It was during an interview with Michael Parkinson that the late, great Peter Sellars, my favourite Goon, told a story about Michael Caine, his best English chum in Hollywood. He told Parky how the two of them would sit in a corner at parties, chatting to each other, rather than engaging touch with what was going on around them. Then Sellars remarked, in a perfect imitation of Michael Caine, that he was a possessor of thousands of little known facts, which he would preface or follow with ‘Not many people know that…’. It caused hilarity at the time, and it stuck, so much so that many entertainers, and some regular people too, started using the phrase in a fake-Caine accent.
Now, here is an arcane fact of my own, which I suspect similarly not a lot of people know! If I asked you to name the first Israelite identified in the Hebrew Bible as a prophet, who would you choose? Moses, perhaps, or maybe Nathan, or what about Elijah, or Elisha, or Isaiah? All of these answers would, I am afraid, be wrong. The answer may be found in this week’s sidra, in Exodus, chapter 15:20, where we find ‘Then Miriam, the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels’.
So there you have it, on the basis of the biblical chronology, it is a woman, not a man, who is first named a prophet! The Hebrew word for a prophet, navi, is derived from the root nun, veyt, aleph, and means to announce or proclaim, or to be in a state of religious ectsasy.
The role of the prophet seems to have varied considerably over the centuries in ancient Israel; the earliest prophets were connected closely with the royal court, they were the conscience of the monarch, the one person who could criticise and condemn, and when necessary the voice of God.
Once the kingdom of David and Solomon split into two, the prophets in the northern land, Israel, seem to have been more shaman-like than what we normally associate with the word ‘prophet’; they purified wells, helped the poor and occasionally, as with both Elijah and Elisha, they raised from the dead.
These early prophets were more sages than seers, and they were held in awe, and not a little fear by their fellows.
A few centuries later the prophetic role had metamorphosed, and from being local, or court figures, the prophets fulfilled a national role addressing not just kings and aristocrats but the general populace. They spoke with the authority of the Godhead of Israel, their words lacerated the amoral and weak, condemned the pagan nations round about and championed the poor and downtrodden.
We also know that few of the prophets called by God to their role accepted straight away the burden it placed upon them, in fact some refused absolutely when first told what they must do. How sensible they were, for they must have known in their hearts that accepting the divine charge would place them apart from their fellow men and women, that it would condemn them to a life of loneliness, and also of frustration because what they also discovered very quickly was that the vast majority of people whom they addressed took absolutely no notice whatsoever of what they said, even though they said it with the authority of the divine.
Jeremiah, my favourite prophet, was told that God had singled him out in the womb, that he was chosen as a foetus to be a prophet – no chance of backing out there then! But how his role made him suffer, how it caused him pain, how it catapulted him into the depths of despair. In these circumstances it is hard not to feel sympathy for the prophets and to feel admiration for their determination to stick to their allotted task.
None of this, however, helps us to solve the conundrum of why Miriam is called a prophet; we may suggest various answers, to be sure, but they come from our own analysis rather than from the text. Apart from a few references the material on Miriam in the Torah is quite sparse; we see her as a child only once, and then as an adult. We see her in Beshallach, leading the women in music and dance, we see her kibitzing with Aaron about Moses’ choice of a second wife, and we learn of her death. There just isn’t that much to shed light on why she carried this title, or what she had done to earn a position of such respect.
My hunch, and it is only a hunch, is that material about Miriam was lost when the five books of Moses were edited into the form in which we have them today, and in which Jews have read them for millennia. Who can say what she did, what she said, how she acted in partnership with her two brothers, the politician and the priest?!
But that there was more about her we can safely surmise, because there is little likelihood that she would have been accorded the title of neviah, of prophetess, as a courtesy. The most likely explanation for the lack of more material on Miriam is that it was deliberately excluded by editors, who were naturally male, who wished to play up the role of Moses and Aaron and play down the role of their sister.
It is interesting to reflect on the idea of prophets in the world in which we live, and to consider whether there are any prophets alive today.
The rabbis said that with the death of Malachi the age of prophecy in Israel came to an end, but it seems much more likely to me that every generation has thrown up its men, and women, who have offered a considered perspective on their society, or championed ideas, which then became widely, sometimes even universally accepted.
I suspect that we could all come up with a few individuals to whom we would accord this double-edged title, and there might even be a significant measure of agreement between us, but it seems to me that what makes a prophet is not the eloquence of the words they utter but whether their prognostications of the future are proved right or wrong.
Today, in addition, we are hardly likely to find prophetic qualities in religious figures at all, for people like me surely just quote or paraphrase the words of greater figures from earlier times?! And in these secular times how many accord automatic respect to men and women who have devoted themselves to the service of God?
If I try to pull out a few names to whom I would accord ‘prophetic’ stature, and on this page the word prophetic is written in parentheses, I think of Michael Buerk, alerting the world to the Ethiopian famine in 1984 and warning precisely of what would happen if the nations of the world failed the starving; I think of Tim Berners-Lee, the founder of the internet, who envisaged the ways in which a world wide web would change everyone’s life; I think of the writers Sebastian Haffner and Joseph Roth who foresaw the rise of Nazism in Germany and what it would mean for the world, and for the Jews; I think of Nelson Mandela, whose vision of a better South Africa took so many years to reach fruition but still triumphed; I think of Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, who bravely championed the cause of women and their right to be respected, admired for their intellect and their career, rather than just for their looks; I think of Yitzchak Rabin, who had a clearer view of the path to lasting peace for Israel, and paid the ultimate price for his courage and commitment to peace, and so on and so on.
If this proves anything it demonstrates that ‘prophets’ are not easily pigeon-holed, and if you compare all the prophets of ancient Israel with each other you will see that this truth holds just as good for earlier times as it does for our own.
So what does this all go to prove? It proves that while the reason for Miriam receiving the title may not be obvious to us now, it was to the ancient world, and the fact that the women of Israel followed her lead immediately and unhesitatingly in the Beshallach narrative demonstrates all too clearly that they understood and admired her leadership.
We should all strive to ensure that we keep an open-mind about the serious men and women who people our world, show respect for those who deserve it (not always because we agree with their views) and remember that every age has its prophets, even though they may not grab timbrels and burst into song at the shores of the sea.
Rabbi Dr Charles H Middleburgh
Director of Jewish Studies, Leo Baeck College
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.