חיפוש בארכיון השיעורים

Parashat Shoftim The Test of Prophecy

הרב שבתי סבתו | ו אלול התשעח | 17.08.2018

ב"ה
אלול תשע"ג Aug. '13
פרשת שופטים Parashat Shoftim
הרב שבתי סבתו Rabbi Shabtai Sabato

נבואה במבחן מימושה
The Test of Prophecy

How are We to Know?
In ancient times, when prophecy was prevalent in Israel, a difficult and problematic phenomenon plagued the nation: the danger of False Prophets. People with over-developed imaginations would interpret their dreams according to their own whims, claiming they had received messages from G-d – and leading to dire consequences.

The most famous story of false prophecy occurred during the period of Ahab, King of Israel. Four hundreds of these bogus seers unanimously advised him to make war with Aram, promising him victory. But the bitter end turned out quite differently; King Ahab fell in battle and was killed.

A large proportion of the suffering that befell the People of Israel was the result of the mistakenly optimistic illusions implanted in their hearts and minds by the false prophets. What was needed was a clear standard by which to determine whether a given prophet was a true one, or just a lying cheat.

In the Torah portion of Shoftim, the Torah tells us the test that every genuine prophet must pass. The relevant passage begins with a presentation of the problem:
וְכִי תֹאמַר בִּלְבָבֶךָ אֵיכָה נֵדַע אֶת הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר לֹא דִבְּרוֹ י-הוה
And if you say in your heart,
"How will we know that which Hashem did not say?"
The answer is unambiguous:
אֲשֶׁר יְדַבֵּר הַנָּבִיא בְּשֵׁם י-הוה וְלֹא יִהְיֶה הַדָּבָר וְלֹא יָבֹא,
הוּא הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר לֹא דִבְּרוֹ י-הוה
That which the prophet speaks in G-d’s Name but does not come true,
that is the thing that G-d did not say.
(Dvarim 18, 21-22)

From here, it appears that every prophecy can be tested very simply, by seeing whether it is completely fulfilled or not. No differentiation is made between prophecies of peace, blessings and goodness, and those that foresee harsh decrees and punishments; whatever does not come true, must stem from a false prophet.

If this is the criterion, however, how can we explain that which occurred to the Prophet Yonah? He was sent to deliver this stern prophecy to the people of Ninveh:
עוֹד אַרְבָּעִים יוֹם וְנִינְוֵה נֶהְפָּכֶת
In another forty days, Ninveh will be overturned.
(Yonah 3,4)

Yet, in the end, after he ran away from G-d and spent three days inside the whale, what happened was this:
וַיִּנָּחֶם הָאֱ-לֹהִים עַל הָרָעָה אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר לַעֲשׂוֹת לָהֶם וְלֹא עָשָׂה
G-d changed His mind regarding the evil He planned to cause them,
and did not do it.
(3,10)

Here, then, is an example of a prophecy that was never fulfilled. Does this mean Yonah was a false prophet?!

Furthermore: Yonah himself prayed to G-d and said:
עַל כֵּן קִדַּמְתִּי לִבְרֹחַ תַּרְשִׁישָׁה כִּי יָדַעְתִּי כִּי אַתָּה אֵ-ל חַנּוּן וְרַחוּם... וְנִחָם עַל הָרָעָה
I therefore ran away to Tarshish,
because I knew that You are a merciful and compassionate G-d...
Who overlooks the bad.
(4,2)

He explained that he ran away because he knew his prophecy might not be fulfilled – and he would then be suspected of having been a false prophet. But since he knew he was a true prophet, why would his words not be fulfilled?

A bitter dispute between the Prophet Yirmiyahu and a false prophet named Chananya ben Azor will help us understand the precise criteria by which to judge a false prophet. Yirmiyahu had prophesized destruction and exile for Israel, at the hands of King Nevuchadnetzar of Babylonia. At the same time, Chananya was speaking publicly and promising that Israel would be freed from the Babylonian choke-hold.

