11 Kislev 5770
Prophets have a reputation for being soothsayers and prognosticators. These, however, were not the biblical prophet\’s principal roles. These prophets acted as moral and religious guides for their people, challenging them to be loyal to God with whom they had a long standing historical relationship and to mend their ways so that their redemption might be possible. In other words, prophets were God\’s agents of redemption and Moses was a model for all of these roles. This is reflected in Hosea\’s message: \”Then Jacob had to flee to the land of Aram; there Israel served for a wife, for a wife he had to guard. But when the Lord brought Israel up from Egypt, it was through a prophet; through a prophet they were guarded.\” (12:13-14)
Hosea alludes, in this historical prelude, to Israel\’s prophet par excellence, Moses, the one who brought them up out of Egypt and guarded them during their desert sojourn. The intent of this history lesson was, as Rashi admonishes, that the people should not scorn the prophets or their words since they are Moses\’ successors.
This identification is founded upon a literary pattern set up by Hosea in verse 13. It is assumed in that verse that it was Israel (Jacob) who both served [Laban] for a wife and for a wife guarded [Laban\’s sheep]. Similarly in verse 14, Moses is identified as the prophet who both brought Israel out of Egypt and by whom they were guarded [in the desert].
The sages were wont to read things more creatively. While it is clear that Moses was the prophet who brought Israel out of Egypt, the second clause of verse 14 is more open to interpretation – who guarded them and exactly when? The following midrash takes advantage of this ambiguity in order to focus on the role of prophet as redeemer: \”Thus opened Rabbi Tanhuma son of Rabbi Abba: \’But when the Lord brought you out of Egypt\’ – this refers to Moses; \’through a prophet they were guarded\’ – this refers to Elijah. One finds that both of these prophets hailed from the tribe of Levi, Moses, the first and Elijah, the last. Both of them were Israel\’s redeemers – Moses from Egypt and Elijah will redeem them in the time to come. Moses redeemed them from Egypt and they never became enslaved in Egypt again; Elijah when he redeems them in the future, they will never again be enslaved.\” (adapted from Pesikta Rabati 4 14a Ish Shalom ed.)
If Moses was the paradigmatic prophet redeemer at the beginning of Israel\’s history as a nation, it is this midrash\’s expectation that Elijah will play that same role at the end of history. Why? This midrash sees Elijah\’s story as parallel to that of Moses. Since Moses\’ mission met with success, it follows that Elijah\’s would as well. The successes of the past serve as the hope for the future. Perhaps, this then is the biblical prophet\’s greatest gift – a message of hope. It is ultimately the foundation for all of the rest.
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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