Sunday, July 17, 2016

What did Aaron do wrong at the Mei Merivah?

Moses Strikes the Rock, c. 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (French, 1836-1902), gouache on board. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Much ink is spilled concerning the sin of Moshe at the Mei Merivah which resulted in his losing the opportunity to enter the Promised Land. But what was the sin of Aaron? 

As enigmatic as Moshe's sin seems to be, Aaron appears to do much less. He actually does nothing. So why does God group him together with Moshe for the same punishment?

במדבר כ 
(יב) וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יקוק אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֣ה וְאֶֽל־אַהֲרֹן֒ יַ֚עַן לֹא־הֶאֱמַנְתֶּ֣ם בִּ֔י לְהַ֨קְדִּישֵׁ֔נִי לְעֵינֵ֖י בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל לָכֵ֗ן לֹ֤א תָבִ֙יאוּ֙ אֶת־הַקָּהָ֣ל הַזֶּ֔ה אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־נָתַ֥תִּי לָהֶֽם׃ 
But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.”

I am not the first to ask this question. In Parshat V'Zot HaBerachah, Rashi brings down a grievance by the Tribe of Levi who question why Miriam and Aaron were not allowed to enter the Land of Israel.

רש״י על דברים לג:ח 
(ח) תריבהו וגו' ... תריבהו על מי מריבה, נסתקפת לו לבוא בעלילה, אם משה אמר (במדבר כ:י) שמעו נא המורים, אהרן ומרים מה עשו:
(8) תריבהו וגו׳ THOU DIDST STRIVE WITH HIM [AT THE WATERS OF MERIBAH]... Thou didst seek an occasion against him to come with a pretext, for if Moses said, “Hear now, ye rebels”, what sin did Aaron and Miriam commit? (why were they not allowed to enter the land?).
The sin of Miriam is beyond the scope of this piece since she dies before the incident of Merivah. But what of the sin of Aaron? Unfortunately, Rashi brings down Shevet Levi's question without citing any answer so we are still left to wonder.

Perhaps, one can discover an approach to what Aaron did wrong at Merivah by revisiting the sin of Moshe.

To summarize the story:

The people arrive in the desert of Zin after the death of Miriam and have no water. They complain to Moshe and Aaron. Moshe and Aaron go the the Tent of Meeting and fall on their faces until God appears to them. God tells Moshe and Aaron to take the staff, gather the people, speak to the rock, and bring forth water from the rock. Moshe takes the staff from before God. Aaron's staff which was kept in the Mishkan after Korach's rebellion. Moshe and Aaron gather the people, Moshe tells them that they are rebellious and he will bring forth water from the rock. Moshe hits the rock twice bringing forth water. God then tells Moshe and Aaron that since they did not properly sanctify him, neither of them will lead the people into the Promised Land.

Despite the myriad of approaches to Moshe's sin, Abravanel lists eleven possibilities, nothing seems to stick. God tells Moshe to take the staff. Moshe takes the staff. God tells Moshe and Aaron to gather the people. Moshe and Aaron gather the people. God tells Moshe to speak to the rock. Moshe speaks in front of the rock. God tells Moshe to bring water from the rock. Moshe hits the rock (twice) and water comes out. One could quibble with details which many commentaries do but fundamentally, Moshe appears to follow God's command exactly.

But perhaps this is the exact problem. Maybe Moshe should not have even been seeking God's command. With the Children of Israel in dire need of help, with no water source in a desert, perhaps Moshe should have been acting first and consulting with God later.

This approach is brought down by Rav Yosef Albo in Rabbi Meir Simcha's Meshech Chochmah1. He explains that Moshe's sin wasn't an act of commission but of omission. It is not what Moshe did that was the problem but what Moshe did not do. Moshe should have acted on his own to solve the problem and only then turned to God.

The Meshech Chochmah elaborates that this perceived fault of Moshe becomes even more glaring to the people when compared with the story immediately preceding this in the Chumash, the rebellion of Korach. During Korach's rebellion, for the very first time, Moshe acted first before receiving a command from God. When Korach challenged the leadership of Moshe and his brother Aaron, Moshe does not fall on his face waiting for the glory of God to appear. Rather Moshe issues a challenge to Korach and his men saying that God should make a new creation, causing the ground to open up and swallow the rebels. He "challenged" God to make a miracle, one God did not command. And God accepts Moshe's challenge, the ground opens up swallow up Korach and his crew and fire comes forth before God to consume the 250 men who were bringing an unauthorized incense offering.

According to the Meshech Chochmah, this opens up Moshe to a serious critique from the people. If Moshe was willing to act on his own to protect HIS honor, then why is Moshe not acting on his own at Merivah to provide life-giving water for his people. He should have taken the stick of Aaron which was placed in the Mishkan as a symbol for all future rebellions and acted on his own to bring forth water for his people. God would have surely responded to this challenge. The fact that Moshe did not and rather waited for God to appear to him and tell him what to do is a small lapse in leadership which results in Moshe's losing the privilege to lead the people into the Land of Israel.

