Yom Kippur: Mission of the Prophet – in These Times as Well

On Yom Kippur it is the custom to read the Book of Jonah during the Mincha service, since the repentance done by the people of Ninve is supposed to awaken us on the current Day of Atonement. Many people forget, however, that before Jonah even arrived at Ninve to prophesize, he underwent an experience that carries for us an important example for today and for Yom Kippur as well.

The sages tell us that there are several types of prophets who are obligated to receive the death penalty. One of these is the prophet who “suppresses his prophecy”. That is, he has received a prophetic vision and is commanded to reveal it, but refuses to do so. Jonah came dangerously close to falling into such a category – fleeing the Land of Israel so that the “Divine Presence” will no longer rest upon him, and thus no longer be able to carry G-d’s message. The sages tell us that all this stemmed from Jonah’s love for the Jewish People. Jonah knew that the gentiles of Ninve would heed his call to repentance. Consequently, this might awaken the wrath of G-d against the Jewish People, since they, in contrast to the gentiles of Ninve, did not heed the words of the prophets and repent. He therefore chose to flee from his obligation to warn the people of Ninve, lest they “show up” the Jews.

Despite this love, and despite all his good intentions, Jonah was wrong. The role of the prophet is to speak the word of G-d, whether the message finds favor in his eyes or not, or if saying it endangers his life. It is irrelevant whether or not he has the most seemingly logical justifications for NOT saying the message. Speaking the truth can be very difficult, as Rabbi Kahane, HY”D, in his last article in the “Jewish Press” wrote, “You think it is pleasant to speak painful truths that cause pain to those who refuse to listen and who then react with pain and hate against the one who speaks? You think it is easy to be the messenger that brings forth the reaction, ‘Kill the messenger?'”

What this means is quite simple. A Jew who elevates himself to the level of a prophet has established a very special connection to G-d. But it is not enough. For a prophet to be a prophet, he must go out to the people and speak the word of G-d. Rabbi Kahane would convey this principle by quoting Eliyahu in Kings 1, chapter 10: “I am left all alone as Hashem’s prophet”. The Rav asked: Was it really so? Was Eliyahu the only prophet not killed by Achav and Izevel? What about the 100 prophets mentioned only a few verses before that were hidden in a cave? The Rav would explain by saying that Eliyahu was teaching a tremendous lesson for all to learn: A prophet hiding in a closet is not a prophet! The whole point of a prophet is to go out to the people and speak the truth without fear. Eliyahu WAS the only prophet around because he was out there fearlessly chastising the Jewish People at the time. Thus, Jonah, regardless of the reason he had, betrayed his special mission.

This is a vital lesson of Yom Kippur, for all the “Bnei Torah” and “Bnei Yeshiva” and rabbis who are also in a certain sense leaders or prophets of the generation. So many choose to sit quietly, afraid to attack the Hellenistic left and thus save the Jewish State from them. All these years they have refused out of fear to state the simple “Halacha” and real solution to the basic and burning Yishmaelite problem – whose status is so obvious according to Torah law that no honest rabbi could differ with it. The problem is that in public, everyone is suddenly silent. All these leaders are in a sense “prophets who withhold their prophecy” – for they know the Divine truth yet refrain from saying it. How we are now suffering from this silence!

May it be G-d’s will that on Yom Kippur the first to repent will be those who are supposed to be the spiritual leaders of the nation. May they warn and chastise the Jewish People and no longer become a partner to the sins of the generation by way of their silence, and as a consequence, the Jewish People will repent and bring the Redemption.

Vaetchanan: The Calm Before the Storm

Throughout their lives, the Prophets never had much “naches” from their people. Jeremiah, speaking in the name of G-d, chastises the Jewish masses: “From the day that your fathers came forth out of the Land of Egypt till this day, I have sent to you all My servants the Prophets, sending them from morning till night. Yet they did not hearken to Me, nor incline their ear, but stiffened their neck” (Jeremiah 7:25). What causes us thus to close our ears to the words of the Prophet, without considering that maybe, after all, his warning is worth heeding? One who is not willing to listen to rebuke has no shortage of excuses. In this article, we will concentrate on one excuse which is hinted at in Parshat VaEtchanan.

