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Forecasts or prophecies - Jack Alvarez 

As a physicist, I wish to make two predictions:

  •  Halley’s Comet will next come closest to the sun in July 2061.

  • Tomorrow’s weather... will be here.

Are all forecasts prophecies? Are solving scientific equations and interpreting the results anything more than modern approaches to fortune telling? More on this in a while.

In many ways, Deuteronomy chapters 12 and 13 are an explanation, and an expansion, of the first and second commandments. The Israelite conquest of the land is seen as the direct work of the Eternal. Israel is warned not to worship Canaanite gods even if their devotees have been driven away. Even the study of supernatural beings is prohibited.

Having learnt about proper places of worship, this sidrah goes on to consider the competing voices which might tempt the allegiance of the people away from Adonai. The portion first examines an inner voice, whereas individual false prophets feature next and friends in later verses.

I made some predictions earlier. Was I acting as a prophet? The Hebrew word navi is usually translated as “prophet” and that word in everyday English is taken to mean “one who predicts the future”. What do we find in the Hebrew Bible? The first individual cited is Miriam, named as navi’ah, a prophetess, in Exodus chapter 15. Her younger brother, Moses, is the prophet par excellence but neither did much forecasting about the times ahead.

In the Nevi’im, Samuel is regarded as the last of the judges and the first of the prophets.[Although Samuel went by the older title ro’eh; 1 Sam.9:9.]  What these three had in common, as did other prophets such as Elijah, Jeremiah and many more, was that they were men of God (or in Miriam’s case a woman of God): human beings commanded by the Almighty to speak out and/or act in God’s name.

We have been warned this morning about false prophets; people who claim to speak in the name of the Eternal but in fact have not been commissioned so to do. However, we are offered little guidance as how we are to recognise false prophets.

Today’s text probably dates to the time of the reign of Ahab in the mid-ninth century BCE; false prophecy had become a serious problem in the northern kingdom. Now, you might be around to verify or refute my claim for the return of Halley’s Comet, so if you can’t wait 44 years, you’ll have to decide for yourselves. Similarly, Ahab’s subjects were not around to witness the destruction of the northern kingdom by the Assyrians some two hundred years later. The problem didn’t go away. Today’s Haftarah confirms false prophecy was still significant hundreds of years later.

The Torah portion is decidedly harsh on cholaym chalom, dreamer of dreams. Using dreams to predict the future seems a pretty risky occupation. We are even given details of how such a person is to be stoned to death. However, Jacob’s dream at Haran, where he “saw” angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven, changed Jacob’s life and the whole course of history.[Gen.28:10ff] God spoke to, and reassured Jacob; He indicated the path to Himself.

I am sure that we remember the story of the incarcerated Joseph explaining the meanings of the dreams of two other prisoners. To the cup-bearer, Joseph gives the happy news that Pharaoh will pardon him in three days’ time, whereas the baker was told that Pharaoh would soon cut off his head. Impressed by these divinations, the royal court enlists Joseph as the man to interpret the Pharaoh’s visions of seeing cows emerging from the Nile. Promoted to a senior position then gives Joseph the opportunity of fulfilling his prediction, made many years’ earlier, in his childhood dream of ascendency over his brothers. To many, this dreamer of dreams was the most important of the children of Jacob, also named Israel by God, Elohim, and thus the first of the B’nei Yisrael.

Speaking to Aaron and Miriam, at the door of the Tent of Meeting, the Eternal “said: ‘Hear now My words: if there be a prophet among you, I the LORD do make Myself known unto him in a vision, I do speak with him in a dream.” [Num.12:6]

We must not forget that Abram too was a dreamer. He had a conversation with the Eternal (YHVH) in a vision; - could this be called a day-dream? He expresses his fear that he will die without an heir of his body. Presumably awake at the earlier time, Genesis then goes on to relate that Abram fell into a deep sleep, during which time God came to him in a dream, promising that his prodigy will be as numerous as the stars of heaven, although they’d have to endure four hundred years of slavery before being redeemed. No stoning here and, as we know, events turn out for Sarai and Abram as God promised.

Both Kings and Prophets had dreams. At Gibeon, the Eternal appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said “Ask what shall I grant you.” [1 Kings 3:5 part] Well, Solomon asked for wisdom and that – and more – was gifted by God. Later, Solomon demonstrated his wisdom by marrying the daughter of Pharaoh, thereby cementing a political alliance. Further, he toured the shrines of his kingdom to offer sacrifices, the ancient equivalent of a modern political leader’s tour of marginal constituencies in his (or her) battle-bus. Although whether even Solomon could sort out Brexit is a question no prophet would answer.

In the Hebrew Bible, no one, except Joseph and Daniel, interpreted a dream. This omission – if indeed it is an omission – is remedied in the Talmud. Tractate Berakot has a section on the interpretation of one’s own dreams.

There are columns of text about explaining the various symbols. To pick just two:

  • If one sees a well in a dream, he will behold peace.
  • Raba said: I saw two pigeons flying. Bar Hedya replied: You will divorce two wives.[Ber. 56a]

Perhaps my favourite comes from a conversation between Abaye and Raba reported in the Talmud.[Ber.56b] “I dreamt that my head was split open and my brains fell out.” Any suggestions for what this means? ... “The stuffing will fall out of your pillow.”

So where does all this leave us?

We end up where all Reform Jews are. As Jewish adults, it is our personal responsibility to love Adonai with all our abilities, emotions and intellect – and thus to make our own decisions. Scientific predictions, the words of a prophet or those of a dreamer of dreams must all be treated in the same way. Each one of us has the obligation to ask this question: Do these notions bring us nearer to or further away from the path set out in the Torah? Unless the answer is a clear “closer approach”, then we must reject the idea and distrust the person.

May all your dreams be of ladders (to Heaven). Shabbat Shalom.

Jack Alvarez


Tue, 20 October 2020 2 Cheshvan 5781