Understanding the Prophets
By Uri Pavlefsky
The Bible provides fascinating study. It is rich in ideas and challenges the intellect with a myriad of concepts. Presented in the words of man are the concepts of the G-d through the media of the prophet. It becomes incumbent on man to synthesize G-dly concepts as given to mankind via the prophetic vision.
The books of the prophet are rich both in history of the Biblical times, but also in revealing the essence of G-dliness in man. Many revelations are couched in terms that are purposely difficult to understand to thwart the insincere student from correctly understanding the true meaning behind passages in the prophets.
One case in point is in the story of King Saul, who was anointed by Samuel the Prophet to be the first king over Israel. Yet in his jealousy over young David's success, wished to kill him.
King Saul alternated between depression and prophecy. So great were his swings in character that he would sometimes sink to the lowest pits of depression in anguish over his situation and supposed rival, David. At other times he could reach the height of human experience, that of prophecy.
During one of his episodes of alternately chasing after David and forgiving him, he followed David to Samuel who lived in Ramah (see Samuel I 19:1-24). When King Saul reached Ramah, he began to undergo a prophetic experience (Samuel I 19:23). What is disturbing to the readers is that the verse (Samuel I 19:24) explains: "And also he removed his garments and he also prophesized in the presence of Samuel, and he fell naked the entire day and night..."
Now we certainly could -and perhaps we are obliged - ask at this point an obvious question. How could Saul take off his clothing and prophesize? Not only from a contemporary view of modesty, where clergy are expected to act with modesty, but from a Jewish legal view that prayer (conversing or connecting to G-d) must be done with the body covered. How was King Saul able to achieve prophecy in a state that belittles his royal station, ridicules the concept of holiness while in the act of a holy state, a yet seems to be condoned by the Bible?
Yet we see that this was accepted and Saul did not receive any rebuke from Samuel. Just the opposite, the verse continues: "...therefore they say, 'also Saul is with the prophets' ". This prophecy confirmed Saul's acceptance as a person whose experience of prophecy is not just a singular occurrence, but rather, as like the other prophets, it is a continuing pattern of revelation of G-d to him. Therefore our question becomes stronger. How on earth can we justify receiving a G-dly revelation in a state of nudity? Does this not smack of orgies and excursions of the satanic sort which are forbidden by the Torah?
However these thoughts are those that could be invoked by one who does not have the proper understanding of terminology and concepts used in the mystical and hidden parts of the Torah. For many years these questions would lie dormant in the minds of those who had no access to the Kabalistic and Chassidic dimensions of the hidden Torah. However these difficulties can reveal to us a new understanding of prophecy.
Garments are used in the mystical parts of Judaism to explain another idea.
Each person is compounded with a soul and a body. For the soul to do its function it must come into the body. A soul with out a body, though highly spiritual, can not perform its function in this world with out the body.
The soul is the inner dimension of the person and the body becomes its outer garment.
The body, too, can not perform its function in this world with out a garment. A soldier, a fireman, a king, etc, utilizes garments to perform their function. With out their respective garments the body looses the ability to perform its function. A hand needs an asbestos glove to remove a crucible from an oven. Without this garment it could not perform its function.
In addition, there are mental and emotional garments. A man "wears" his "doctor" garment while at work, yet in the evening he takes it off to relax with his family. The mental set of a policeman is necessary for dealing with everyday dangers, yet he must remove it when he is with his family, otherwise it will impede his ability to bond with his wife and children.
The teacher must adopt a certain type of relationship with her pupils if she is to be effective; yet, she must cast this aside and become a mother upon arriving home in order to relate to her children, not as a teacher, but as a mother. Later in the evening she must remove the motherly "garment" and become a lover to her husband, again changing her mental and emotional "garments" from one role to another.
We live in a world in which garments are an inseparable and necessary part of life without which we could not function. Yet we become so used to our garments, both physical and mental that we can not leave them.
In our relationship to G-d, it is imperative that we strip ourselves of those garments with which we use to do our earthly functions. For as long as we continue to "wear" these earthly garments, we can not properly communicate and relate to G-d. Connecting to G-d requires special garments for the soul that are so fine and pure. Therefore, we must take off our earthly coverings and shake the mundane and materialistic bonds that draw us away from heaven and only then can our soul begin to reconnect to its source.
This then is the meaning of the passage in Samuel that describes King Saul as stripping away his garments. In order for Saul to achieve prophecy, he had to strip himself away from being a king, from his earthly desires to kill David and from all of his earthly trappings. Only when he had reached this state of self-nullification, when his bodily essence had reached a state of non-materialism could the spirit of G-d rest upon him in such a powerful form that we call prophecy.
For us too, we must realize that to draw close to G-d, means to let go of our temporal lives temporarily. When we can step back from our worldly needs and earthly desires can we apprehend the beauty of the spirituality that surrounds us.
from the July 2002 Edition of the Jewish Magazine