I am fascinated by the highway sign, rather non-descript, green with white letters, as familiar in appearance as all those other markers of place and distance that we see along the way of our automotive journeys. This one is for Illinois Route 73, Exit 33. One of our synagogue members knew I would be fascinated by it so she stopped and photographed it as she drove cross-country this summer. It is the announced destination, coming up in just half a mile, that intrigues me, a place called “Prophetstown.”
The photograph of the road sign pointing the way to Prophetstown came to me this week, the week of the Torah portion Shoftim (Deut. 16:18-21-9). Parashat Shoftim concerns civil administration and the pursuit of justice, that both should go together. In this portion is the exhortation, tzedek, tzedek tirdof/justice, justice shall you pursue. The ways of government and the pursuit of justice are meant to be as one strand for the sake of the commonweal. Too often at odds, the two become so easily frayed, the thread of social justice as a dropped stitch upon the floor. So enters the prophet, to remind of what is meant to be, ready to speak truth to power. In this portion that speaks to matters of social and civil administration, therefore, God tells the people, I will raise up for them a prophet. The way of the prophet is given, not as one who will tell the future, not in the way of the soothsayers and diviners we have just been told to shun, but as one who will remind the people of God’s path, the way to Prophetstown.
As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches, the prophet is one who feels God’s pain for human suffering. God’s pain is the pain of human beings, pain that is felt in the bodies and souls of God’s children. As a parent feels the pain of their children, so God feels our pain, and the prophet cries out with God’s anguish. In his own prophetic voice, Rabbi Heschel speaks of the prophet as one who is “thrown into orations about widows and orphans, about the corruption of judges and affairs of the market place. Instead of showing us a way through the elegant mansions of the mind, the prophets take us to the slums…. Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, to the profaned riches of the world. It is a form of living, a crossing point of God and man. God is raging in the prophet’s words…” (The Prophets, pp. 3-5).
Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein