Thursday, September 14, 2006

Bat Kol, Prophecy and Inspiration.

As I posted before prophecy according to Rambam is the ultimate development of a natural human ability. It is the combination of the various mental capacities of a human being focusing them all on understanding the world we live in, where it came from and where it is going. In short it is dealing with the existential questions of humankind. The way I see it is that every person, from childhood on, as he learns new things about the world, as he experiences it through living in it, at times encountering suffering and despair, at others ecstatic happiness, he is growing and developing himself. He is already taking a small step towards prophecy. If he continues with this process of learning and growth he can eventually reach levels of prophecy. Of course to reach a level that one becomes a prophet is rare. It takes a combination of natural abilities, a will and a temperament that few have.

In Tanach we read many stories of simple people having great insights. Hagar stumbling in the desert with her son dying of thirst, at the moment of her greatest despair, when she is ready to give up, gets an inspiration that she need take only a few more steps, and right behind the next dune there is water. The same with Manoach, the father of Shimshon, and his wife who are full of despair about their childlessness. Avimelech is full of guilt about his kidnapping Sarah. The vision that came from their inner self to do the right thing, in the case of Manoach to try one more time and if successful dedicate the child to God, in the case of Avimelech to release Sarah, is a kernel of the prophet’s experience. That same human ability of getting inspired is used by the prophet albeit in a much more developed form. They are not prophets but they experienced a facet of prophecy. Rambam explains that in MN 2:42:

From the rule laid down by us that prophecy requires preparation, and from our interpretation of the homonym" angel," [one of its meanings is human inspiration. DG] you will infer that Hagar, the Egyptian woman, was not a prophetess; also Manoach and his wife were no prophets: for the speech they heard, or imagined they heard, was like the Bat-Kol (prophetic echo), which is so frequently mentioned by our Sages, and is something that may be experienced by men not prepared for prophecy[1]… This is the principal method by which most of the difficult passages in the Bible can be explained. Consider the words," And an angel of the Lord found her by the well of water" (Gen. Xvi. 7), which are similar to the words referring to Joseph-" And a man found him, and behold, he was erring in the field" (ibid. xxxvii. 15). All the Midrashim assume that “man” means angel in this passage.”

Interestingly the term Kol – sound is found in Tanach when it describes the prophetic experience. It is constantly used during Ma’amad Har Sinai, the experience the Jewish people had at Sinai. It is also used in describing Moshe’s experience (e.g. Bamidbar 7:89). Manoach, Hagar and Yosef experienced a Bat Kol, an echo of prophecy.

Rambam in his introduction to Pirush Hamishna discusses the fear Yaakov had of annihilation when he confronted Eisav. After all had he not had a prophecy that God will be with him and watch over him? Is it not a rule that if a prophet foretells good it must come to pass? Rambam explains that although Yaakov had a prophetic experience, it was just an internal experience between him and God. The Halachik prophecy, the prophecy that can be tested, is only when the prophecy is for public dissemination, when it is such that the prophet feels compelled to share it with others. That need to share it with others is not particular to prophecy. MN 2:37:

A member of the first class, the man of science, may have his mind influenced either only so far, that he is enabled to search, to understand, to know, and to discern, without attempting to be a teacher or an author, having neither the desire nor the capacity; but he may also be influenced to such a degree that he becomes a teacher and an author. The same is the case with the second class. A person may receive a prophecy enabling him to perfect himself but not others; but he may also receive such a prophecy as would compel him to address his fellowmen, teach them, and benefit them through his perfection. It is clear that, without this second degree of perfection, no books would have been written, nor would any prophets have persuaded others to know the truth. For a scholar does not write a book with the object to teach himself what he already knows. But the characteristic of the intellect is this: what the intellect of one receives is transmitted to another, and so on, until a person is reached that can only himself be perfected by such an influence, but is unable to communicate it to others, as has been explained in some chapters of this treatise (chap. xi.). It is further the nature of this element in man that he who possesses an additional degree of that influence is compelled to address his fellowmen, under all circumstances, whether he is listened to or not, even if he injures himself thereby. Thus we find prophets that did not leave off speaking to the people until they were slain; it is this divine influence that moves them, that does not allow them to rest in any way, though they might bring upon themselves great evils by their action. E.g., when Jeremiah was despised, like other teachers and scholars of his age, he could not, though he desired it, withhold his prophecy, or cease from reminding the people of the truths which they rejected. Comp." For the Word of the Lord was unto me a reproach and a mocking all day, and I said, I will not mention it, nor will I again speak in His name; but it was in mine heart as a burning fire, enclosed in my bones, and I was wearied to keep it, and did not prevail" (jer. xx. 8, g). This is also the meaning of the words of another prophet," The Lord God hath spoken, who shall not prophesy?" (Amos iii. 8) Note it.”

It is striking how Rambam juxtaposes men of science and prophets. Just as a scientist may not necessarily publish his knowledge, a prophet may not share his vision with others. It is when each of these people feels compelled to share with others the information they have, one becomes a teacher, the other a prophet.

This understanding of prophecy brings out a whole new meaning to Moshe’s reaction to Eldad and Meidad:

כט וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ מֹשֶׁה, הַמְקַנֵּא אַתָּה לִי; וּמִי יִתֵּן כָּל-עַם יְהוָה, נְבִיאִים--כִּי-יִתֵּן יְהוָה אֶת-רוּחוֹ, עֲלֵיהֶם. 29 And Moses said unto him: 'Art thou jealous for my sake? would that all the LORD'S people were prophets, that the LORD would put His spirit upon them!'

[1] I left out a sentence because I believe Friedlander misunderstood it. Pines translates it correctly but it would confuse the reader.

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