Pray for the best, but prepare for the worst


From the earliest Biblical times, Judaism — a moral and enlightened religion based upon an ethical monotheism which taught justice, compassion and peace — was forced to struggle against idolatrous voodoo and magic.

The 12th century commentator Ramban (Nachmanides) admits that it’s possible individuals with what we would consider to be prophetic powers exist: “Possibly the Biblical text is hinting at a true phenomenon, that souls of several individuals have the prophetic power to know the future, and not one really knows the source of that power … an inner spirit comes to that individual saying that such and such will occur in the future to a certain object … and the matter proves to be true to those who see it happen.”

Nevertheless, if such a prophecy is used to turn someone away from the laws of Torah, the soothsayer is considered to be a malevolent idolater. No one, not even the most gifted oracle, can rise above the supremacy of our Torah.

Maimonides is likewise very stringent in defining all forms of idolatry. Our Bible insists that “there shall not be found among you … any soothsayer, astrologer, enchanter or sorcerer” (Deut. 18:10).

From this perspective we can readily understand why our tradition insists that “the Torah is no longer in heaven,” so we do not listen to heavenly voices (B.T. Bava Metzia 59b) and “the sage is to be preferred over the prophet” (Bava Batra 12b).

No one can claim the forensic edge because he heard a voice from heaven. The continuity of our tradition remains insured, with no one having the ability to undermine our sacred texts by a newly revealed addendum or substitute.

I believe that there is an even more profound reason for our rejection of fortune tellers, even religious fortune tellers who do not use their gifts to undermine our tradition.

The Bible teaches “the secrets are for the Lord our God and that which is revealed is for us and our descendants forever to perform all the words of this Torah” (Deut. 29:28). Our task is not to second-guess God, or to use our religion or our religious leaders to make our lives easier or more certain, to remove human doubt or vulnerability.

The commandments are here for us to serve God, not to attempt to have God serve us.

We believe in a higher being who can certainly make the miraculous occur, but who only guaranteed that the Jewish people would never be completely destroyed and that eventually the world will accept a God of peace through a message emanating from Jerusalem.

Otherwise in large measure, the world operates according to its natural design. Even if a sword is dangling at your throat, do not despair of God’s compassion, but do not rely on miracles. Pray for the best, but prepare for the worst.

The very practical Talmudic passage in Berachot (B.T. 32b.) teaches us that “one who prays too long and intensively will come to a pained heart,” and the Tosafot commentary interprets this to apply to an individual who expects his prayer to be answered. What is the repair for such a broken heart? queries the Talmud. Occupy yourself in the performance of the commandments to serve God and try to improve society.

Our religious community must close its ears to future predictions of all sorts, no matter how pious the source. Ultimately we have one source, and He teaches us that the secrets are for the Lord alone, and that which is revealed — to perform all the words of this Torah — is for us and our children.

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