Yirmiyahu therefore announced to Chananya in front of all the people,
אָמֵן כֵּן יַעֲשֶׂה י-הוה. יָקֵם י-הוה אֶת דְּבָרֶיך...
Amen, May it be G-d’s will, may G-d uphold your words...
אַךְ שְׁמַע נָא הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה... הַנָּבִיא אֲשֶׁר יִנָּבֵא לְשָׁלוֹם בְּבֹא דְּבַר הַנָּבִיא
יִוָּדַע הַנָּבִיא אֲשֶׁר שְׁלָחוֹ י-הוה בֶּאֱמֶת
But hear what I say: ...The prophet who prophesizes for peace,
when his words shall come true, then it will be known that Hashem has truly sent him.
(Jer. 28,6-9)

What Yirmiyahu was saying was: “First of all, I hope you are right; I will be the first one to celebrate the fulfillment of your words. But know this: if your words do not come true, it is a clear sign that Hashem has not sent you and that you are imagining your message, and you thus render yourself a false prophet.”

On the other hand, Yirmiyahu tells him, “If peace does come, as you say, this does not prove that I am a false prophet. Because a prophecy of doom, such as mine, need not come true – if the people repent."

Yirmiyahu has laid down an important principle: A prophecy that promises blessing must come true, unless delivered by a false seer. But a prophecy of destruction and punishment need not be fulfilled; if circumstances change, via repentance or prayer, it can be both a true prophecy and remain unfulfilled.

Confirmation of this approach is found in the Gmara (Tr. Shabbat, p. 55a):
R. Acha said in the name of R. Chanina: "It never happened that a word of blessing came from Hashem that He then changed to something bad."

This is also the conclusion drawn by the Rambam, Maimonides, in the introduction to his classic commentary on the Mishnah. He adds there that if there were any possibility of a “prophecy of blessing” being canceled or withdrawn, there would remain no criteria by which to check if a prophecy is true or not.

When an Evil Man Repents of His Ways
What we have learned is that the test of truth can only apply to a prophecy that promises goodness. Why is this?

The difference between a prophecy of goodness and one that predicts punishment is not just technical. The distinction is much deeper and more meaningful, and is connected with G-d’s true will.

The Torah teaches us that G-d’s essential desire is for sinners to repent of their sins, do teshuvah, and receive the gifts of life and goodness. This means that a prophecy that predicts something bad is merely a threat, for the purpose of deterring sinners and encouraging them to repent. When they then improve their actions, paving the way for them to receive life and blessing, this is precisely Hashem’s true will. The evil decree is then, necessarily, revoked.

We can say that the un-fulfillment of a bad prophecy is actually the voiding of the threat – but in truth it is also the revelation of Hashem's essential desire for goodness, which remains eternal and forever unchanging.

This is precisely the prophecy of Ezekiel (Yechezkel):
הֶחָפֹץ אֶחְפֹּץ מוֹת רָשָׁע נְאֻם י-הוה א-להים? הֲלוֹא בְּשׁוּבוֹ מִדְּרָכָיו וְחָיָה.
Do I really want the death of the wicked man, says the Lord?
I only want him to repent of his ways, and live.
(Yechezkel 18, 23)

We now understand the essence of a negative prophecy. A positive prophecy, on the other hand, which predicts or promises blessing and goodness, is totally different. It is an absolute expression of G-d's will. He is the source of good Who wants to do only good. It is so absolute that even if the prediction was made contingent on a particular condition that ultimately did not come true, its fulfillment is still not impeded. Such prophecies must be fulfilled – or else they were false prophecies to begin with.

The Gmara (Brachot, 7a) makes this point perfectly clear:
Hashem does not change His mind regarding even a single word of blessing that comes from His mouth - even if it was stated conditionally. How do we know this? From Moshe Rabbeinu. Hashem promised him, at the Sin of the Golden Calf, “Now leave Me go, and I will be angered at [Israel] and destroy them... and then I will make you into a great nation...” (Shmot 32,10)

Hashem made a promise to Moshe that if, Heaven forbid, Israel would be destroyed, he would be the seed from which a new Israel would sprout. Israel was not destroyed, of course, for Moshe prayed to G-d and had the Divine decree nullified – yet still, the blessing to Moshe came true via his descendants.

When we analyze G-d's precise words, we realize that His true desire was that the decree against Israel should not be fulfilled. The hint is in His words to Moshe, הניחה לי, Leave me go – as if telling Moshe: “If you leave me go, that is, if you stop praying and pleading, I will destroy them; it’s up to you and your prayers.”

It's clear that according to this, the condition Hashem set – the annihilation of Israel – is not His true will. It is merely a way of coaxing Moshe into praying for Israel.

In this merit, too, he will have many descendants himself.

