Haftarah Parashat Toledot
November 10, 2018 | 2 Kislev 5779
The meaning of the identifications found at the beginning of prophetic messages is often unclear to us. Was “Malachi” the name of the prophet or was he simply as the word “malachi” implies – a “divine messenger”? And when it says that God’s message was delivered “b’yad Malachi”, which literally means “in the hands of Malachi”, does it mean that the prophecy is God’s words or those of Malachi inspired by God? In rabbinic times, this curious phrase, “b’yad Malachi”, prompted an even deeper and more extensive debate over the nature of prophecy itself – whether its divine source makes it timeless, or whether its human speaker makes it a product of its historical milieu. The following Midrash takes up this question:
Said Rabbi Yitzhak: ‘Even that which the prophets in the future will prophesy, all of them were received from Mount Sinai, as was written: ‘Those who are standing here with us this day’ (Deut. 29:14) – this refers to those who were already created, those who are [already] in the world; ‘and those who are not with us here this day’ (Ibid.) – this refers to those who will be created in the future and do not as yet exist (einenu)… And so it says: ‘A pronouncement: The word of the Lord to Israel through the hands of Malachi’ (1:1) – It does not say ‘by Malachi’ but rather ‘through the hands of Malachi’, to teach you, that the prophecy was already given to the prophet at Sinai.” (adapted Tanhuma Yitro 11)
For Rabbi Yitzhak, all prophetic messages derive from the “original” and “ultimate” prophetic event – Mount Sinai – and thus predate the later prophets. But Rabbi Yitzhak says something even more radical. Unlike the Torah given at Sinai, these “later” prophecies were not passed, as per Pirkei Avot, from Moshe to Yehoshua to the Elders, etc. No, each prophet’s message was given to that prophet at Sinai.
What could this mean? Maybe Rabbi Yithak’s view reflects the famous midrash that all Jewish souls that would ever enter the world were present at Sinai. If so, then each prophet’s soul could have received it’s particular prophecy. But Rabbi Yithak’s might have meant something else entirely, namely that Sinai embedded prophecy into the fabric of the universe, secret messages waiting to be revealed by particular people in the future. This conception of prophecy more closely parallels how we think about knowledge and wisdom. The genius does not bring some new truth into the world. Rather, the genius causes a paradigm shift by revealing something that was always there, but in a way others can understand.
No matter how one reads Rabbi Yitzhak, the implications are staggering. Pirkei Avot sees God’s message as legitimate only if it has been passed down through legitimate hands. But for Rabbi Yitzhak, a prophet’s message, or a sage’s wisdom, can come seemingly out of nowhere. (See Avraham Yehoshua Heschel’s Torah Min Hashamayim vol. 2 pp. 259-61)
The chain of transmission approach produces stability, but the second approach makes it possible for the kinds of deeper changes needed when circumstances change radically or particular lines of thinking have run their course. The late First Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Avraham Kook is a prime example of the Rabbi Yitzhak’s approach. The challenge, and often the tragedy, is that we may only know after the fact whether a radical new ideal is correct.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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