Yisro: Prophecy and Torah

The Prophetic Chain
Do you believe in prophecy? G-d is infinite, we are infinitesimal. Does He really deign to talk us?

This was the big question that Jews faced when they approached Mount Sinai. They knew Moses was a man of G-d and believed that G-d listened to him, but they were not as certain that G-d talked to him.

Moses had foretold and even performed many miracles, but was that proof that G-d had prophesied these miracles to Moses? Perhaps Moses prayed for these miracles and because of his piety G-d granted his request. Before accepting G-d’s mandate they had to believe that G-d talks to humans.

It was for this reason that G-d told Moses that He would speak to him in the thick of the cloud so that “the nation would hear when I speak to you and will forever believe in you.” G-d was not overly concerned about the nation accepting the Ten Commandments – those would be addressed to the nation directly and they would know that G-d was talking to them. G-d wanted to be sure that the nation would trust Moses to teach them the Torah upon his descent from Sinai. It was therefore necessary to make a spectacle of G-d talking to Moses and convince the nation.

Our sages went further and said that with this spectacle G-d established the notion of prophecy for all generations. Every prophet that would ever prophesy, would be believed on account of G-d’s public communication to Moses. This would set the tone for all time. Whenever a prophet would speak in G-d’s name, the people would believe so long as the prophecy was in keeping with the principles outlined in the Torah by Moses, whose prophecy was observed by the entire nation.

This sets forth an important point. G-d did not abandon us post Sinai. Though the bulk of our mandate was given at Sinai, G-d continues to reinforce the Torah, encourage us and communicate with us through the prophets of every generation. Our relationship with G-d isn’t static. It is alive and ongoing.

Torah Study

Of course the astute reader will wonder about today’s age when the era of prophecy has formally ended. Our sages proclaimed that ever since the destruction of the Temple G-d ceased communicating with prophets and communicates today through the Torah.

Dramatic as this statement is, it leaves us wondering. How many can claim that they have achieved a modicum of prophecy through Torah study? Was this statement realistic or hyperbolic?

Here we turn to Jewish mysticism for inspiration. The great Chassidic masters taught that though it is not common for Torah students to merit prophesy, our direct relationship with G-d is immeasurably enhanced through our study of Torah. We don’t realize the impact of our studies, but the truth is that many of our blessings are given us on account of Torah study.

In the Talmud we find that our sages preferred to pray in the study halls whenever possible rather than in the sanctuaries dedicated to prayer because G-d is always present where His Torah is studied and if we want our prayers to be heard and accepted, it is wisest to pray where G-d is most present.

Furthermore, the Talmud teaches that though ordinary Jews are required to interrupt their Torah study for the purpose of prayer, those who study Torah all day long may skip their prayers for the sake of their studies. This is because Torah study enables us to probe G-d’s mind and heart so to speak and become intimately familiar with Him. When Torah study becomes our full-day occupation, we become regulars in G-d’s home, a fact that G-d enjoys so much that it releases torrents of blessings to the world at large.

Such students need not break with their studies to pray because that would be a step backward. As students, they probe G-d’s most intimate thoughts. In prayer they approach G-d as subjects, reaching for the king from a distance. For such Torah students, prayer is a step down from the spiritual perch they enjoy during Torah study.

This is why King David began the book of Psalms with an ode to the Torah student, whose only yearning is for Torah and who studies day and night. Psalms is the preeminent prayer, yet it doesn’t begin with a prayer theme, but with an ode to Torah. This is because Torah study rises above prayer when it becomes a full time occupation. Prayer times are fixed and limited to three times a day. Torah study is a Mitzvah all day and night. Even David , the author of Psalms, would wake up at midnight to study Torah.

Solomon and David

When King Solomon was a child, his father went off to war and though Solomon wanted to join the army, the prophet instructed him to stay home. At one point the prophet and Solomon were studying Torah, when Solomon was gripped by intense concern for his father’s welfare. He was overcome by a desire to rush out to the battlefield and help his father, but the prophet assured him that at his tender age, the best way to help was to concentrate on his studies, which he did.

When a triumphant King David returned home, young Solomon proudly told his father about his role in the victory. David’s demeanor turned grave as he asked the prophet to pinpoint the time of this study session. When David heard the time he proclaimed that Solomon had indeed helped to win the war. At that very moment David had been isolated on the battlefield and encircled by the enemy. David felt the cold fingers of panic begin to grip at his heart, when strength suddenly surged through him as if from above. He girded himself with superhuman effort, broke the siege and rejoined his warriors.

This, proclaimed David, was a turning point that changed the momentum on the battlefield. From that point forward, the war was won.