The Eternal One of Israel Will Not Lie
The picture becomes even clearer when we review a critical conversation between the Prophet Shmuel and King Sha'ul. It happened after the king did not obey the prophet's instructions to kill King Agag of Amalek. King Sha'ul first asks forgiveness:
וְעַתָּה שָׂא נָא אֶת חַטָּאתִי וְשׁוּב עִמִּי
And now please forgive my sin, and return with me...
(Shmuel I 15,25)

But Shmuel refuses, saying:
קָרַע י-הוה אֶת מַמְלְכוּת יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵעָלֶיךָ הַיּוֹם וּנְתָנָהּ לְרֵעֲךָ הַטּוֹב מִמֶּךָּ
G-d has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day,
and has given it to your comrade who is better than you.
וְגַם נֵצַח יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא יְשַׁקֵּר וְלֹא יִנָּחֵם כִּי לֹא אָדָם הוּא לְהִנָּחֵם
And the Eternal One of Israel will not lie nor change His mind,
for He is not a man...
(Shmuel I 15,28-29)

Shmuel appears to be saying two contradictory things. First he says that Hashem has changed His mind about Saul’s kingship, and has decided to tear it away from him. But then he declares that Hashem never changes His mind, and that once He decides to give the kingship to someone else, He will not change this decision!

Why should we not assume that just as Hashem changed His mind regarding Saul's kingship, He is likely to do the same about tearing it away from him – and perhaps in the end, G-d will return the kingdom to Saul!

To answer this, let us first state that when G-d "changes His mind," it is not the same as when a person does so. A mortal changes his mind because he has made a mistake in faulty thinking, lack of judgment, overlooking critical factors, and the like.

But with G-d, this is clearly not the case. He does not make mistakes or errors of judgment. Rather, Hashem has trust in us and charges us with important missions. When He entrusts a particular person with a job, the person is very likely to succeed, for he has been given all the necessary qualities and conditions to do so. However, he still has Free Will, and if he chooses not to fulfill it, G-d will choose someone else to carry it out.

In the case at hand, G-d's will is that the Nation of Israel should be led in G-d's ways and that Amalek should be destroyed. The chosen agent for the mission is the king of Israel – either King Sha'ul, or someone else. Replacing the agent as a result of his choice not to adhere to the plan does not mean that G-d has changed His mind or deep, true will.

...Except for This Thing...
The quote we brought above from the Gmara - Hashem does not change His mind regarding even a single word of blessing that comes from His mouth – was actually not complete; the Gmara added that there is, in fact, one exception to this rule. What is it?

The Gmara tells us of an unusual event that happened when Yechezkel the Prophet saw the destruction of the First Temple in a prophetic vision. At the beginning of his vision, Yechezkel hears G-d order the angels not to harm the tzaddikim, the righteous people. Later in the vision, however, he sees the opposite – that the tzaddikim are the first ones to be punished!

Thus, a positive prophecy did not come true – and the Gmara notes clearly that this is an exception to the stated rule. What we want to understand is why. Why did Hashem change His mind about a favorable promise that He had made, and why did it happen specifically in this case?

We know that one of the rules of Divine Providence is that in the event of a plague, war or the like, even righteous people are very likely to be hurt. Our Sages phrased it this way:
Once permission is given for the destroyer to do damage, he does not differentiate between those who are good and those who are evil. (Tr. Bava Kama, 60a)

Why is this? Where is the justice in such a system?

The explanation is that we must look at the "default" situation. All things being equal, the tzaddik would normally not be sentenced to death or otherwise punished. But in times of plague or war, the "default" changes. It is natural that many people die in such circumstances, and in order to change this “default” so that the tzaddik can be saved, a special Divine decision is needed. If there is no such decision, the tzaddik can also be killed.

In short: In normal times, a Divine decree is required in order that a person should die. But in times of danger, a Divine reprieve is required in order for him to be saved.

Let us see how this applies to the prophecy of Yechezkel. The original promise that he received was that the tzaddikim would not be harmed in the general destruction that resulted from the sins of the wicked. However, this is only if they had nothing to do with these sins. But if, as the Gmara notes, they could have prevented them, yet did not do so – for instance, if they could have attempted to reprove the sinners – they themselves become liable for the very sin of not having taken action.

Therefore, the original promise was kept: They would not die because of the sins of others. But it was not promised that they would not die in punishment for their own sins.

In the words of the Talmud: היה להם למחות ולא מיחו , “They could have protested, but they did not protest.”