I believe that perhaps one can answer similarly regarding Aaron. Aaron did nothing wrong in the incident of Merivah. But this was the problem. He did nothing wrong but nothing right either. 

When Moshe hesitated, responding with inaction when action was called for, Aaron should have acted in his stead. The fact that Aaron did nothing to help quench the people's thirst and instead fell on his face before God with his brother Moshe puts Aaron in the same category as Moshe.

This can be an important lesson for us. There are times when prayer is called for. But there are other times when one must first take action and then pray to God that he will follow. 

As God tells Moshe at the Yam Suf as the Egyptian army is bearing down on the Israelites.

שמות פרק יד
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְקוָק אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה מַה־תִּצְעַ֖ק אֵלָ֑י דַּבֵּ֥ר אֶל־בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל וְיִסָּֽעוּ׃
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward.

It is this perception of a lack of taking action on behalf of the people, when earlier Moshe and Aaron had acted so decisively to protect their own standing as the leaders during the Korach rebellion, that leads God to choose a new generation of leadership who will finish their mission and lead the Children of Israel into the Promised Land.

1. I am beholden to Rabbi Shalom Carmy who quotes this Meshech Chochmah in his monograph in the Spring 2016 issue of Tradition. "The Sons of Korah, Who Did Not Die." Tradition 49.1 (2016): 5. Print.

You can view the source sheet for this shiur below. I welcome your questions, comments, and constructive critique of this approach.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

How did they know that? Chazal's approach to Midrash

One of the things that I love about teaching high school students is their refreshing honesty. When one of my students thinks a Midrash is far fetched, he/she is not afraid to tell me. The answer that I often received when I was a kid to the question, how did the rabbis know that, was that the rabbis had a tradition from Moshe or some sort of divine inspiration. This was hardly satisfying to me so I try never to foist that one on my own students. My answer to a question about the source of a Midrash is usually that they knew based on a close reading of the text, not only the verse in question but the entirety of Tanach. Sometimes we can deduce their source other times we just don't know yet.

As the saying goes: דברי תורה עניים במקום אחד ועשירים במקום אחר, the words of Torah are "poor" in one place but "rich" in another.

Let me provide an example from this past week's Parsha. Many of us know the Midrash that was made famous in Rabbi Soloveitchik's talk, The Common Sense Rebellion Against Torah Authority.  The Midrash Tanchuma explains that Korach took 250 men clothed in a Tallit entirely made of the blue Tekhelet thread and asked if it required the blue Tzitzit string. Moshe replied that it does. Korach then filled a room with Sifrei Torah and asked if it required a Mezuzah on its door and Moshe replied that it does. Korach then mocked the seemingly nonsensical responses of Moshe. If a single blue string of Tzitzit will remind us of G-d and his mitzvot then why wouldn't an entire blue garment be an even greater reminder. If a single paragraph of holy writ attached to the doorpost will serve as a reminder of G-d in our home then would not a room full of Torah scrolls be an even greater reminder?

The imagery in this Midrash begs the question, how did the rabbis know this story? There is no mention of Korach or his men wearing in the Tekhelet garments in the Torah. To approach this question, one must analyze the purpose and method of Midrash. Firstly, one rule which is true almost always is that virtually every Midrash is addressing some type of textual anomaly. There is a question on the text which sparks the rabbinic discussion. The answer given by the Midrash might seem far fetched and not the simple pshat but the Midrash grapples with the text just like every later commentator. The question in Parshat Korach is obvious and dealt with by every commentator. The Parsha begins, וַיִּקַּ֣ח קֹ֔רַח, "And Korach took", but does not indicate what he took. In this case the Midrash addresses this issue using proximity by analyzing the verses immediately preceding this one which present the Mitzvah of Tzitzit and then presuming that Korach in fact took these Tzitzit. The question then becomes why and in its approach the Midrash creatively utilizes these Tzitzit as a prop in Korach's rebellion.

This does not merely fill in the gap concerning what Korach took but as explained by Rabbenu Bachya amplifies the primary theme of Korach's argument to Moshe. Korach's argument fundamentally is one for pure democracy. He asks, "If the entire community of Israel is holy and G-d dwells amongst everyone" then why should Moshe and Aharon raise themselves above the people. This is fundamentally the same argument as the Tzitzit strings. If the purpose of the Tekhelet string is to remind one of G-d then a garment made entirely of the blue string should not need any reminder. If the purpose of the mezuzah is to bring G-d into one's home then a house full of Torah scrolls should need no such symbol. Similarly, if the purpose of Moshe and Aharon is to help serve as the conduit for the people to connect with G-d then a people who are entirely holy and dwelling with G-d should not need a Moshe and an Aharon to lead them.

