Daily Israel Report

Judaism: Uri Zvi Greenberg & Beha'alotkha

A profound concept regarding prophecy.
Published: Thursday, June 12, 2008 1:52 AM


"Two men remained behind in the camp, the name of one was Eldad and the name of the second was Medad, and the spirit rested upon them; they had been among the recorded ones, but they had not gone out to the Tent, and they prophesied in the camp. The youth ran and told Moshe, and he said, 'Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.' Yehoshua Bin Nun, the servant of Moshe since his youth, spoke up and said, 'My lord Moshe, incarcerate them!' Moshe said to him, 'Are you being zealous for my sake? Would that the entire people of HaShem could be prophets, if HaShem would but place His Spirit upon them!'" -- Bamidbar 11:26-29

In his great humility, Moshe reveals a profound concept regarding the truth of prophecy. While both the youth and Yehoshua had expected their teacher to be angry with Eldad and Medad, Moshe surprised them by stating his
One prophet per generation cannot be enough.
wish that the entire Israeli Nation become prophets. One prophet per generation cannot be enough, as no one else would then understand his Divine message. In order to internalize the basic teaching that the leading prophet brings to the masses, all Israel must attain some level of prophecy.

Throughout Scripture, prophets have come to the Hebrew Nation with a sincere and truthful message. Yet, these prophets have nearly always failed to rescue Israel from physical and spiritual threats. These failures are not due to a shortcoming in the prophet or his message, but rather to the public's inability to receive and appreciate this message. In most cases in which prophets had come to Israel with warnings, they were dismissed by the people as extreme or irrational. Each prophet spoke a language of absolute simplicity which brushed off of the masses, stuck in their illusions of personal gratification and not wishing to hear a Divine message of salvation.

Rashi explains regarding Shmuel I 18:10, that vayitnabeh, usually translated "and he prophesied," is used in this verse to describe King Shaul's mental illness because both a prophet and a madman express ideas that are often unintelligible to those around them.

Throughout Israel's history, prophets are rarely taken seriously because the masses are seldom on a level to understand them. Due to illusions of intellectualism and false security, people often convince themselves of whatever it is they prefer to believe - whatever will make them comfortable for the moment. Therefore, a "prophet" - one who through great love and courage has already broken free of his own illusions - is most often unable to bring his message to the people whose fortified egos protect their hearts from his words.

Although Moshe wishes for all Israel to become prophets, not every Jew has to attain the same level of Divine Spirit. But unless we all develop a minimal level of prophecy, we will not be able to understand the words of individual prophets who come with sincere messages of warning or salvation.

In modern times, as the Jewish people return to nationhood, sovereignty and eventually prophecy (chapter 3 of The Kuzari), there have already been sparks of the Divine Spirit, specifically among those whose sensitivity and courage have allowed them to break through their own psychological barriers. One unique example of this phenomenon was the revolutionary Hebrew poet Uri Zvi Greenberg.

The fact that Greenberg's poetry features the pre-state Hebrew underground, the terrible Holocaust in Europe and Israel's wars of liberation would not astonish anyone - unless they were to read the dates at the bottom of each poem. Each of these historic events was recorded by Greenberg twenty or more years before its actual occurrence. Fellow poet Chaim Nachman Bialik once asked Greenberg how he was able to write of the Holocaust and describe the slaughter of millions of Jews in 5682 (1922). Greenberg replied: "But I see it."

In fact, many of the poems in Rehovot HaNahar, a 5711 (1951) volume detailing the atrocities of the Holocaust, were written the previous decade, before the world had received the news reports from Europe. Yet, all of the details that later emerged corresponded to the words found in Greenberg's poems. "Holy of Holies" describes the brutal murder of the poet's mother. He had written it before the actual event from a nightmare he once had, simply recording what he tortuously saw.

From 5682, Greenberg wrote and spoke continuously about the terrible catastrophe that was approaching the Jews of Europe. Although his poems were widely accepted as great cultural works, the masses were not able to recognize the dangers or heed his warnings. Throughout the decade leading up to World War II, the poet pleaded with the Jews of Poland to organize an emergency evacuation to the Land of Israel. But the masses could not grasp the truth in Greenberg's warnings. Trapped in the day-to-day realities of their individual lives, the Jews were unable to see the historic events developing around them.