Once again, we see that the "prophecy of blessing" was not violated. If they had been true tzaddikim without sin, they would have been saved. But because they were found to have a sin, they were judged just like everyone else.

Yaakov's Fear
In light of what we have learned about G-d's promises, something about the behavior of Yaakov Avinu arouses a major question mark. The Torah tells us that many years after he ran away from Esav in fear for his life, the two brothers were about to meet up with each other again – and Yaakov was very fearful:
וַיִּירָא יַעֲקֹב מְאֹד
Yaakov was very afraid.
(B'reshit 32,8)

Why was he afraid? After all, Hashem had clearly promised him beforehand that He would be with him, as we read:
וְהִנֵּה אָנֹכִי עִמָּךְ וּשְׁמַרְתִּיךָ
I will be with you, and I will guard you
(28,15)

The Gmara's famous answer for this question is that Yaakov was afraid that his sins would cancel out this Divine promise (Tr. Brachot, p. 4b).

But we have just explained that Hashem does not change His mind regarding His promises to do good things!

The Rambam distinguishes between prophetic promises to individuals and those made to the entire nation. But this does not answer our question, because we saw that even a promise made to individuals, such as the above to Moshe, was fulfilled via his descendants!

To understand this, let us return to Yaakov's dream as he was leaving the Land of Israel many years before. He lay down on his pillow of rocks, and the Torah tells us that Hashem appeared to him in a dream: Behold, Hashem was standing over him (B'reshit 28,13). The next verses tell of G-d's promise to watch over him.

G-d is referred to here by His Name of mercy, “Hashem” (Yud–keh–vuv-keh), and not by the Name of Strict Judgment, “Elokim.” What this means is that G-d's promise to Yaakov was a favor to him, a gift in the merit of his fathers Avraham and Yitzchak, and not something he deserved on his own merits.

When he awoke from his dream in the morning, he asked that G-d fulfill these promises only if he deserves them. “I don’t want any favors," Yaakov said, "but only that which I truly deserve according to my own actions.” He wished to have the trait of Divine compassion upraised to that of judgment.

This is why the Prophet Micha states, "Grant truth to Yaakov" (Micha 7,20) – a praise based on two statements by Yaakov in which he used the Divine Name "Elokim." After he awoke from his dream, he made a vow that אם יהיה א-לוהים עמדי , if Elokim will be with me (verse 20), and again in the next verse, והיה י-הוה לי לא-לוהים, then G-d will be my Elokim. This shows that he wanted to be treated fairly, not compassionately.

Thus, we see that Yaakov did not fear that a positive Divine promise would be revoked. It was rather he himself who asked to be judged by a higher standard, that of midah k'neged midah, reward or punishment corresponding to the actions. This is why he “was very afraid” – because he thought he might not remain on the high ethical level on which he started out, and that he might no longer be worthy of the Divine blessing and protection that he himself requested be adjusted to his own actions.

Once again we see that Hashem's positive promises are carried out; Yaakov's fear stemmed from another source.

This can help us understand why the Torah generally phrases its conditions in "if and only if" format. That is, it states, "If you do such-and-such, then such-and-such will happen, but if you do not, then it will not happen." For instance, Parshat Bechukotai reads as follows:
אִם בְּחֻקֹּתַי תֵּלֵכוּ...וְנָתַתִּי גִשְׁמֵיכֶם בְּעִתָּם.
If you walk in My statutes... I will bring you rains in their proper time.
(Vayikra 26,3-4)
...וְאִם לֹא תִשְׁמְעוּ ...אַף אֲנִי אֶעֱשֶׂה זֹּאת לָכֶם...".
But if you do not adhere... I, too, will act this way towards you...
(verses 14-16)

The explanation is that here we are not talking about a simple "positive promise," but rather a "double promise." If the Torah would have sufficed with mentioning only the condition for a positive promise, then according to what we have said, the promise would be fulfilled even if the condition is not fulfilled. (The condition would be understood as being simply a way of encouraging us.) But the Torah took pains to immediately mention the other side of the coin as well, thus emphasizing that the promises will come about only if we deserve them.

All of the above stems from the fundamental understanding that G-d is the source of all good and wants only to provide goodness. We express this in our daily prayers towards the end of the Amidah (Sh'moneh Esrei): הא-ל ישועתנו ועזרתנו סלה הא-ל הטוב...הטוב שמך..., "G-d, our Salvation and Aid, the good G-d... Your Name is good..."

