Six Degrees of Inspiration (An Introduction to Shoftim)

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(I was asked to introduce Parashat Shoftim at the San Francisco launch party for the new Reboot book, Unscrolled: 54 Artists and Writers Wrestle with the Torah. I was charged with setting the stage for David Katznelson, author of the entry for Parashat Shoftim. David wrote about Otha Turner, a fife-and-drum blues performer from Mississippi, who has been an inspiration to David and who is, to David’s mind, a modern-day prophet. I was allotted one minute.)

(At the Unscrolled launch, surrounded by the unrolled scroll.)

Now we careen toward the end of the Torah scroll, where Moshe will breathe his last breath. In that moment, Torah tells us there would never again arise in Israel a prophet like Moshe, who spoke to God face to face.

Torah also tells us God spoke to Moshe mouth to mouth. Not mouth to ear, as you might expect. But rather God’s non-corporeal, metaphysical mouth pressed to Moshe’s waiting lips, in a great Hollywood kiss of prophecy.

But post-Moshe, what are we left with? Prophecy now comes in a flash, in visions and dreams.

Talmud says our dreams are 1/60 part prophecy. One sixtieth: a tiny but not insignificant bit. After all, one-sixtieth part treyf spoils the whole pot of soup. One sixtieth is small but mighty.

In an hour of our dreaming, there is a full minute of prophecy. In the 360 degrees in which we envision our lives, there are six degrees of inspiration.

But how do we know which six degrees?

Shoftim tells us right here: if a prophet speaks words of prophecy and the words come true then it is true prophecy but if a prophet speaks words of prophecy and the words don’t come true then it was never prophecy to begin with. Kind of circular, but also kind of wise. We may have a gut feeling, but time will tell. Time will tell.

And who can be a prophet? It does not need to be a monarch or a celestial being or a Messiah or an extra-terrestrial. But instead Shoftim says it will be someone mikerev acheyhem – someone of the people, of the community. Someone kamocha – like you. Yes, you. Really. You.

Meaning, I think, that prophecy will come to us, if it does, each in our own language and our own medium.

So the scholar might receive her prophecy as a flash of insight; and the preacher as a sudden, inspiring rhetorical flourish. The painter in the studied but still impulsive brush stroke. The storyteller in an improvised and heartbreaking twist of plot. And the blues singer in the poetry of the lament and the discipline of the fife and drum.

And how will we ready ourselves to be prophets? We will live the full 360 degrees of our lives. And dream the hours of our dreams. We will do our best work, each of us in our own language and our own medium. We will keep our ears open – or maybe our lips. And then time will tell. Time will tell.

(A 140-character reduction of this introduction was also tweeted as part of a Reboot project to crowd-source Torah thought, portion by portion. Check it out and join the conversation using hashtag #Torahin140.)