The Prophet Ezekiel describes how the people mocked his prophecies of doom: “The days are prolonged, and every vision fails!” (Ezekiel 2:22) -that is, you’ve been screaming out your warnings for years, but we’re still sitting pretty. The Metzudat David explains: “Since the Prophets spoke about the distant future, people would make fun of them saying: Look, it’s going to be such a long time before any of this happens, we’ll all have forgotten by then what you said anyway.” That is to say, you have already been prophesying the Destruction for many years, and nothing has yet happened, so apparently, nothing that you say will come about… The Prophet Isaiah quotes the nation verbatim as saying: “Let him make speed, and hasten his work, that we may see it; and let the counsel of the Holy One of Israel draw near and come, that we may know it!” (Isaiah 5:19). Here, the mockery reaches new heights: Nu, let’s see it happen already…

This mockery haunted the Prophets, and all those who saw the truth throughout the generations; and the Torah foresaw this problem in the verse in VaEtchanan, which we also read on the Ninth on Av: “When you shall beget children, and children’s children, and shall have remained long in the Land, and shall deal corruptly…” (Deut. 4:25). And the question is asked: What connection is there between “remaining long in the Land” and “dealing corruptly”? Did they not “deal corruptly” even when they had not yet been “long in the Land”?

The Kli Yakar gives this awesome explanation: “Since the foretold disaster does not come about quickly, therefore man’s heart becomes aroused to do evil.And he does not understand that the Almighty is slow to anger, and will punish him at the end of days. This is the meaning of the verse, ‘When you shall beget children…’ – in other words, in those very days when you shall deal corruptly, you shall beget children, and children’s children, which is the natural way of the world – and you will remain long in the Land; and thus you will mistakenly say: Had G-d wanted to smite us, He would not have waited for so long! Behold, our lives are continuing as normal, we’re having children, and dwelling securely in the Land for years on end. And this being the case, surely we are guiltless.”

The reason that G-d delays punishment for so long is that He, in His infinite mercy, wants to give us yet another chance and yet another period of grace in which to repent. However, instead of exploiting this extra time to do teshuvah, we use it for the opposite purpose: Look, we heard him say the same things twenty years ago – and what happened? – Almost nothing! The conclusion: We don’t have to take him all that seriously. And most importantly: I don’t have to change my ways…

And the truth? “Therefore say to them…The days are at hand, and the word [i.e. actualization] of every vision” (Ezekiel 12:23). That is to say, if you will mock in that way, then there is no purpose in any further periods of grace, and punishment will follow immediately. And how will this punishment come? Answering this, the Kli Yakar continues: “But if the Almighty delays His anger for a long time – then, at the end of days, He brings disaster after disaster in rapid succession”.

That is to say, when disaster eventually does strike, it will strike suddenly, hard and mercilessly, without even allowing time to understand what is happening.

Not for nothing did our teacher Rabbi Meir Kahane bring down this quote from the Kli Yakar in the introduction to the second edition of his book “Forty Years”. For the book “Forty Years” is a book of warning. And he, too, received similar reactions to his warnings to those described above. Since then, his warnings have – tragically – been verified by the harsh reality. And yet, even this has not moved us a bit. We have immersed ourselves more than ever in our own affairs, in order to avoid having to face what is happening – and what is about to happen! In the Rabbi’s eyes, the words of the Kli Yakar were a last-ditch effort to arouse the people.

All that he warned of is already happening. It is still in our power to change this reality; but this change starts by not closing our eyes to the truth – even if that truth is painful.

Balak: If a Donkey Can Talk, Then Bilaam Can Be a Prophet

One of the most puzzling events in Parshat Balak is when the donkey of Bilaam opens his mouth and speaks. “L’Havdeel”, this sounds like something right out of a children’s fairy tale, and it is a bit surprising to find such a thing in our Holy Torah.

However, a deeper probe into our parsha will reveal something no less astonishing and certainly no less serious. We are referring to the very fact that Bilaam was a prophet.