ב"ה
אלול תשע"ג Aug. '13
פרשת שופטים Parashat Shoftim
הרב שבתי סבתו Rabbi Shabtai Sabato

נבואה במבחן מימושה
The Test of Prophecy

How are We to Know?
In ancient times, when prophecy was prevalent in Israel, a difficult and problematic phenomenon plagued the nation: the danger of False Prophets. People with over-developed imaginations would interpret their dreams according to their own whims, claiming they had received messages from G-d – and leading to dire consequences.

The most famous story of false prophecy occurred during the period of Ahab, King of Israel. Four hundreds of these bogus seers unanimously advised him to make war with Aram, promising him victory. But the bitter end turned out quite differently; King Ahab fell in battle and was killed.

A large proportion of the suffering that befell the People of Israel was the result of the mistakenly optimistic illusions implanted in their hearts and minds by the false prophets. What was needed was a clear standard by which to determine whether a given prophet was a true one, or just a lying cheat.

In the Torah portion of Shoftim, the Torah tells us the test that every genuine prophet must pass. The relevant passage begins with a presentation of the problem:
וְכִי תֹאמַר בִּלְבָבֶךָ אֵיכָה נֵדַע אֶת הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר לֹא דִבְּרוֹ י-הוה
And if you say in your heart,
"How will we know that which Hashem did not say?"
The answer is unambiguous:
אֲשֶׁר יְדַבֵּר הַנָּבִיא בְּשֵׁם י-הוה וְלֹא יִהְיֶה הַדָּבָר וְלֹא יָבֹא,
הוּא הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר לֹא דִבְּרוֹ י-הוה
That which the prophet speaks in G-d’s Name but does not come true,
that is the thing that G-d did not say.
(Dvarim 18, 21-22)

From here, it appears that every prophecy can be tested very simply, by seeing whether it is completely fulfilled or not. No differentiation is made between prophecies of peace, blessings and goodness, and those that foresee harsh decrees and punishments; whatever does not come true, must stem from a false prophet.

If this is the criterion, however, how can we explain that which occurred to the Prophet Yonah? He was sent to deliver this stern prophecy to the people of Ninveh:
עוֹד אַרְבָּעִים יוֹם וְנִינְוֵה נֶהְפָּכֶת
In another forty days, Ninveh will be overturned.
(Yonah 3,4)

Yet, in the end, after he ran away from G-d and spent three days inside the whale, what happened was this:
וַיִּנָּחֶם הָאֱ-לֹהִים עַל הָרָעָה אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר לַעֲשׂוֹת לָהֶם וְלֹא עָשָׂה
G-d changed His mind regarding the evil He planned to cause them,
and did not do it.
(3,10)

Here, then, is an example of a prophecy that was never fulfilled. Does this mean Yonah was a false prophet?!

Furthermore: Yonah himself prayed to G-d and said:
עַל כֵּן קִדַּמְתִּי לִבְרֹחַ תַּרְשִׁישָׁה כִּי יָדַעְתִּי כִּי אַתָּה אֵ-ל חַנּוּן וְרַחוּם... וְנִחָם עַל הָרָעָה
I therefore ran away to Tarshish,
because I knew that You are a merciful and compassionate G-d...
Who overlooks the bad.
(4,2)

He explained that he ran away because he knew his prophecy might not be fulfilled – and he would then be suspected of having been a false prophet. But since he knew he was a true prophet, why would his words not be fulfilled?

A bitter dispute between the Prophet Yirmiyahu and a false prophet named Chananya ben Azor will help us understand the precise criteria by which to judge a false prophet. Yirmiyahu had prophesized destruction and exile for Israel, at the hands of King Nevuchadnetzar of Babylonia. At the same time, Chananya was speaking publicly and promising that Israel would be freed from the Babylonian choke-hold.

