Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put His spirit upon them! (Numbers 11:29)
In this statement, Moses, the greatest of prophets, wishes that all Israel reach the lofty state of receiving the word of God. Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that this is not just a nice wish, but actually an expression of man’s “ultimate goal”.
“The most exalted creation of all is the personality of the prophet. Each man is obligated to give new life to his own being by modeling his personality upon the image of the prophet; he must carry through his own self-creation until he actualizes the idea of prophecy … Prophecy is man’s ultimate goal, the end point of all his desires” (Halakhic Man, p.128-9).
What is the meaning of prophecy as a goal, especially at a time when the phenomenon has long since ceased to exist? We can gain insight into this question from the story describing the cessation of prophecy. The Talmud (Yoma 69b) explains that when the sages, at the end of the exile from the destruction of the first Temple, realized that the destruction of the Temple was due to man’s desire (yetzer) for idolatry, they resolved to remove this power from the world.
They sat in fasting three days and three nights. [The yetzer of idolatry] was then delivered to them. It came out as a lion of fire from the chamber of the Holy of Holies. … As they seized it, a hair was loosed from its mane, and it raised its voice, and its roar went through four hundred parasangs. They said, “What shall we do? Perhaps, God forbid, heavenly mercy is upon it [protecting it]!” Said the prophet [Zechariah] to them, “Cast it into a leaden caldron, and cover its mouth with lead, because lead absorbs sound.”
The yetzer of idolatry, object of the sage’s ire, is symbolized here as a lion of fire residing in the Holy of Holies. In their attempt to eliminate it, they find that heaven has mercy upon it, giving them to understand that this power serves some divine purpose. But what purpose could God have for the yetzer of idolatry? The answer lies in the dual symbolism of the lion of fire residing in the Holy of Holies.
Let us look at each of the elements of the symbol. On “lion”, Amos (3:8) declares, “The lion hath roared, who will not fear? The Lord God hath spoken, who can but prophecy?” The roar of the lion is thus a metaphor for the voice of prophecy. On “fire”, Jeremiah (20:9) describes the prophecy flaring within him as, “a burning fire.” And finally, the Torah defines “the Holy of Holies” as the place from which divine communication is vouchsafed: “And when Moses went into the tent of meeting … he heard the Voice speaking unto him from above the ark-cover that was upon the ark of the testimony, from between the two cherubim …” (Numbers 7:89).
The lion of fire residing in the Holy of Holies, then, is just as much the power of prophecy as it is the yetzer of idolatry! God has mercy on the yetzer of idolatry not because He is interested in perpetuating idolatry, but because its power is intimately intertwined with the power of prophecy. Indeed, if the power of the one is removed, so too is the power of the other. And so the power of idolatry was not removed but, concludes the story, only muffled. So too, explains Rabbi Chaim Eisen, “For those who listen attentively enough, the divine echo [of prophecy] resonates with the lion’s muffled roar, welling up from the “leaden caldron” in the midst of us all.”
To appreciate the relationship between these two reciprocal powers, it is important to understand their representation as fire. Rabbi Eisen writes: “Fire is the symbol of human creativity, the paradigm of human initiative, and the hallmark of man’s power and his mastery over nature.” The Talmud (Pesachim 54a) teaches that man came into possession of fire only after he ate from the tree of “knowing good and evil”, that is, after having acquired the yetzer hara. As such, explains Rabbi Eisen, “Fire represents not mere passion but the impassioned creative power of man … [and] this is the yetzer hara.”
Now, if the yetzer hara, represented by fire, is creative power, then the yetzer for idol worship, represented by the “lion of fire”, is man’s creative power in all its fullness. And just as fire can be used for good or for evil, so too man’s creative drive – his yetzer – can be used for good or for evil. As such, the yetzer for idol worship is simply the negative manifestation of the spiritual creativity that is at the root of prophecy.
But what does creativity have to do with prophecy, which is ostensibly the simple reception of divine communication? The answer is that prophecy is not simply “the reception of divine communication” but rather the very human conceptualization of divine communication. Maimonides explains that, with the exception of Moses, creativity is indispensable for prophecy:
“Prophecy is, in truth and reality, an emanation sent forth by the Divine Being through the medium of the active intellect, in the first instance to man’s rational faculty, and then to his imaginative faculty; it is the highest degree and greatest perfection man can attain: it consists in the most perfect development of the imaginative faculty” (Guide, II:36).
Prophecy is only possible through the “most perfect” application of the imaginative faculty – employed to interpret, not to invent. Indeed, the gulf that divides interpreting from inventing is that which divides true prophecy from false prophecy and worship of the Creator from idol worship. This duality that characterizes the imaginative faculty is the same duality that characterizes man’s creative power – the yetzer hara. Not surprisingly, Maimonides (II:12) explains that, “the imagination is, in fact, identical with the yetzer hara.”
The yetzer hara, as said, is simply man’s creative power; its ultimate positive expression is “the perfect development of the imaginative faculty” – prophecy. This notion is of critical import toward man’s self-actualization. And though prophecy may seem like an unrealistic goal, like a goal that transcends one’s capabilities, it is imperative that every individual make it their goal for two reasons.
One reason is due to the fact that man’s creative drive is amoral; it is simply the penchant to create and thus prone to negative pursuits. Indeed, it is for this reason that it is named the yetzer hara, the “evil inclination”. To insure that one’s creative efforts are ever pointed in the right direction, he must have as his goal the ultimate positive expression of creativity – prophecy.
The other reason one must make the transcendent goal of prophecy “the end point of all his desires” is that “self-actualization is only possible as a side effect of self-transcendence” (Viktor Frankl). In order to truly actualize creative potential, one’s goal must lie beyond the self, for one’s potential transcends the limited “realistic” perceptions of the self.
Self-transcendence finds its greatest expression in the state of “devekut”, cleaving to the transcendent divine – a state that ultimately manifests in prophecy. “To be sure,” explains Rav Soloveitchik, “the outpouring of the spirit, the divine overflow, is dependent upon heavenly grace; nevertheless, the preparation for prophecy and the task of self-creation have been entrusted to man” (Halakhic Man, p.130). What is incumbent on man is not to attain prophecy, but to strive for it. In so doing man fulfills his mandate in creation – to actualize his creative potential.
To this end it must be ever borne in mind that to strive for self-actualization is to strive for self-transcendence, it is to strive for the “greatest perfection man can attain”, it is, in short, to become a prophet.