Like a lot of people, I have my superstitions. Mine don’t come in the form of black cats or broken mirrors, but more in the sense of not wanting to jinx myself. If you mention how well something is going, soon the opposite is certain to happen. Duncan knows that we never say things like, “Can you believe how well the kids are getting along right now?” because inevitably after we say that, the other shoe drops, and chaos ensues. Does that make me a prophet or a soothsayer? Not at all. Does it mean that perhaps I’m simply tuned in to the general ebb and flow of behavior? Maybe. It’s not that I can predict the future, it’s simply a bit of intuition mixed with experience. It’s not always correct, but when it comes true, however, it does sort of feel like a superpower.
Can one person really know the future? People make a living as psychics and fortune tellers to this day, long after prophets have had any sort of role in our culture or tradition. The Torah seems to mention fortune telling in various contexts as a normal thing. Let’s see if it shares any insight as to why.
In this week’s parshah, Vayera, the idea of a prophet comes up. Here’s the recap: Abraham and Sarah contemplate the son that will be born to them in their old age; Sodom and Gomorrah fall as Abraham bargains with God to save Lot’s life; and Isaac is born, causing a rift in Abraham’s house with Ishmael. Abraham moves forward in making a deal with King Avimelech, and we end with the Akeidah, the test of Abraham as God asks that he offer up his son, Isaac.
As Abraham is growing in his own role as a leader in his family and in the greater world, he is seen making some unusual choices, like lying to Avimelech. On the other hand, he also makes some positive choices, engaging in dialogue with the neighboring nations. When they unravel the wife/sister lie, God admonishes Avimelech: “Therefore, let the man’s wife go for he is a prophet.” This is the first time the word prophet is used in the bible. A literal translation is “one who receives the divine call” or, “one who proclaims,” or “a spokesperson.” This leads us to the question, in which role is Abraham acting?
In this case, Abraham is something of a mix of these things, but mostly here to intercede on behalf of others. He is a spokesperson for the future on what will happen should Sarah not be allowed to return to him. Could Abraham really predict the future? Probably not. Nevertheless, as a prophet, or at the very least as a spokesperson who seems to have morals and values invested in him through his trust in God, it makes sense for Abraham to call for kindness and dignity as the path forward. With so much uncertainty and turmoil in the world, let us take this message to heart. While we can’t predict the future, perhaps we can use what we know from the past and present to steer ourselves toward the world we wish to build.