When looked at in this light, one sees the beauty of the Midrash. It not only answers an obvious textual difficulty by connecting the account to verses elsewhere which shed light on the text but enhances the underlying theme that is the crux of the story.

This type of analysis can be undertaken for many other Midrashim. The key is to try to find the verses which often are not in close proximity but are located in other books of Tanach upon which Chazal based their seemingly fanciful Midrashic accounts. I will present two such examples.

We know that Moshe Rabbenu had some type of speech impediment. This is stated directly by Moshe during his argument with G-d at the burning bush as a reason that he should not be chosen for the mission of redeeming the Children of Israel. Many of us learned a famous Midrash which provides the background story for Moshe's difficulty speaking. As the story goes, Moshe as a baby on his adopted grandfather Pharaoh's lap grabbed the king's crown. The royal magicians were worried this was an omen that this young boy would seek to topple the Egyptian dynasty in the future. So they developed a test where they would place gold and hot coals before the young boy and see what ensued. If he went for the gold, it would confirm his rebellious aspirations but if he went for the coals, it would prove he was just a regular precocious baby boy. Baby Moshe of course went for the gold but the angel Gabriel moved his hands to the coals and put it towards Moshe's mouth so he was burned resulting in his later speaking difficulties.

Where did the rabbis get the idea for this creative story? To answer one must look at the inauguration of three other prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. In each of these stories the prophet is initially reluctant to start his mission similar to Moshe's reluctance at the burning bush. But there is a key difference in G-d's response to each of them. In the case of Isaiah Chapter 6, verses 5-7, after the prophet says he is of impure lips, G-d responds by utilizing one of the Seraph angels to purify his lips.

וַיָּ֣עָף אֵלַ֗י אֶחָד֙ מִן־הַשְּׂרָפִ֔ים וּבְיָד֖וֹ רִצְפָּ֑ה בְּמֶ֨לְקַחַ֔יִם לָקַ֖ח מֵעַ֥ל הַמִּזְבֵּֽחַ׃Then one of the seraphs flew over to me with a live coal, which he had taken from the altar with a pair of tongs.וַיַּגַּ֣ע עַל־פִּ֔י וַיֹּ֕אמֶר הִנֵּ֛ה נָגַ֥ע זֶ֖ה עַל־שְׂפָתֶ֑יךָ וְסָ֣ר עֲוֺנֶ֔ךָ וְחַטָּאתְךָ֖ תְּכֻפָּֽר׃He touched it to my lips and declared, “Now that this has touched your lips, Your guilt shall depart And your sin be purged away.”

Similarly, G-d touches Jeremiah's lips to make him worthy of prophecy and in the case of Ezekiel actually has the prophet eat his words in a scroll in order to transform him into a vehicle for the divine message.

Our rabbis knew this so they had a vexing problem when looking at Moshe's opening exchange with G-d. Why didn't G-d respond to Moshe by touching and purifying his lips? They looked at Moshe's claim that he had a stammer and came up with a creative response. The reason G-d never touched Moshe's lips at the burning bush to make him a mouthpiece for the divine is because he ALREADY HAD touched Moshe's lips previously. The angel Gabriel touched Moshe's lips with hot coals when he was just a baby. Ironically, the reason Moshe gave that he could not function as a prophet, his speech impediment due to this childhood incident, is then the very reason Moshe COULD function as a prophet. G-d purified Moshe's lips for prophecy when he was still a baby. 

This is a fascinating example where the words of Midrash about Moshe as a baby only makes sense when looked at in the greater context of many other books of Tanach.

My final example is from another famous Midrash we all know from preschool, that when G-d split the Yam Suf, the Children of Israel did not cross in one path but the sea split into 12 paths, one for each tribe. The source of this Midrash is also often questioned. It is cited by Rashi on Psalms 136:13 which states G-d split apart the Yam Suf but this hardly indicates that it was split into 12 paths. However, once again, what is cryptic in the Torah and Psalms becomes readily apparent when analyzing a similar story in a different book of Tanach.

Isaiah Chapter 11 when describing the messianic era explicitly states that the ingathering of the exiles from faraway Egypt and Assyria will be modeled after the miracles of the Exodus. This account even mimics the splitting of the Yam Suf with a portrait of the Egyptian sea drying up and the Israelite crossing of the Euphrates River. This is where the account becomes very relevant to our question as stated in Isaiah 11:15:

וְהֶחֱרִ֣ים יְהוָ֗ה אֵ֚ת לְשׁ֣וֹן יָם־מִצְרַ֔יִם וְהֵנִ֥יף יָד֛וֹ עַל־הַנָּהָ֖ר בַּעְיָ֣ם רוּח֑וֹ וְהִכָּ֙הוּ֙ לְשִׁבְעָ֣ה נְחָלִ֔ים וְהִדְרִ֖יךְ בַּנְּעָלִֽים׃The LORD will dry up the tongue of the Egyptian sea.—He will raise His hand over the Euphrates with the might of His wind and break it into seven wadis, so that it can be trodden dry-shod.