Yirmiyahu therefore announced to Chananya in front of all the people,
אָמֵן כֵּן יַעֲשֶׂה י-הוה. יָקֵם י-הוה אֶת דְּבָרֶיך...
Amen, May it be G-d’s will, may G-d uphold your words...
אַךְ שְׁמַע נָא הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה... הַנָּבִיא אֲשֶׁר יִנָּבֵא לְשָׁלוֹם בְּבֹא דְּבַר הַנָּבִיא
יִוָּדַע הַנָּבִיא אֲשֶׁר שְׁלָחוֹ י-הוה בֶּאֱמֶת
But hear what I say: ...The prophet who prophesizes for peace,
when his words shall come true, then it will be known that Hashem has truly sent him.
(Jer. 28,6-9)

What Yirmiyahu was saying was: “First of all, I hope you are right; I will be the first one to celebrate the fulfillment of your words. But know this: if your words do not come true, it is a clear sign that Hashem has not sent you and that you are imagining your message, and you thus render yourself a false prophet.”

On the other hand, Yirmiyahu tells him, “If peace does come, as you say, this does not prove that I am a false prophet. Because a prophecy of doom, such as mine, need not come true – if the people repent."

Yirmiyahu has laid down an important principle: A prophecy that promises blessing must come true, unless delivered by a false seer. But a prophecy of destruction and punishment need not be fulfilled; if circumstances change, via repentance or prayer, it can be both a true prophecy and remain unfulfilled.

Confirmation of this approach is found in the Gmara (Tr. Shabbat, p. 55a):
R. Acha said in the name of R. Chanina: "It never happened that a word of blessing came from Hashem that He then changed to something bad."

This is also the conclusion drawn by the Rambam, Maimonides, in the introduction to his classic commentary on the Mishnah. He adds there that if there were any possibility of a “prophecy of blessing” being canceled or withdrawn, there would remain no criteria by which to check if a prophecy is true or not.

When an Evil Man Repents of His Ways
What we have learned is that the test of truth can only apply to a prophecy that promises goodness. Why is this?

The difference between a prophecy of goodness and one that predicts punishment is not just technical. The distinction is much deeper and more meaningful, and is connected with G-d’s true will.

The Torah teaches us that G-d’s essential desire is for sinners to repent of their sins, do teshuvah, and receive the gifts of life and goodness. This means that a prophecy that predicts something bad is merely a threat, for the purpose of deterring sinners and encouraging them to repent. When they then improve their actions, paving the way for them to receive life and blessing, this is precisely Hashem’s true will. The evil decree is then, necessarily, revoked.

We can say that the un-fulfillment of a bad prophecy is actually the voiding of the threat – but in truth it is also the revelation of Hashem's essential desire for goodness, which remains eternal and forever unchanging.

This is precisely the prophecy of Ezekiel (Yechezkel):
הֶחָפֹץ אֶחְפֹּץ מוֹת רָשָׁע נְאֻם י-הוה א-להים? הֲלוֹא בְּשׁוּבוֹ מִדְּרָכָיו וְחָיָה.
Do I really want the death of the wicked man, says the Lord?
I only want him to repent of his ways, and live.
(Yechezkel 18, 23)

We now understand the essence of a negative prophecy. A positive prophecy, on the other hand, which predicts or promises blessing and goodness, is totally different. It is an absolute expression of G-d's will. He is the source of good Who wants to do only good. It is so absolute that even if the prediction was made contingent on a particular condition that ultimately did not come true, its fulfillment is still not impeded. Such prophecies must be fulfilled – or else they were false prophecies to begin with.

The Gmara (Brachot, 7a) makes this point perfectly clear:
Hashem does not change His mind regarding even a single word of blessing that comes from His mouth - even if it was stated conditionally. How do we know this? From Moshe Rabbeinu. Hashem promised him, at the Sin of the Golden Calf, “Now leave Me go, and I will be angered at [Israel] and destroy them... and then I will make you into a great nation...” (Shmot 32,10)

Hashem made a promise to Moshe that if, Heaven forbid, Israel would be destroyed, he would be the seed from which a new Israel would sprout. Israel was not destroyed, of course, for Moshe prayed to G-d and had the Divine decree nullified – yet still, the blessing to Moshe came true via his descendants.

When we analyze G-d's precise words, we realize that His true desire was that the decree against Israel should not be fulfilled. The hint is in His words to Moshe, הניחה לי, Leave me go – as if telling Moshe: “If you leave me go, that is, if you stop praying and pleading, I will destroy them; it’s up to you and your prayers.”

It's clear that according to this, the condition Hashem set – the annihilation of Israel – is not His true will. It is merely a way of coaxing Moshe into praying for Israel.

In this merit, too, he will have many descendants himself.

