Prophets and Kings

Presented by David P. Stern on 21 June 1998    following a Dvar Torah on Korach
to a congregation whose rabbi had announced he was leaving          

[* indicates where Hebrew text may be inserted]

      Today's haftarah, as already mentioned, deals with the confrontation between two sources of leadership in Judaism, between prophecy and kingship, or perhaps--at least until the messiah arrives--between prophecy and institutional religion.

    Meaning what? Jews have always received our inspiration from two diametrically opposed sources:

  • the informal, spontaneous, unpredictable one of prophets, and
  • the formal one of kings, priests, rabbis and appointed functionaries.
    Of the two, the prophets (usually) excel in inspiration. They can claim a direct creative link to our sources, and in fact, this is more or less all they have.

    But prophets are not guaranteed. When needed, they may appear, but they also may not, and in that case, what should one do? The book of Proverbs wrote:

            "B'eyn Chazon Yipara Am"       *

which King James' scholars translated "where there is no vision, the people perish." A better translation is probably "where there is no vision, people grow unruly." In any case, such people are in trouble. At a time when the prophet's vision fails to materialize, the only thing holding Jews together is the formalized structure--priesthood, kings, rabbis, congregations.

    Mishkan Torah was always aware of these two contrasting alternatives. On one hand, Greenbelt is a do-it-yourself community--this building was put up by its members, and Mishkan Torah has a long tradition of volunteers running services, of members contributing creative inspirations. On the other hand--it is hard to be creative all the time, and one cannot always rely on volunteers, so here we are with our institutional structure--dues, by-laws, officers, rabbi and the rest.

    The trouble is that as the years go by, institutions tend to take over (and not just here--I could cite examples from the scientific or political scene, for instance, Zionism and Israel). Prophecy is like an annual plant, springing each time from some different seed, whereas institution is like a perennial, whose roots strengthen their grip from year to year.

    And so it has been here, too. Over the years, the rabbi took over a bigger and still bigger share of the spiritual life of the congregation, and now, when there exists a real possibility of going for at least one year without a rabbi, members feel threatened by a spiritual vacuum. If we get no rabbi, what then? If we have no clear vision, will Mishkan Torah perish, or at least grow unruly?

    The proper answer is: "Depends." Depends on what we do. Almost exactly the same situation happened 25 years ago--what he face now, to quote Yogi Berra, is "deja vu all over again."

    25 years ago the rabbi left because the budget could not be balanced, Mishkan Torah went a year without a rabbi, and it came out stronger than before, maybe stronger than ever. What made the difference was what the members did that year. It could easily have gone the other way, in fact, Mishkan Torah was negotiating consolidation with another synagogue, but the terms were so ungenerous that they were rejected.

    What made that difference? Very simple, every one was scared, from the president down. Everyone knew we were treading water, that to prevail we had to exist by our own creative effort. Therefore that summer of 1973 saw an all-out effort to activate Mishkan Torah, to make it visible, to draw new members or at least not to lose any.

    Lectures on popular topics were held every two weeks--a teacher who ran a course in public schools on "the bible as literature", a prisoner released for the evening to tell about prison reform, a fellow who sailed with Cousteau (not exactly Judaic, but great slides), and a NASA astronomer about exploring the planets (great slides, too). These lectures got our names in the papers, and our notices in supermarkets, etc. , and a Torah dedication even made the Washington Post.

    Furthermore, a new improved bulletin "HaKol" was started, with readable, interesting articles, and it went to any potential member within range. And so forth. When the High Holidays came--for which we had a distinguished visiting rabbi--lo and behold, we had lost only 1 or 2 member families, and gained about 25 new ones.

    I have no crystal ball (and no urim vetumim) to tell what happens this time. Next sabbath a candidate Rabbi will lead the services from this bimah, and it is quite possible that in the end he will fill the departing rabbi's place. He is a thoughtful, dedicated individual. He arrived at the rabbinical seminary in mid-life, after a career in computers, because he saw this as his calling, as a more meaningful way to spend his life.

    On the other hand, he has been here before, and at that time some people had serious misgivings. So there also exists a possibility he might not become our rabbi, and as far as I know, there exists no other candidate.

    What worries me is that meanwhile none of the things which happened in 1973 is taking place. In 1973, the activation process began in mid-May. Here we are at the end of June, and I still see no pulling together, no effort impelled by an emergency. No one seems willing to admit that, rabbi or no rabbi, our own resources have grown weak by disuse, and need to be strengthened again.

    Rabbi or no rabbi, Mishkan Torah really has no choice. If we have to go it alone, we better adjust to it it soon, or else the existing erosion will accelerate. But even if the new rabbi is hired--do not forget, he lacks experience, and will need (at least for a while) all the help and support our members can offer.

    In the book of Samuel, in the chapter where the people first ask Samuel to find them a king, they say "let there be a king over us, so that we will be like all other nations, and so that the king would judge between us and would go before us and fight our wars." You know well that life never works that way. The king never goes before the people and fights their wars--it is up to the people to do their own fighting, the most the king can do is provide leadership. And the same holds for the next year at Mishkan Torah: even if we have a rabbi, what we do, or fail to do, will make the difference.

    If anyone here wants to add to this--the floor is open.


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Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
     Mail to Dr.Stern:   david("at" symbol) .

Last updated 9 June 2002