One of the central institutions of our tradition is that of the prophet. Prophets are “men of God,” having direct revelation as to what God wants of us. They have great power-even to cause changes in the behavior of the kings! An entire section of our Bible is devoted to the great prophets of our tradition. It is with this in mind that there is a peculiar section in the middle of the portion.
Deuteronomy Chapter 13 verses 2-4 read: “If there arises in your midst a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams, and he gives a sign or a wonder which comes to pass, and then he tells you ‘let us go after other gods, which you do not know, and let us serve them’-you should not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer of dreams; for God is putting you to the test to see if you love God with all your heart and with all your soul.”
The biblical commentator Nechama Leibowitz asks why such a man is considered a prophet in the first place, as the definition of a prophet is one who carries out God’s will. She answers that the Torah took the view of the audience, who is not aware as to whether or not this individual was sent by God, and so views him as a prophet. There are other questions to be answered, however. Is such an individual considered true or false? After all, his sign or wonder came to pass and the word navi is used, which leads one to believe that he is a prophet of God. Also, why would God choose such a means of testing our faith? It feels like trickery!
Rabbi Akiva was also troubled by this individual’s sign coming to pass. If he is an imposter, a “false prophet,” it should have never come into fruition. Rabbi Akiva argued that God would only allow one to perform a sign or wonder if he was an “apostate prophet,” one who was formally true and who had turned false. He cited the example of Hananiah ben Azzur, who had been a true prophet until he prophesied that God was with Israel and would lead them to defeat the Babylonians. Rabbi Yose the Galilean disagreed, asserting that this applies also to idolaters. In his view a non-Jewish diviner can perform a natural wonder the same as a Jewish prophet. The difference is that the non-Jewish diviner is sent to lead the people astray, whereas the Jewish prophet is a true representative of God. The diviner will eventually be proven false through his leading the people towards idolatry; the prophet will be proven true as God’s representative.
Now we arrive at what is the most perplexing issue for me-why would God need to test His people in the first place? Testing Jews’ behavior is not something brand new in this portion-it goes back to the ten trials of Abraham, the last of which was offering his son Isaac on the altar. God also tested our ancestors in the desert, depriving them of water immediately following their departure from Egypt. Why does God need to test our faith and our belief in Him? Furthermore, why would God create us with a tendency to go astray and wayward, after our hearts’ desire?
When I went to JTS for my rabbinical school interview, one of my Assistant Deans asked me if I had any doubts. Taken aback by the question, I thought for a second and then I said no. After all, I was thriving at the University of Wisconsin, with more friends than I could count and I knew I wanted to become a rabbi and serve a congregation. The dean then asked me what I would do if I had doubts during my time in rabbinical school. I said I would deal with them as they came up. During my time in rabbinical school, I had doubts about almost everything: about God, about my decision to become a rabbi and about my faith in humanity. It was an extremely hard period of my life, one in which I could have easily been shaken off my course and swayed to go in a different direction. Somehow I struggled through it and persevered, largely due to the help of teachers and mentors.
I’m not sure if God was testing me during rabbinical school, but it did give me understanding of what this section of Torah is about. There have or there will come points in all of our lives in which our faith will be tested: our faith that we are doing the right thing with our children and grandchildren, that we gave the right advice, that our beliefs are correct. It is at moments like these that we need to be reflective and introspective but also that we need to stay the course, continuing to believe that who we are and what we are doing is making a difference. It is at those moments of vulnerability that we have the greatest chance of turning astray and that we must be most mindful of what we are doing. Even if we see a flash or a wonder coming out of left field, beckoning us to reverse course, we must think if such action is really in our best interests. May we always have faith in ourselves, in our families and in our traditions and may they lead us to pass all the tests, the challenges and the obstacles that come our way.