The Eternal One of Israel Will Not Lie
The picture becomes even clearer when we review a critical conversation between the Prophet Shmuel and King Sha'ul. It happened after the king did not obey the prophet's instructions to kill King Agag of Amalek. King Sha'ul first asks forgiveness:
וְעַתָּה שָׂא נָא אֶת חַטָּאתִי וְשׁוּב עִמִּי
And now please forgive my sin, and return with me...
(Shmuel I 15,25)

But Shmuel refuses, saying:
קָרַע י-הוה אֶת מַמְלְכוּת יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵעָלֶיךָ הַיּוֹם וּנְתָנָהּ לְרֵעֲךָ הַטּוֹב מִמֶּךָּ
G-d has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day,
and has given it to your comrade who is better than you.
וְגַם נֵצַח יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא יְשַׁקֵּר וְלֹא יִנָּחֵם כִּי לֹא אָדָם הוּא לְהִנָּחֵם
And the Eternal One of Israel will not lie nor change His mind,
for He is not a man...
(Shmuel I 15,28-29)

Shmuel appears to be saying two contradictory things. First he says that Hashem has changed His mind about Saul’s kingship, and has decided to tear it away from him. But then he declares that Hashem never changes His mind, and that once He decides to give the kingship to someone else, He will not change this decision!

Why should we not assume that just as Hashem changed His mind regarding Saul's kingship, He is likely to do the same about tearing it away from him – and perhaps in the end, G-d will return the kingdom to Saul!

To answer this, let us first state that when G-d "changes His mind," it is not the same as when a person does so. A mortal changes his mind because he has made a mistake in faulty thinking, lack of judgment, overlooking critical factors, and the like.

But with G-d, this is clearly not the case. He does not make mistakes or errors of judgment. Rather, Hashem has trust in us and charges us with important missions. When He entrusts a particular person with a job, the person is very likely to succeed, for he has been given all the necessary qualities and conditions to do so. However, he still has Free Will, and if he chooses not to fulfill it, G-d will choose someone else to carry it out.

In the case at hand, G-d's will is that the Nation of Israel should be led in G-d's ways and that Amalek should be destroyed. The chosen agent for the mission is the king of Israel – either King Sha'ul, or someone else. Replacing the agent as a result of his choice not to adhere to the plan does not mean that G-d has changed His mind or deep, true will.

...Except for This Thing...
The quote we brought above from the Gmara - Hashem does not change His mind regarding even a single word of blessing that comes from His mouth – was actually not complete; the Gmara added that there is, in fact, one exception to this rule. What is it?

The Gmara tells us of an unusual event that happened when Yechezkel the Prophet saw the destruction of the First Temple in a prophetic vision. At the beginning of his vision, Yechezkel hears G-d order the angels not to harm the tzaddikim, the righteous people. Later in the vision, however, he sees the opposite – that the tzaddikim are the first ones to be punished!

Thus, a positive prophecy did not come true – and the Gmara notes clearly that this is an exception to the stated rule. What we want to understand is why. Why did Hashem change His mind about a favorable promise that He had made, and why did it happen specifically in this case?

We know that one of the rules of Divine Providence is that in the event of a plague, war or the like, even righteous people are very likely to be hurt. Our Sages phrased it this way:
Once permission is given for the destroyer to do damage, he does not differentiate between those who are good and those who are evil. (Tr. Bava Kama, 60a)

Why is this? Where is the justice in such a system?

The explanation is that we must look at the "default" situation. All things being equal, the tzaddik would normally not be sentenced to death or otherwise punished. But in times of plague or war, the "default" changes. It is natural that many people die in such circumstances, and in order to change this “default” so that the tzaddik can be saved, a special Divine decision is needed. If there is no such decision, the tzaddik can also be killed.

In short: In normal times, a Divine decree is required in order that a person should die. But in times of danger, a Divine reprieve is required in order for him to be saved.

Let us see how this applies to the prophecy of Yechezkel. The original promise that he received was that the tzaddikim would not be harmed in the general destruction that resulted from the sins of the wicked. However, this is only if they had nothing to do with these sins. But if, as the Gmara notes, they could have prevented them, yet did not do so – for instance, if they could have attempted to reprove the sinners – they themselves become liable for the very sin of not having taken action.

Therefore, the original promise was kept: They would not die because of the sins of others. But it was not promised that they would not die in punishment for their own sins.

In the words of the Talmud: היה להם למחות ולא מיחו , “They could have protested, but they did not protest.”

