Why Learn Neviim Acharonim?
“Oh, I know who the last Jewish prophet was. Wait -- don’t tell me, I’m gonna get this -- Malachi! Am I right?” My friends and I quickly glanced at each other. We honestly had no clue whether or not this friendly Christian security guard was correct. But he came across as knowledgeable, and he had answered his own question pretty confidently. So we assumed he was correct and nodded our heads.
After the conversation came to a close, we did a Google search and discovered that the security guard was correct. Startled, we began to question ourselves, “how is it that we know so little about these prophets?” Through our Jewish education, we had learned a few books of Neviim. But Malachi? We barely recognized the name. Was that our fault? We didn’t think so. For some reason our community just didn’t prioritize familiarity with it.
In Yeshiva University it is generally acknowledged that learning Tanakh is a value. Many students keep up with shnayim mikra vi’echad targum and many others read through the text of the parsha every week. There is also a minority who set aside time to learn other books of Tanakh during night seder, the first thirty minutes of morning seder, or lectures taking place over the weekend. These Tanakh endeavors add crucial variety to the students’ Torah study. Unfortunately, these ventures are often limited to the study of Biblical narrative: Chumash, Neviim Rishonim and select Megillot. The books of Neviim Acharonim, however, are rarely included.
While the study of Biblical narrative is valuable, there are many educational benefits that are particular to the study of Neviim Acharonim. I’d like to consider a few here.
Focus on the Societal, National and Global
The study of Biblical narrative primarily focuses on individual characters. One can analyze the character of Yehoshua as he develops as a leader or delve into the mind of Yonah as flees from his divine mission. One can identify ethical role models such as Ruth and denounce depraved characters like Izzevel. Deep study can raise crucial questions pertaining to our own personal religious and ethical lives. However, in its focus on the individual, Biblical narrative leaves aside other important questions.
Prophetic speeches, on the other hand, rarely focus on any one person. The prophets address societies, nations and even humanity as a whole. They force the reader to deal with important issues that expand far beyond his or her own personal growth.
When one reads Yeshaya’s condemnation of Jerusalem’s upper class, “How dare you crush My people, and grind the faces of the poor.”(Yeshaya 3:15), one is forced to think of Judaism as it relates to the societal level. Isaiah was addressing an issue far greater than any one person’s moral adherence and religious observance. Thus, he forces the reader to consider a new set of questions: Is abuse of the poor still a problem in our society? Who are the downtrodden in our communities today? How can I help develop a solution?
The prophecies described in Neviim Acharonim include grand messianic visions: “In the days to come, the Mount of the Lord’s House shall stand firm above the mountains and tower above the hills; and all the nations shall gaze on it with joy. And the many people shall go and say: “Come Let us go up to the Mount of the Lord to the House of the God of Jacob; That he may instruct us in his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” (Yeshaya 2:2-3) One who encounters these visions cannot help but ponder issues of our national destiny. What is the Jewish nation’s role in the world? To what extent does the land of Israel factor into that role? How do these texts inform our understanding of these issues? When reading Sefer Yechezkel and hearing the prophet address the Babylonian exiles, a particularly relevant question arises: What is the contribution of the diaspora to the future of Judaism?
What does it mean to be an “am hanivchar?” Is our perception of Jewish “chosenness” affected by the prophecy of Amos? “To Me, O Israelites, you are just like the Ethiopians” – declares the Lord. “True, I brought you out of Egypt, But also the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir.” (Amos 9:7)
How does our particularity fit into God’s larger plan for mankind? Have we considered the vision of Yeshayah? “In that day, Israel shall be a third partner with Egypt and Assyria as a blessing on the earth: for the Lord of Hosts will bless them saying, “ Blessed be my people Egypt, My handiwork Assyria, and my very own Israel.” (Yeshaya 19:24-25) Does God’s care for other nations modify our understanding of his unique relationship with Israel?
Lastly, if our nation is attempting to impact the world, what do we want that world to look like? Amos condemned nation after nation for neglecting basic ethics with their international conduct. Should we be doing the same? What are our hopes for humanity? Does it involve the “beating of swords into plowshares”? (Michah 4:3)
Explicit Moral Value Statements
One shortcoming of Biblical narrative is that the texts themselves are often morally ambiguous. The message of any given story cannot easily be determined. What sin did the Dor Haflaga commit when they built Migdal Bavel? The answer is not clear. Perhaps they were waging war against God , perhaps they were trying to keep the sky from falling, or maybe their sin was the very notion of uniting in one location and under one ideology. The true answer may even be “none of the above.” Which system of morality is being depicted in the story of Akeidat Yitzchak? Semester long courses have been devoted to this question. Ultimately, the text leaves us in the dark. After reading the book of Shmuel one can’t even come to a conclusion as to whether the institution of a monarchy is ideal or not.