After G-d had taken Israel out from Egypt, the Hebrews were crossing the Sea of Reeds. One complained to another about the mud they had to walk through. They were on their way from slavery to Redemption and one man could not see past the mud on his feet. A prophet is not bothered by the mud because he can envision a great historic picture. He sees the course of events shaping and is consciously attached to the higher life of Israel's national soul, encompassing each Jew in every generation throughout time.

Following the Holocaust, Greenberg wrote a poem in which he dialogues with HaShem. In it, he asks: "How did I ever get here? A man of vision befouled by their mud." Like the man complaining about mud while crossing the
Bialik once asked Greenberg how he was able to write of the Holocaust and describe the slaughter of millions of Jews in 5682 (1922).
sea, European Jewry saw only the immediate. And because they were blinded by their illusions of security in the exile, they could not attain the level of Divine Spirit necessary to understand a man who was trying desperately to save them.

Seeing beyond the present is a result of deep vision. Only a person possessing great love can be sensitive to the forces of hatred before they are mature enough to strike. While Adolph Hitler was still forming his beliefs, Greenberg had identified the threat to his people. He felt the humiliation of Israel - the humiliation of G-d's Name - and dreamt of Hebrew honor and pride. The central theme of his work was the Redemption of Israel, often focusing on Hebrew wars of liberation and the rebuilding of G-d's Temple in Jerusalem.

"Every sage in Israel who possesses the words of Torah according to their true significance and grieves for the honor of the Kadosh Baruch Hu and for the honor of Israel all his days, and lusts and feels pain for the honor of Jerusalem and of the Temple, and for the swift flowering of salvation and the ingathering of the exiles, attains the infusion of the Divine Spirit in his words...." (Tanna d'bei Eliyahu chapter 4; Mesillat Yesharim chapter 19)

Greenberg once told a journalist how he came to write "I'll Tell It to a Child":

"I dreamt one night.... I saw the Temple Mount, above it an eagle, and around it circles and circles of Jews, and from the Mount a slope inclined straight to the sea. On either side were lines of soldiers from all the world's armies. In the dream, I felt that the Divine Presence was leaving the Mount. I woke up weeping. My cries woke everyone in the house. They asked, 'What happened, what happened?' That morning, I went to Chief Rabbi Kook and found him wrapped in his prayer shawl. I told him the dream. He did not say a word, just took my hand in his and wept. I went home and wrote 'I'll Tell it to a Child'."

Uri Zvi Greenberg saw so clearly what many Jewish leaders and great scholars could not. His life and efforts serve as a vindication for Moshe's wish that all Israel be prophets and that it is not merely a luxury, but a necessity for Hebrew survival. Greenberg's "prophecy" was most likely not a situation in which G-d directly informed him of what would transpire. The poet had destroyed a certain amount of his own illusions in order to obtain a recognition of reality. He saw every Jew as a piece of himself and was therefore able to recognize what others could not. He foretold disaster before the Nazi party had even begun its climb to power and he envisioned Redemption when few people were even prepared to think in such terms. His poetry stands out from the writings of others because, while they wrote of things removed from the reader's emotions, Greenberg's poetry was a poetry of engagement. It stemmed from what the sages call the "wisdom of the heart" - a wisdom that views the soul of reality from an emotional perspective.

Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi teaches in The Kuzari that as the Hebrew Nation returns to our borders, prophecy will begi
Prophecy will begin to reappear among us.
n to reappear among us. Israel's current education system is based on a primitive Western model that places disproportionate focus on intellectual advancement and individual achievement. But because we must all aspire to a basic level of Divine Spirit, it is crucial that our education system be altered to one that places at least the same emphasis on the emotional and spiritual development of children as is currently placed on their intellectual growth. Israel must raise a generation sensitive not only to the suffering of others, but also to Jewish destiny and Israel's national aspirations.

A generation will arise that will be selfless enough to see reality clearly and to understand the words of our true national shepherds. This generation - unable to stomach the profanation of G-d's Name or the humiliation of Israel - will be the generation of prophets that will usher in an era of true freedom for the Jewish Nation.