Once again, we see that the "prophecy of blessing" was not violated. If they had been true tzaddikim without sin, they would have been saved. But because they were found to have a sin, they were judged just like everyone else.

Yaakov's Fear
In light of what we have learned about G-d's promises, something about the behavior of Yaakov Avinu arouses a major question mark. The Torah tells us that many years after he ran away from Esav in fear for his life, the two brothers were about to meet up with each other again – and Yaakov was very fearful:
וַיִּירָא יַעֲקֹב מְאֹד
Yaakov was very afraid.
(B'reshit 32,8)

Why was he afraid? After all, Hashem had clearly promised him beforehand that He would be with him, as we read:
וְהִנֵּה אָנֹכִי עִמָּךְ וּשְׁמַרְתִּיךָ
I will be with you, and I will guard you
(28,15)

The Gmara's famous answer for this question is that Yaakov was afraid that his sins would cancel out this Divine promise (Tr. Brachot, p. 4b).

But we have just explained that Hashem does not change His mind regarding His promises to do good things!

The Rambam distinguishes between prophetic promises to individuals and those made to the entire nation. But this does not answer our question, because we saw that even a promise made to individuals, such as the above to Moshe, was fulfilled via his descendants!

To understand this, let us return to Yaakov's dream as he was leaving the Land of Israel many years before. He lay down on his pillow of rocks, and the Torah tells us that Hashem appeared to him in a dream: Behold, Hashem was standing over him (B'reshit 28,13). The next verses tell of G-d's promise to watch over him.

G-d is referred to here by His Name of mercy, “Hashem” (Yud–keh–vuv-keh), and not by the Name of Strict Judgment, “Elokim.” What this means is that G-d's promise to Yaakov was a favor to him, a gift in the merit of his fathers Avraham and Yitzchak, and not something he deserved on his own merits.

When he awoke from his dream in the morning, he asked that G-d fulfill these promises only if he deserves them. “I don’t want any favors," Yaakov said, "but only that which I truly deserve according to my own actions.” He wished to have the trait of Divine compassion upraised to that of judgment.

This is why the Prophet Micha states, "Grant truth to Yaakov" (Micha 7,20) – a praise based on two statements by Yaakov in which he used the Divine Name "Elokim." After he awoke from his dream, he made a vow that אם יהיה א-לוהים עמדי , if Elokim will be with me (verse 20), and again in the next verse, והיה י-הוה לי לא-לוהים, then G-d will be my Elokim. This shows that he wanted to be treated fairly, not compassionately.

Thus, we see that Yaakov did not fear that a positive Divine promise would be revoked. It was rather he himself who asked to be judged by a higher standard, that of midah k'neged midah, reward or punishment corresponding to the actions. This is why he “was very afraid” – because he thought he might not remain on the high ethical level on which he started out, and that he might no longer be worthy of the Divine blessing and protection that he himself requested be adjusted to his own actions.

Once again we see that Hashem's positive promises are carried out; Yaakov's fear stemmed from another source.

This can help us understand why the Torah generally phrases its conditions in "if and only if" format. That is, it states, "If you do such-and-such, then such-and-such will happen, but if you do not, then it will not happen." For instance, Parshat Bechukotai reads as follows:
אִם בְּחֻקֹּתַי תֵּלֵכוּ...וְנָתַתִּי גִשְׁמֵיכֶם בְּעִתָּם.
If you walk in My statutes... I will bring you rains in their proper time.
(Vayikra 26,3-4)
...וְאִם לֹא תִשְׁמְעוּ ...אַף אֲנִי אֶעֱשֶׂה זֹּאת לָכֶם...".
But if you do not adhere... I, too, will act this way towards you...
(verses 14-16)

The explanation is that here we are not talking about a simple "positive promise," but rather a "double promise." If the Torah would have sufficed with mentioning only the condition for a positive promise, then according to what we have said, the promise would be fulfilled even if the condition is not fulfilled. (The condition would be understood as being simply a way of encouraging us.) But the Torah took pains to immediately mention the other side of the coin as well, thus emphasizing that the promises will come about only if we deserve them.

All of the above stems from the fundamental understanding that G-d is the source of all good and wants only to provide goodness. We express this in our daily prayers towards the end of the Amidah (Sh'moneh Esrei): הא-ל ישועתנו ועזרתנו סלה הא-ל הטוב...הטוב שמך..., "G-d, our Salvation and Aid, the good G-d... Your Name is good..."

 

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