Good News, Bad News


By Jeffrey Fiskin

Published August 13, 2004, issue of August 13, 2004.
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An old man with wild white hair, Moses, speaks to the assembled throng on the plains of Moab. Two men in the crowd listen, and comment in the manner of men in crowds. One is Chaim Yonkel, an Israelite who has made the long trek out of exile with Moses; the other is Søren, a philosophic Dane.

* * *

Moses: Behold I set before you this day, a blessing and a curse…

Søren: Oy, the “good news, bad news” trick.

Chaim Yonkel: At least we have a choice. Choice is good.

Søren: He didn’t say that. He just said “Behold!”

Chaim Yonkel: He meant we have a choice.

Moses: …beside the terebinths of Moreh…

Søren: Did Abraham have a choice?

Chaim Yonkel: Who said anything about Abraham?

Søren: Moishe just mentioned Moreh, obviously to remind us of Moriah, which reminds us of Abraham, which reminds us —

Chaim Yonkel: You’ve got this thing about Abraham.

Søren: That’s the essential “good news, bad news” story. Good news: God’s talking to you. Bad news: He’s telling you to kill your son.

Moses: If there arise in the midst of thee a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams — and he give thee a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder comes to pass, whereof he spoke unto thee — saying: “Let us go after other gods, which thou hast not known, and let us serve them”; thou shalt not hearken unto the words of that prophet, or unto that dreamer of dreams…

Søren: See, Abraham again.

Chaim Yonkel: So now Abraham was a false prophet?

Søren: No. Of course not. Absolutely not. (A thoughtful pause.) Well, at least I don’t think so. But really, who can say? I mean, how should I know? How does anyone know?

Chaim Yonkel: Abraham’s the father of the whole —

Søren: We know that now. But what about then? To the untutored eye, he must have looked like a wacko running up the mountain to do who knows what to that poor kid.

Chaim Yonkel: He was on a mission from God.

Søren: That may be how Abraham knew he was doing the right thing. But how are we supposed to know? How can you tell a false prophet from a real one?

Chaim Yonkel: Supernatural acts and predictions that come true. Moishe just said that. And so did Maimonides.

Søren: And Maimonides also wrote: “All these and similar matters cannot be [clearly] known by man until they occur, for they are undefined in the words of the prophets.” See? Even the prophets don’t know how to tell a true prophet.

Chaim Yonkel: If the prophet says, as it is written: “Let us go after other gods, which thou hast not known, and let us serve them,” (Deuteronomy 13:3) that’s a clue, right there: phony baloney for sure.

Søren: That works great if the prophet’s an idiot. But what if he’s a more subtle devil, a fellow of some cleverness? He doesn’t say: “Woo-woo, I got your red-hot new god right here.” He does his miracle; he foretells the future; it comes to pass; then he says: “You know what? I think it’s OK to eat rice on Pesach.”

Chaim Yonkel: The Sephardim eat rice. The Ashkenazim don’t. It’s a community decision.

Søren: No, it’s a wedge to undermine the word of God. As it is written: “All this word which I command you that shall ye observe to do; thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it.” (Deut. 13:1) You can’t have it both ways.

Chaim Yonkel: You moderns. I think I can help. Moishe says: “Behold, two choices.” Later he says: “If you make the right choice, it’s a mekhaye; the wrong choice, a curse.”

Søren: But that’s just it. There’s no way for a mere mortal to know.

Chaim Yonkel: I agree.

Søren: You do?

Chaim Yonkel: Absolutely. Nowhere does he say you can make the right choice. Only that you have to try. Same for false prophets. Who knows for sure? Do your best. People of good will can disagree on occasion.

Søren: With Jews it isn’t just on occasion.

Chaim Yonkel: Even the great ones disagree. Maimonides says you have to pray just so. Nachmanides says, no, you don’t, but pray from the heart.

Søren: And you think that’s good enough?

Chaim Yonkel: Who knows?

Søren: Hey, that’s what I was saying.

Chaim Yonkel: You’re a smart guy.

Søren: You too.

Jeffrey Fiskin is a writer who lives in Hollywood.

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