Please enjoy a D’var Torah this week from Jared Skoff, Rosh Tikvah 2017-2019. Jared has spent the past six summers at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. He has also worked at Camp Ramah in Canada and the National Ramah Commission, where he serves as Program Director. Jared is a native of Cleveland, Ohio and attends the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles.
by Jared Skoff
The Yiddish word for meteorologist is veter-novi (literally, weather prophet), taken from the Hebrew word navi (prophet). The same word we use for Elijah the Prophet, Eliyahu Ha-navi, the Yiddish language uses for weatherman Al Roker.
Why? What actually makes someone a prophet?
This Shabbat we read Moses’s final address to his nation, on his last day on earth. Beyond the content, Moses’s main goal is that his words be communicated and received. In three different ways and with three different phrases, he insists that the message be heard: Ha’azinu (listen up – the name of the Torah portion), Ti-shma (hear), and finishes speaking B’oznei ha-am (into the ears of the people). Moses indicates that despite all of the miracles he performed, his role as prophet only matters if he is being heard.
He thought that the miracles would make him a respected leader, but it was really the ear of the people that he needed – Moses is clearly frustrated and confused. And so are we. What is it that makes a prophet? Is it splitting the sea or being a good speaker? The Torah leaves us with an unclear definition of prophecy.
This brings us back to the Yiddish veter-novi.
In the absence of a satisfying job description, the Yiddish language has provided an important and humanizing insight into what prophets do. Based on the philosophy of Yiddish, meteorologists are prophets because they have a unique ability- they can observe and understand complicated phenomena in the atmosphere, and then make “the weather” accessible to everyone watching.
The role of the prophet is to see the truth that others don’t, and then communicate.
The lyrics of Yigdal, which we sing Friday nights to end Kabbalat Shabbat, refer to Moses, saying – no one like Moses rose up in Israel again; a prophet (navi) who perceived God’s vision. These words, about 600 years old, tie prophecy to perception, observing and understanding the way things ought to be. Paired with the words from this week’s Torah reading, this definition of prophecy is consistent with the Yiddish – sharing a unique talent to perceive the truth.
This week is the 50th anniversary of Curt Flood becoming a prophet. A baseball player for the St. Louis Cardinals, 50 years ago Flood was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies – and at that time, he HAD to go. According to the laws of Major League Baseball, once you signed with a team, you were forever bound to that team until they traded or released you. Today, long-term players have “free agency“ to join another team when they are no longer under contract, but before Curt Flood, players were owned like property. When Flood sued Major League Baseball, he lost the case and retired rather than be treated like property. He may have lost his own case, but baseball ultimately changed because of him. No one like Curt Flood rose up in baseball again.
As in the case of Curt Flood, it is not enough to see the truth for yourself – he could have negotiated with the team rather than sue all of baseball – but a prophet, a true leader, shares the truth with the masses, shouts the truth into the ears of the people, in order to elevate the society.
At Camp Ramah, the campers, the counselors, and the parents have all bought into a prophecy. We believe in the prophecy that Ramah has a special formula, a unique collective talent to bring Yiddishkeit (Jewishness) and menschlichkeit (humanity) into the world. And in bringing their experience and unique talents into the outside world, we also believe that each of our campers has the potential to become leaders, prophets themselves.
We are not all veter-neviim, but one of us may be a computer-navi or a music-navi, a human rights-navi or a social skills-navi. In this new Jewish year, be a prophet; when you recognize something that no one else can see, shout it in their ears.