The Gentile: No Potential for Prophecy
Behold, it is a basic tenet in Judaism that the gentile is not capable of reaching a level of prophesy. In his masterpiece “The Kuzari”, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi explains that there are five levels of creation (inanimate, plant life, animals, Gentile, Israel), and what differentiates between the fourth level of creation (the being that speaks) and the fifth level, Israel, is the potential for each and every Jew to reach the level of prophesy. In other words, the difference between Gentiles and Jews is a spiritually qualitative difference, which is evidenced by the Jew’s ability to reach the highest level of holiness and closeness to G-d – prophesy.

If so, we are left with a huge question: How is Bilaam a prophet? How can he merit prophesy if he is supposed to be incapable of it?!

Perhaps one will argue that Bilaam really worked on himself spiritually and somehow reached a high level of holiness and purity. Perhaps he prepared himself through the learning of G-d’s wisdom, and corrected his attributes, doing all the things the Rambam stipulates must be done for one to reach the level of prophesy. This argument is absolutely refuted, as our sages teach us that Bilaam was totally wicked. Not only was he wicked, but it is said that he even mated with his donkey! You can’t get much lower than that!

Crossing Over Natural Boundaries
Upon examination, we find that these two extraordinary occurrences come together in one explanation. Even though Bilaam was a gentile and even though he was evil, G-d decided to give him prophesy, as unfit as he may have been to receive it. The reasons for this are brought down in various commentaries and midrashim, which we won’t delve into. Having said this, it is clear that G-d did things which are outside the normal order of the world He created. That is why the prophesies of Bilaam were something external and almost mechanical to him, and not derived from any kind of inner spiritual elevation. Thusly on a verse describing one of Bilaam’s “prophesies”. “And G-d uncovered Bilaam’s eyes” (Numbers, 22:31), the Ramban comments: “From what the scripture states we learn that if Bilaam really was a true prophet -why did G-d have to uncover his eyes at the sight of the angel as the scripture describes is the case for a person who has not achieved prophesy?..”

But Bilaam didn’t grasp this, and became arrogant because of his prophesy,as it says in Pirke Avot 5:19, “the followers of Bilaam were haughty of spirit.” And is not arrogance one of the major characteristics which is supposed to hinder prophesy?!

Meaning of the Talking Donkey

And so, when the wicked Bilaam insisted on exploiting this lofty acquisition in order to curse the Jewish People, G-d sent him a hint to “bring him down to earth”. G-d caused the donkey to open his mouth and speak, since the only thing separating man from beast is the power of speech. By doing so, G-d was showing Bilaam that he should not boast of his ability to prophesy, since itis nothing more than a temporary, external ability which G-d threw his way for a very specific purpose. For in the very same way, G-d can, if he so chooses, grant the donkey who is the beast of all beasts, with the lofty power of speech. Furthermore, the donkey’s speech was not like a human being’s speech. It was simply a mechanical action, without an inner understanding. The Ramban explains (23:16): “She (Bilaam’s donkey) did not know why this was done to her at that moment but rather she was forced (to speak)…” The power of speech was thrown her way against her will, for itis what G-d wanted at that particular moment. Similarly, Bilaam had to understand that his prophesy, as well, was nothing more than an external, temporary phenomenon. He was unworthy of prophesy by way of his spiritual makeup, for he was a Gentile, and he was unworthy by way of his deeds, forhe was wicked.

Bilaam and the Donkey: Conceptually the Same

Thusly, the power of prophesy which was given to Bilaam was for a specific purpose. In this matter, Bilaam did not have free choice, as Rashi point sout (23:16): “G-d placed upon him a bridle and a bit in his mouth, as a manputs in the mouth of a beast (a bit), to make it go in whatever direction hedesires. He (the Almighty) said to him: against your will you shall return to King Balak (of Moav).

What a wonderous thing! It turns out that the arrogant Bilaam, who though the had ascended above and beyond the average man, was really comparable to abeast who is led along the way with bait before his mouth. This is how the Kli Hayakar sums it up: “It seems that this (the donkey’s speech) was also a momentary need, to show him that he resembles this donkey, which does not speak by nature, and for the honor of Israel alone did G-d open her mouth. Similarly is Bilaam, who G-d opened his mouth momentarily in prophesy for the honor of Israel.”

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