About ten years ago, I was jobless and broke in New York City. I had just been fired from a receptionist job at a very fancy financial management company for reasons unknown. Perhaps it had to do with the fact that out of my boredom, I brought bags and bags of art supplies with me to work and made art behind the desk, but we will never, ever know for sure.
One weekday morning, I left my coffin-sized bedroom on St. Mark’s street in the East Village to go wandering, smoke some clove cigarettes, and look for some sort of sign of what to do next. I walked past the familiar line up of sex shops, tattoo parlours, and frozen yogurt places and kept going. Should I stay in New York or should I go back to Colorado? Hashem! Tell me what to do. Eventually I passed by a psychic’s storefront “office.” In the window was a table with crystals on it, and some big plastic pink flowers. A blonde woman was sitting in the doorway smoking a cigarette, our eyes met for just barely too long, “Come here,” she said, “There’s something you need to hear.” In my weakness and desperation, I followed her in.
In this week’s Parsha, Re’eh, we read:
לֹ֣א תִשְׁמַ֗ע אֶל־דִּבְרֵי֙ הַנָּבִ֣יא הַה֔וּא א֛וֹ אֶל־חוֹלֵ֥ם
הַחֲל֖וֹם הַה֑וּא כִּ֣י מְנַסֶּ֞ה יְהוָ֤ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶם֙ אֶתְכֶ֔ם
לָדַ֗עַת הֲיִשְׁכֶ֤ם אֹֽהֲבִים֙ אֶת־יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֔ם
'“Do not heed the words of that prophet or that dream-diviner. For Hashem your God is testing you to see whether you really love Hashem your God with all your heart and soul.”
There is so much going on in this pasuk. First of all we have the prophet, who is simply called a “prophet” neither falseness nor truth attached to the title. The rabbis of the Sifra debate about whether he was a false prophet or not. Rebbe Yossi says that of course this verse is talking about a false prophet! Rebbe Akiva says something more nuanced, perhaps this pasuk is talking about a prophet who started out true (since it says that their signs and wonders come to pass!) and when they start persuading people off the derech, that’s when the prophet has strayed of their own derech, asking people to come along with them.
And then we have the “test.” Why does God need to test our love like some jealous partner? Shouldn’t the One who knows all our innermost thoughts and feelings not need to depend on a test? Rambam breaks it down for us. It’s not that God needs us to prove our love for God’s sake, but this proving is actually for our own--and the world’s--sake. He explains that the pasuk is saying something like this, “Know that God intends to prove to the nations how firmly you believe in the truth of God’s word, and how well you have comprehended the true essence of God that you cannot be misled by any tempter to corrupt your faith in God. Your religion will then afford a guidance to all who seek the truth, and of all religions, people will choose that which is so firmly established that it is not shaken by the performance of a miracle.”
It all boils down to Emunah. It seems that the true reason why we are dissuaded from prophets, dream diviners and the like isn’t about the truth or falsehood of their messages. It’s about the message we are sending to ourselves, the world, and God when we seek them out and follow in their ways. It’s a message of distrust--in ourselves and our own minds, in the world and things happening as they should, and ultimately in God. It’s no wonder that the word emunah shares a root with le’hit’amen--to practice. Our emunah muscle gets built up over many years--it’s not a one time thing.
Back in the psychic’s storefront office, I sat down in the uncomfortable plastic chair and got ready to receive my “sign” from above. The psychic told me many things. She told me about my soulmate (who was to a be blond and blue eyed man) and how long I would live. She then closed her eyes and thought for a few seconds, took a deep breath, and said very thoughtfully, “I’m getting a sign...that you are struggling financially. It seems that maybe...you are unemployed.” I immediately snapped out of my receptive state. “Are you kidding me?” I said, “It’s 11am on a Tuesday. Of course I’m unemployed.” I got up, handed her the $20, and left, annoyed with myself that I wasted my time and money, and still with no answers about the future.
To be totally honest, this was not my first encounter with a psychic--I had a palm reader and a numerologist at my Bat Mitzvah party, and to this day I feel tempted by the occasional tarot or palm reading. Sometimes all we want is for someone to tell us that everything is going to be okay. Or, at least warn us about the bad stuff coming so we can prepare. But, to be a Jew is to live into the mystery, to embrace a God we cannot see who has a plan we cannot know.
May we be blessed with the ability to trust ourselves, the world, and God, and be compassionate with ourselves when we slip, knowing that even in the falsehood there is something to be heard.