Tuesday, September 26th, 2017

Sarah’s Death and The Nature of Prophecy by Gidon Rothstein

October 30, 2010 by  
Filed under New Posts, Philosophy

One of the earliest divrei Torah I remember finding attractive and interesting came in the week of Parashat Hayye Sarah, and resonates with me today for the remarkable claims it makes about the nature of prophecy.  My elementary school principal, a wonderful mechanech named R. Abraham Kahana, gave mishmar in the Yeshivah of Flatbush Elementary School on Thursday nights, and that week, he noted Rashi’s recounting of the tradition that Hayye Sarah is juxtaposed to the end of Vayera because it was the news of the Akedah that led to Rashi’s death. 

In Rashi’s telling, hearing that her son had been brought to be killed, and was almost killed, caused her heart to burst, and she to pass away.  R. Kahana wondered how this could be, for a few reasons. 

First, if she knew that Yitzhak was not killed, why would she have still had a heart attack? More significantly, though, R. Kahana reminded us that Hazal (Megillah 14a) assume that Sarah was a neviah, a prophetess, because Hashem tells Avraham to listen to whatever Sarah says.  As R. Kahana added, that would seem to imply that Sarah was not only a neviah, but a greater prophet than Avraham himself! If so, why was the news of the Akedah so shocking to her?

Who Hears the Prophecies God Sends and How Well Do They Hear Them?

In his question, R. Kahana assumed an important aspect of prophecy, this, too, backed up by the Gemara.  In Sanhedrin 89a, based on the verse in Amos 3;7 “For Hashem will not do anything without telling His servants the prophets,” the Gemara assumes that when one prophet receives a prophecy, the other prophets of that generation know of it as well.  If so, we can assume that Sarah would have heard that Avraham had been told to sacrifice his son, and why should she have reacted so tragically?

 R. Kahana’s answer was even more compelling in terms of what it said about prophecy.  He noted that when Hannah wants a son (at the beginning of the book of Shmuel), she promises that, if granted the boy, she would “give him to God all the days of his life.”  Looking back at Bereshit, we see that Hashem commanded Avraham to “offer him up as an olah” on the mountain.

While we all reflexively think of an olah as a burnt offering, R. Kahana suggested that the more salient point is that the entire sacrifice is given to God.  In his reading (and he may have quoted someone else—that is lost in the sands of my memory), Sarah understood God’s command to be akin to Hannah’s promise: Take the boy to a mountain and dedicate him completely to God.  When she heard that Avraham had—if she was right—misunderstood the prophecy so significantly, the shock and fear of her son’s near-death ended her life.

That reading would seem to make another radical assumption, yet one that is also clear in Hazal, that prophets can miss the full ramifications of their prophecies.  Rambam asserts (and I know of no one who disagrees) that prophets immediately understand their visions and what they mean, but Hazal do imply that they may miss other implications of the same prophecy. 

They do so while wrestling with how a human court could ever punish a prophet for suppressing his prophecy.  Their first answer is that the other prophets of the time will know of it, and can bring him to court.  When the Gemara asks, but what if God, as it were, changes His mind, the Gemara says that God would reveal that change of mind as well.  Problematically, though, Yonah is given a prophecy, the people of Ninveh repent, changing God’s decree, and yet Yonah is never informed. 

The Gemara’s answer is, to me, mind-blowing:  The Gemara says that Yonah was not told Ninveh would be destroyed, Yonah was told Ninveh would be overturned (נהפכת), which can be for the good or the bad.  In fact, Ninveh was overturned, by their changing their hearts, their worldview, and their intent for how to act in the future.

Getting back to prophecy—a topic I am currently addressing in a series of shiurim for the Webyeshiva—the Gemara clearly accepts R. Kahana’s possibility, that a prophet can have an accurate prophecy and yet miss some of its implications.  (In the case of Avraham, R. Kahana suggested that the course of the Patriarch’s life, his spending all his time trying to declare God’s presence in the world, led him to be overly alert to dramatic ways of demonstrating his fealty to God; when God said “an olah,” it was, to Avraham, the long-awaited chance to prove just how dedicated he was).

Human Intellect in Reaction to Prophecy

In at least two places, Tosafot add another aspect of human insight in order to utilize prophecy properly.  First, in Yevamot 90b, the Talmud wants to derive a court’s power to abrogate the Torah actively (בקום ועשה) from Eliyahu’s right to do so—by offering a sacrifice on Mt. Carmel outside the Temple, for the needs of the moment.  The Gemara rejects the derivation for reasons other than the fact that Eliyahu was a prophet, which inherently differs from the way a court functions.

Tosafot, bothered by that lacuna, argues that in fact there is no significant difference, since our halachic principle is that a prophet is not allowed to innovate halachically.  While I might have understood that to refer only to halachic claims—whereas a temporary abrogation is an explicitly extra-halachic act—Tosafot assume that, fundamentally, a prophet abrogating the law (for the greater needs of the halachic system) is qualitatively similar to a court doing so.

 In Sanhedrin 89b, Tosafot again makes the same assumption, and goes a step further, entertaining the possibility that Eliyahu himself, on Mt. Carmel, was acting out of his intellectual understanding of what was necessary, not on the basis of an explicit Divine command (Tosafot there actually seems to entertain three possibilities, that God told Eliyahu to offer the sacrifice, that Eliyahu did it on his own and assumed God would cooperate, or that Eliyahu inferred his right to do so from a Scriptural verse).  

At least for Tosafot, then, even prophecy is not completely controlled and communicated by God.  The first steps come from God, where the prophet receives revelation(s) and/or is empowered to perform miracles to establish that he or she is, indeed, a prophet.  Once so certified (and I have a more whimsical version of this certification process in my book Cassandra Misreads the Book of Samuel), the prophet gains certain rights, such as the right to have ordinary Jews listen to him or her (with exceptions, notably if the prophet tells us to worship any power other than God). 

 Yet even that prophet, in line with what we have seen here, may not fully realize what it is that God was telling him or her.  In the prime example, the people of Ninveh would seem to have found a meaning in the prophecy that came their way that even their prophet had missed.

Accept R. Kahana’s vort or not, then, the Gemara’s clear assumption suggests that even prophecy was not always as unequivocal as we might want it to be.  We might long for the time when we could consult with a prophet about matters great or small—the paradigm for this being Shmuel haNavi, who was apparently even responsible for helping Jews find their lost donkeys—but we should not think that the prophet would be there to tell us exactly what to do in every situation in life.

The case of Yonah and, perhaps, Avraham at the Akedah show us that even when we do consult, even when we do receive a prophetic message, we still need to be sure we understand all its possible ramifications, so that we not miss a more positive, more pleasant, and easier way of reaching the future that God wants.

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