stage, that’s a good sign. It means you’re following. The concepts of G-d’s transcendence and G-d’s immanence really are paradoxical to the human mind. It feels like they can’t live in the same logical universe until you start realizing that G-d doesn’t play by anybody’s rules.
I mean, ask the Jews. We haven’t played by anybody’s rules for millennia. We’re called a stiff-necked people. We’re known for our chutzpa. Throughout the course of history, we have known that rules are meant to be broken. Limits are meant to be transcended. And by keeping the right rules, you end up breaking much better ones. Like the so-called laws of nature.
You see, there’s a slim volume on most Torah observant Jews’ bookshelves called the Mesilas Yesharim. It looks like nothing more than a Jewish ethical treatise about how to become a really, really nice guy, but those who have read it know that the final chapter describes how to receive prophecy and revive the dead. This is no accident. It isn’t like Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto decided to add a little mystical addendum at the end of his Jewish ethics guide as a pick-me-up bonus section.
Rather, the Jewish perception of reality is that when you work on ethics, becoming a really, really nice guy, you begin to transcend human nature. You begin to make miracles within yourself. (Ever tried to hold back when you were genuinely furious at someone? Animals can’t do that.) When you learn how to transcend your own nature, the Almighty opens up the door for you to transcend all of nature.
Prophecy takes place when a Jewish man or woman has refined himself or herself to such an extent that G-d’s presence within and around him or her becomes completely revealed. As the Mesilas Yesharim explains, “It begins with effort and ends with a gift”. When a person has undertaken the greatest extent of effort that he or she can undertake to fulfill G-d’s will and come close to Him, He makes His presence overwhelmingly clear. Sometimes that clarity transcended time and prophets would have a glimpse of the future. Other times, prophets would have crystal clarity about the present, helping people to find lost objects, make important decisions, or resolve relationship issues.
At the height of the period of prophecy, the same period when the first beis hamikdash was standing, Jewish history recounts literally thousands of prophets and prophetesses throughout the land of Israel. It wasn’t uncommon. It was exquisite. As generations sunk to lower spiritual levels, prophecy became more and more difficult to obtain until it slipped away from the world entirely. Malachi, the last prophet, lived during the early days of the second beis hamikdash, around 313 BCE.
The Urim and Tumim introduced in Parashas Tetzaveh were just one part of a bigger picture. Let’s put it this way: supernatural phenomena happen in Context. Put all the pieces together and you end up with a picture that looks a lot like Aharon HaKohen, the first High Priest.
Aharon’s Personal Freedom
Aharon (Aaron) was divinely appointed as the first kohen gadol in the Jewish People because his character was the ideal template for all future priests to serve in the beis hamikdash.
The Torah commanded that, “Aharon shall bear the names of the sons of Israel on the choshen mishpat on his heart…” (Shmos-Exodus 28:29) As mentioned earlier, the choshen mishpat was the breastplate bearing the mystical Urim and Tumim. One of the meanings of this commandment was that to serve as a true kohen gadol, Aharon needed to carry Israel in his heart with genuine caring, a caring uninterrupted by jealousy, selfishness, materialism, or any of the other garden-variety limitations we find ourselves bound by.
We have so many role models of personal freedom in the Torah because freedom comes in so many flavors. Aharon was free of anything that kept him from caring about other people. He had removed the barriers keeping him from fully tapping into his neshama. He epitomized the mandate to “love peace and pursue peace”. No limits. The “rules” had all been broken.
Aharon transcended his own human nature. When he made himself supernatural, the Almighty opened the door to the supernatural for him. It wasn’t such a stretch for the miracles of the beis hamikdash to play out for Aharon because Aharon was already living miraculously. The Urim and Tumim were as authentic an expression of G-d’s will as Aharon was…and as we can become.
So, ever wanted to become a prophet? Connect with G-d? Experience miracles? There may seem to be a very wide spectrum between changing your nature to watching nature change, but it’s the same essential mechanism. If you really want to comprehend the supernatural events the Torah describes, you’ll just have to experience them for yourself. Our ancestors have been doing it for about four thousand years.