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D’var Torah Shoftim

Parashat Shoftim

August 19, 2023 | 2 Elul 5783

Torah: Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9 Triennial: Deuteronomy 16:18-18:5

Haftarah: Isaiah 51:12-52:12

Shabbat Shalom from Bruce Washburn:

Here is this week’s D’var Torah:
You Ain’t Never Had a Prophet Like Me
Bex Stern-Rosenblatt
Parashah

Moses is unique. We read, at the very end of the Torah, right after the successful transfer of leadership from Moses to Joshua, that Moses is special – “But no prophet again arose in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face-to-face,with all the signs and the portents which the LORD sent him to do in the land of Egypt to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, and with all the strong hand and with all the great fear that Moses did before the eyes of all Israel.” Moses has a relationship with God that no one else will have and Moses had a job to do, an exodus to lead, that no one else will copy.

Our parashah is Moses’s explanation of how we will function without him. He presents to us four overlapping branches of government, four types of leaders – judges, kings, priests, and prophets. Each of these types replaces part of Moses’s role. He is dividing his job up and making it more manageable by hiring more people. This division of labor is very much in line with the sentiment expressed at the end of the Torah – Moses is irreplaceable, it’ll take a whole group of people to do the job he did alone.

Yet there is one verse in our parashah that seems to contradict this sentiment. We read, in Deuteronomy 18:15, “A prophet like me from your midst, from your brothers, the LORD will raise up. Him shall you heed.” Moses tells us that God will elevate a prophet like Moses himself. Yet the Torah ends by telling us this never happens. And in our parashah, Moses seems to be making arrangements so that a prophet need never again bear all the responsibilities alone for leading a nation that Moses bore. So what does Moses mean when he says that God will raise up a prophet like him?

The context of the quote is Moses trying to explain to us how to recognize a true prophet. He makes clear that prophecy is something different from the abhorrent practices of soothsaying or practicing magic in which the Canaanite nations engage. We are given two signs for how to recognize a true prophet. The first is that a false prophet who pretends to speak in the name of God will die, although we are not given a timeframe for this prophet’s death. The second sign is that the things that a true prophet of God prophesizes will come true, while those of a false prophet will not.

With this as context, Moses perhaps is explaining his own death and his own loyalty. Moses did in fact act as a prophet in a manner that was not sanctioned by God. When Moses insulted the nation and struck the rock at Meribah, he seemed to be acting under God’s auspices while in fact he was transgressing them. For this, God condemns Moses to death, to not reaching the promised land. So when Moses says that God will raise up another prophet like him, perhaps he is being humble. That any prophet God raises up will be human, will be fallible, just as Moses has been.  Of course, water did indeed come out from the rock, the second sign that Moses was a prophet held true. Even in the moment when Moses transgressed God, God did not abandon us to our thirst.

Now, in Moses’s final speech, Moses lets us know that we are responsible for the actions of our prophets. A prophet is God’s messenger to us. But we are the ones who are able to choose whether or not to receive that message. When Moses transgressed God, calling us out as rebels, perhaps we should have stood up and rejected that message. If Moses, the best of prophets, can fail, then all prophets can fail. All prophets can be like Moses. It is up to us and the other balances on prophetic power to determine right and wrong, to find truth even when it is hidden in human foibles.

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