The Modern-Day Prophet

In wrath, remember mercy
— Habakuk 3:2

Who are today’s prophets? Some argue for public intellectuals who examine trends and are unafraid to speak their minds. According to Paul Simon, the prophets are graffiti artists: “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenements halls and whispered in the sounds of silence.” For Yoko Ono, true artists are prophets. Joseph Addision believed it was the jester. Binny Lau, a contemporary Israeli rabbi and scholar, believes that journalists today “take on the role of moral and social critics,” but adds that “more often than not their criticism is laced with the venom of loathing.” In his book, Jeremiah: The Fate of the Prophet, Lau draws our attention to the word “jeremiad” that comes from the ethos of this prophet’s task: a work that mourns society and its imminent downfall. No wonder prophets were so unpopular.

Lau makes many important observations in his book about what a prophet does that have ramifications for us today. As we have entered the mourning period of the Three Weeks, when portions of Jeremiah’s writings - like his eponymous book and the book of Lamentations - are regularly read and studied, it seems an apt time to think about the nature of prophecy and who fulfills that role in today’s society. Lau writes that even though a prophet’s job is to chastise his people, it must always be criticism that emerges from deep love. “Even when the harshest reproach is called for, the prophet must consider himself a divine emissary whose role is to help redeem the people, not stand aloof and condemn.”

David Ben Gurion, on the occasion of his 84th birthday called Jeremiah the greatest prophet who arose before the destruction of Jerusalem. He was also, according to Ben Gurion, “the most despised, downtrodden, and daring.” And yet, despite all of this, the first Israeli prime minister believed that what made him an enduring model of Jewish leadership was his abiding affection for the Israelites: “Jeremiah loved his people and had faith in its posterity - and his faith has proven true until this very day.

Prophets very often put their very lives on the line when balancing truth and love. Jeremiah almost lost his life more than once. This career is not for the faint-hearted. In an obscure story recorded both in the book of Kings and then again in Chronicles, a group of 400 prophets were brought before King Ahab of Israel and King Jehoshaphat of Judah to consult on whether the two should join forces and wage war. The prophets all spoke in unison with the same pandering message. Jehoshaphat then asked if there was any other prophet who had not yet been invited to offer an opinion. There was one: Micaiah. Ahab couldn’t stand the man. He was always a contrarian, saying evil rather than good. Nevertheless, he was brought before the two for his judgment. At first, he echoed the diplomatic words of his colleagues but when pressed, Micaiah shared the bad news ahead.

Not surprisingly, a courtier in the room approached the prophet and slapped the him in the face. Ahab ordered Michaiah to be taken to the ruler of his city with the following instructions: “Put this man in prison, and give him nothing but bread and water until I return safely.” (See I Kings 22 for the entire story). The kings were determined to go out to war. But the prophet got the last word, “If you ever return safely...” Then he added, “Mark my words, all you people.”

That famous expression, “Mark my words,” the ancient version of “I told you so,” rings in our ears. The prophet is a verbal marksman, targeting with precision what he must say and to whom. The anger of the prophet is reflected in the anger of God, a different kind of anger than the one we usually associate with humans. Heschel has this to say about the kind of anger we see reflected in prophetic literature: “The anger of the Lord is instrumental, hypothetical, conditional...Let the people modify their line of conduct, and anger will disappear.” This kind of anger is a tool of reformation, in Heschel's words, “anger includes a call to return and to be saved. The call of anger is a call to cancel anger.” If the prophets teach us anything about how to live today, let it be this: to use anger constructively to bring ourselves and others to a path of greater goodness. “In wrath, remember mercy.”

Who do you think are today’s prophets and what do their business cards say? Drop me a line and let me know.

Shabbat Shalom


Anger Management

Anger rests in the bosoms of fools
— Ecclesiastes 7:9

We use the expression “anger management” confidently, as if our most intemperate feelings were easy to manage, as if anger is something we can easily control. Yet people usually describe anger as something that feels beyond control, like a storm that sweeps us up in its toxic wake and drops us off in a foreign country. People often describe anger transporting them to new and unfriendly territory, a place that’s hard to find a way out of when you’re stuck there temporarily.

Anger becomes a subject of rabbinic contemplation in a page of Talmud studied in this week’s daily cycle this week [BT Nedarim 22a-b]. The Sages two thousand years ago brought together biblical verses on anger and interpreted their meaning and relevance to human interactions. Rabbi Samuel ben Nahmani specifically tells us what foreign country we’re in when we’re angry: hell. He said, “One who loses his temper is exposed to all the torments of Gehenna [purgatory].” If you can imagine hell as a place where you are your worst possible self, your anger becomes your passport into that unpleasant, threatening place. Therefore, Rabbi Nahmani concludes, “remove anger from your heart.” Move out of that country quickly.

Rabba adds to this discussion: “When a person loses his temper, even the Divine Presence becomes unimportant to him.” There is an underlying arrogance to anger, namely that I think my opinion or behavior is correct and yours is clearly not – that is what gives me license to release my inner venom on you. When I do that and spill out that anger on another person and make myself superior in the process, I remove the godliness of the other. God demanded that we act in God’s likeness. This means that all of our relationships should be colored by transcendence, not arrogance.

Rabbi Jeremiah said, “He [an angry person] forgets his learning and becomes more and more foolish, as it is written, “Anger rests in the bosoms of fools,” [Ecclesiastes 7:9] and it is written, “The fool is laid open to folly [Proverbs 13:26]” Rabbi Nahman ben Isaac said, ‘It is certain that his sins outnumber his merits, as it is written “A furious man abounds in transgressions” [Proverbs 29:22]. Because anger is a vehement and immersive emotion, it has the power to erase whatever was occupying the mind and heart beforehand: learning, commonsense, goodness, kindness. It all goes. We make foolish decisions in a state of anger.

The pastor and motivational speaker and writer Joel Olsteen discusses the myriad opportunities we have daily for anger and its many minions: offense, insult and stress, to name just a few. When you “indulge these negative emotions,” Olsteen says you give something outside yourself “power over your happiness.” Olsteen, like our Sages of old, emphasizes the way that anger takes over our psychic landscape and entraps us, making us into people we don’t want to be. We give anger power over us.

But when we describe anger as an animated almost extraterrestrial force, we also – perhaps unwittingly – attribute powers to it that it cannot have. We give it permission to live within us and dominate us as if we were victims.  All we did was offer this force entry into our souls and then it hijacked us without asking.

Aristotle is attributed with this perspective on anger: “Anybody can become angry — that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way — that is not within everybody's power and is not easy.” This is not the view of the Sages of the Talmud. The Talmud wants us to acknowledge the power and destructiveness of anger while still owning the anger. We are not its victims but its ultimate master, each and every one of us. Managing anger is an aspect of human free will. If we regard it as anything more then we deny our ability to tame and calm it.

Think of a time when you were really angry.


How did it make you feel?

Did you control it or did it control you?

Shabbat Shalom