“The prophet is a man who feels fiercely. God has thrust a burden upon his soul, and he is bowed and stunned at man’s fierce greed. Frightful is the agony of man; no human voice can convey its full terror. Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, to the profaned rules of the world. It is a form of living, a crossing point of God and man. God is raging in the prophet’s words.” (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel)
This week’s and next week’s Torah portions (Shmot and Va-era – Exodus 1-9:35) describe Moses’ first and second revelations of God, the first out of the burning bush (Exodus 3:2+) and the second God’s call for Moses to liberate the Israelites from Egyptian bondage (Exodus 6:1+).
Tradition regards Moses as the greatest of all the Biblical prophets, the only prophet to meet God “panim el panim – face to face” whereas the others encountered God in visions and dreams.
The prophets were solitary, lonely figures, often unpopular, hated and denounced by those whose lives they sought to change. They were all cast into a role they did not seek, often during times of great social and political crisis, and their mission was religious and ethical, this-worldly, bound in covenant and committed to the fulfillment of God’s will that human society be governed by high standards of justice, compassion and peace.
The “I” of the prophet, per Heschel, was God – never the prophet himself. The prophet was merely God’s mouthpiece, and when he spoke it was God who was speaking.
The prophet alternately, depending on circumstances, admonished the people for their ethical lapses and comforted the people in their suffering. He did not predict the future. Rather, he articulated the consequences of unrighteousness and evil practice.
The prophet placed the experience of the people in an historical and salvationary context thereby giving ultimate meaning to his/God’s words and hope to those who suffered despair.
Not every human being was destined for prophecy. God chose only those lonely figures who had primed themselves to be able to “hear” the divine voice. Moses, for example, had first to leave the opulent life of the Egyptian palace and witness first-hand the suffering of his people beneath Pharaoh’s yoke. Acting out of righteous anger and indignation at the injustices he saw, Moses killed an Egyptian taskmaster, fled Egypt and became a wandering refugee in the wilderness. Eventually, he settled into the humble life of a shepherd tending his flocks, a quiet life of solitude beneath open skies and star-lit nights.
The burning bush was, according to Rabbi Heschel, the paradigmatic scene of “God in search of man.”
The 13th century Spanish sage, Rabbi Bachya ben Asher, noted that God revealed the divine Self gradually to Moses:
“Since this was Moses’ first experience of prophecy the Almighty wished gradually to initiate him and raise him by stages until his spiritual perceptions were strengthened.” Thus, the narrative “underlines that Moses achieved the perception of three things: the fire, the angel and the Shechinah [the feminine presence of God].”
Moses first noticed the physical fire, then the angel appeared to him in a flame, and finally God called out to him from the bush. Moses “saw” God with his ears and he “heard” God’s voice with his eyes.
This singular experience characterizes a prophetic moment, all-encompassing, beyond the rational and imaginative faculties, a psychic intuition.
The following poem by Rabbi Heschel describes the life and experience of the prophet. When asked if he (Heschel) was a prophet, Rabbi Heschel rejected the idea entirely.
“God follows me everywhere / Spins a net of glances around me, / Shines upon my sightless back like a sun.
God follows me like a forest everywhere. / My lips, always amazed, are truly numb, dumb, / Like a child who blunders upon an ancient holy place.
God follows me like a shiver everywhere. / My desire is for rest; the demand within me is: Rise up, / See how prophetic visions are scattered in the streets.
I go with my reveries as with a secret / In a long corridor through the world – / And sometimes I glimpse high above me, the faceless face of God
God follows me in tramways, in cafes. / Oh, it is only with the backs of the pupils of one’s eyes that one can see / How secrets ripen, how visions come to be.
The Ineffable Flame of God – Man. Poems of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (in Yiddish and English). Translated from the Yiddish by Morton M. Leifman. Introduction by Edward K. Kaplan. Continuum. New York, London. 2005. pages 56-57. Originally published in 1933 in Warsaw.