The result of these frequent ambiguities is that we often project our own messages onto the text and interpret it in accordance with those messages. Instead of learning morality from the Bible, we project our own preconceived values onto it. We are not confronted with any explicit moral value statements that cause us to formulate, sharpen and even rethink our own priorities and moral outlook.
“What Neviim Acharonim lacks in scope it makes up for in depth – both in the level of detail it provides as well as in the genuine human emotion it packs into those details.”
On the other hand, the literary prophets, speaking directly to the people, make statements that leave far less room for interpretation. The reader is confronted with the Biblical perspective on morality, instead of projecting his or her own preconceived morality onto the text. Some values are delivered in concise and powerful maxims: “Seek justice, undo oppression, defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.” (Isaiah 1:17) values are made clear via causality: “Because... out of their beautiful adornments, in which they took pride, they made their images and their detestable abominations- therefore... I will give them as spoil to strangers, and as plunder to the wicked of the earth.” (Yechezkel 7:20-22)
Some of the most valuable moments learning Neviim Acharonim come when one is confronted with two conflicting values and must calculate how they are to be prioritized in his or her own moral outlook. It is clear throughout Tanakh that proper ritual service is of great importance. And yet we read several appeals like the one of Michah: “With what shall I approach the Lord, do homage to God on high? Shall I approach Him with burnt offerings, With calves a year old? Would the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams…? He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God;” (Michah 6:6-8) The reader must reevaluate the importance of ritual and consider how it relates to the fulfillment of moral principles. After seeing each prophet give emphasis to different values depending on their societal circumstances, one recognizes that morality is not black and white but is filled with nuance and must be applied to our own realities with great forethought.
Reconciling conflicting values is not the only challenge readers face. The Jewish society portrayed in the First Temple era differs starkly from our own in many ways. Torah study, in the traditional sense, is not a central priority. Does our perception of Judaism change after encountering a society that revolves not around the beit midrash, but the Temple, where the main concerns of religious leaders were not that of technical halachic decisions but of general societal corruption?
A Powerful Lens into Jewish History
At first this might seem counterintuitive. How could the speeches of the prophets be more of a historical adventure than learning the books of Biblical narrative? After all, one book of narrative, say the book of Shoftim, can span nearly 400 years, telling many epic stories along the way. A prophet directs his speeches towards, at most, one or two generations.
What Neviim Acharonim lacks in scope it makes up for in depth – both in the level of detail it provides as well as in the genuine human emotion it packs into those details. The societies that surround the prophets are painted vividly and heavily resemble our own. A reader sees society operating on all of its different levels. There are conflicts between different political factions, social strata and geographic regions of Israel. Political decisions are debated, social trends are criticized and ritual practices are questioned.
The details are presented not by a distant narrator, but by one of the society’s active players. Events are not being related objectively; they are laced with human emotions. Does our best understanding of the Holocaust come from textbooks filled with bird’s-eye-view summaries, or from the personal memoirs of Viktor Frankl and Primo Levi? So too, the frustration displayed by Yermiyahu when his political advice is ignored and the anger of Amos towards the corruption of the upper class help us better grasp the reality of the First Temple era.
Adding Meaning to Important Terms and Psukim
Many of the daily tefillot we say consist of different lines from Neviim Acharonim. Understanding the Biblical context of these lines can deepen our appreciation for them. When putting on tefillin in the morning, the reciting of “Erastich li lolam…”, “I will betroth you to me forever...”, could be a routine utterance with little meaning. The experience is completely transformed, however, if one recognizes those lines as the climax of Sefer Hoshea – a text portraying the tribulations of God as he struggles with his people as a husband would a wayward wife.
The same goes for many of the lines in Kedusha. Once understanding their origins in Yeshaya’s and Yechezkel’s visions of God, one realizes that we are trying to, in a sense, recreate these scenes by reciting them out loud as group.
There are many staples of the Jewish lexicon that people toss around without regard for their original Biblical context. Where did the term mashiach come from? What is mashiach? Is it a person? Maybe an era? If it is a person, is our perception of him affected when we realize that Koresh the King of Persia was identified by Yeshaya using the same term?
What is the original meaning of “Or lagoyim?” Can it pertain to being a technological leader, as Bibi Netanyahu has used it? Or should it be limited to moral and ethical leadership?
In previous generations, unfamiliar Hebrew and complicated imagery hindered the masses from learning Neviim Acharonim. But in the past decade, Maggid, JPS and Artscroll have all published series devoted to making these sefarim more accessible. So the next time you are deciding what to learn with your chavrusa, consider encountering the prophets.