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Intelligence is a Foundation of Prophecy - Parashat Shemos 5780, January 17, 2019


This week, we read the first parasha of Sefer Shemot. The parasha describes the increasingly difficult circumstances that b’nei yisrael were suffering under the rule of Paroh in Egypt. The parasha also introduces us to Moshe and describes his development into the leader of the Jewish People.

In his first prophetic experience, Moshe is shown an angel of Hashem within a burning bush. Moshe saw that the bush was burning but not being consumed. Moshe then says, “I will now turn and I will see this great vision – why is the bush not burning?” The Torah conveys that Hashem saw that Moshe had turned to see (the vision) and He called to Moshe from the midst of the bush, “Moshe, Moshe” to which Moshe responded, “I am here.” After this exchange, Hashem reveals to Moshe the content of the prophecy – that Hashem would redeem the Jewish People from Egypt through the agency of Moshe.

Looking more carefully at the details of this – Moshe’s first prophetic experience – we notice a seemingly innocuous detail – Moshe asked why the bush was not burning.

A similar detail is recorded within the Haftarah that Sephardim read this week – the well-known first prophecies of the prophet Jeremiah. Hashem says to Jeremiah, “What do you see, Jeremiah? And I (Jeremiah) said, ‘I see a stick of almond wood’.” Hashem then proceeds to share with Jeremiah the meaning of the vision.

Each of these prophecies share a common detail – the revelation of the prophecy is preceded by an observation of a physical phenomenon by the prophet. By including this detail in the description of each of these prophecies, the Torah seems to be conveying that the prophet’s observation was essential. Why is this detail important?

In his Laws of The Fundamentals of the Torah, Maimonides explains that, among many qualities, a prophet must be intelligent. Perhaps this requirement explains the inclusion of the observations made initially by Moshe and Jeremiah. Like a scientist exploring the world around him or her, Moshe and Jeremiah (with some prodding from Hashem), made an initial observation about the physical world. When confronted by a new situation, the first instinct of the researcher is, “What do I see?” or “How does it work?” Once Moshe and Jeremiah showed themselves to have this approach to understanding the world, they were prepared for prophecy.

One of the primary jobs of an educator is to harness and direct the innate creativity of his or her students to intelligently approach Torah and the world around us. From Moshe and Jeremiah we learn that, towards this end, the first instinct that we should cultivate is the What? or How? question. We can promote this instinct by teaching our children to look carefully at the text of the Torah and report the observations that they learn – what happened in the first plague? We can model looking at the world around us and noticing phenomena and learning how they work – what is steam and how does evaporation work? While partially innate, intelligence can be developed and refined. Today, we do not have access to prophecy, however, G-d has given us the gift of intelligence. Moshe and Jeremiah teach us the building blocks of this gift.


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