One of the clichés of modern capitalist society is the struggle to “fill the void” – that is, to quench the thirst for personal completeness with material objects or gain. I fall into the trap all the time – maybe if I get this piece of technology, that pair of shoes, this new internship, I’ll finally feel complete. But maybe there’s another way to look at this feeling. The Hebrew word for prophet, navi (נבא), is related to a Hebrew root that means hollow, navav (נבב). This makes sense in a basic way. In order for God to speak through a person, his or her identity and ego had to step aside – they had to become hollow. As we get further into the prophetic books, the n’viim even begin speaking in first person as God, losing their personal identity entirely. In this week’s Torah portion, B’haalot’cha, the relationship between prophecy and hollowness takes center stage.
While the Israelites continue to kvetch their way through the desert on their journey towards freedom, Moses finally begins to bend under the pressure. He asks God to spread n’vuah, usually translated as prophecy, amongst the people. Seventy elders are chosen to receive a portion of the spirit of n’vuah that rested upon Moses, and to therefore take over some of the responsibilities of running the nascent Israelite society. Apparently Eldad and Medad, two of the selected elders, were too busy that day to make their meeting with God, so only 68 of the selected honorees show up. Being from God, the spirit of n’vuah was able to reach the two absentees anyway, and to the surprise of all around them they began prophesying in public. Joshua, Moses’ rabbinic intern, ran straight to Moses and said, “These two guys are prophesying out in the camp! We’ve gotta stop them.” Moses, in his wisdom, replied, “Stop them? If only all of God’s people were prophets, then we’d be in good shape.”
What Moses was experiencing was not, as Joshua assumed, an attempt at overthrow (that comes in a few weeks). Instead Moses was finally seeing some of the other Israelites, if only momentarily and in a lesser version to that of Moses, allowing into themselves a more holistic vision of their world. This vision, this n’vuah, is reliant upon hollowness. It is simultaneously more attainable and more personally challenging than the prophecy of prediction. N’vuah is rooted in radical empathy, viewing one’s own desires as only one part of a greater Oneness.
In those moments where we strive to fill the hollowness we feel by having seeking to be more, have more, or control more, maybe we’re avoiding that which is really trying to get in. Menachem Mendel of Koretz, one of the great Hasidic masters of Kabbalah, once said, “God dwells wherever we let God in.” In B’haalot’cha, Moses and the Israelites find that n’vuah is not only about God imbuing someone special with power, but it is also about individuals allowing that hollowness, that space inside that seems unfillable, to be filled with chesed, loving-kindness. These elders of Israelite society invited in that divine Oneness of which each and every person is a part, so that they too could share the burden of responsibility that had rested solely on Moses’ shoulders. In this, the elders not only fulfilled their own roles more fully as leaders, but we may surmise felt more fully actualized, and more personally in touch with God and each other. In a world so often focused on individuality, this message of n’vuah beckons us to look into the hollowness we may feel, and to seek to allow God to fill it with chesed – with the spirit of God that touches all, including ourselves, with love.
Andy Kahn, Rabbinic Intern