Note that the crossing of the Euphrates River will not be in one path. Rather the verse states that it will be split into 7 streams. The Israelites as the commentaries elaborate will cross between these 7 streams similar to how they crossed the Yam Suf. If one is walking between 7 streams then one has six paths. And if the Children of Israel are crossing on each side of the stream within these 7, one gets 12 paths in total, the 14 sides minus the two outer ones which the Israelites obviously did not use. So one gets an account of the Children of Israel crossing the Euphrates on their way back to Israel for the final redemption in 12 paths. The next verse then says:

וְהָיְתָ֣ה מְסִלָּ֔ה לִשְׁאָ֣ר עַמּ֔וֹ אֲשֶׁ֥ר יִשָּׁאֵ֖ר מֵֽאַשּׁ֑וּר כַּאֲשֶׁ֤ר הָֽיְתָה֙ לְיִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בְּי֥וֹם עֲלֹת֖וֹ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃Thus there shall be a highway for the other part of His people out of Assyria, such as there was for Israel when it left the land of Egypt.

The Midrash deduced that if the highway out of Assyria crossed the river in 12 paths, then the original Exodus upon which this account is based also must have involved the Children of Israel crossing the Yam Suf, not in one path, but in 12 paths as well, one for each tribe.

Sarajevo Haggadah from

Once again, a fanciful Midrash which does not seem to have a basis in pshat attains a new meaning when looked at in the context of the entire Tanach.

 דברי תורה עניים במקום אחד ועשירים במקום אחר

You can view the source sheet for this shiur below. I welcome your questions, comments, and constructive critique of this approach.


Monday, May 30, 2016

What Will The World Be Like? The Ramban on Moshiach

This week's Torah portion, Parshat Bechukotai contains within it the Torah's first account of the Berachot and Kelalot, the blessings that will take place if the children of Israel do good and the curses that will overtake Israel if they do bad. Within the Berachot is a fascinating account of a land at complete peace.

 ויקרא כ״ו:ו׳וְנָתַתִּ֤י שָׁלוֹם֙ בָּאָ֔רֶץ וּשְׁכַבְתֶּ֖ם וְאֵ֣ין מַחֲרִ֑יד וְהִשְׁבַּתִּ֞י חַיָּ֤ה רָעָה֙ מִן־הָאָ֔רֶץ וְחֶ֖רֶב לֹא־תַעֲבֹ֥ר בְּאַרְצְכֶֽם׃And I will give peace in the land, and ye shall lie down, and none shall make you afraid; and I will cause evil beasts to cease out of the land, neither shall the sword go through your land. - Source: Sefaria
This verse describes the Land of Israel in complete peace, not only from foreign enemies but even from wild beasts.

The Ramban brings down two approaches to explain this phenomenon. In the first approach which he describes as the more simple pshat, he says that since the land will be completely populated with well built up cities and inhabitants, there will be no wild animals since wild animals tend to live at the edges of civilization rarely going to well populated places.

The Ramban rejects this approach for a more mystical interpretation which dovetails into his overall outlook on the messianic age. The Ramban describes that the Land of Israel in this time of complete fulfillment of Torah and Mitzvot will revert back the idealized lifestyle of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. In the Garden of Eden, G-d commanded not only humans but all animals to live a vegetarian lifestyle.

See the following:
בראשית א: כט-לוַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֗ים הִנֵּה֩ נָתַ֨תִּי לָכֶ֜ם אֶת־כָּל־עֵ֣שֶׂב ׀ זֹרֵ֣עַ זֶ֗רַע אֲשֶׁר֙ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י כָל־הָאָ֔רֶץ וְאֶת־כָּל־הָעֵ֛ץ אֲשֶׁר־בּ֥וֹ פְרִי־עֵ֖ץ זֹרֵ֣עַ זָ֑רַע לָכֶ֥ם יִֽהְיֶ֖ה לְאָכְלָֽה׃And God said: ‘Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed—to you it shall be for food;
וּֽלְכָל־חַיַּ֣ת הָ֠אָרֶץ וּלְכָל־ע֨וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֜יִם וּלְכֹ֣ל ׀ רוֹמֵ֣שׂ עַל־הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־בּוֹ֙ נֶ֣פֶשׁ חַיָּ֔ה אֶת־כָּל־יֶ֥רֶק עֵ֖שֶׂב לְאָכְלָ֑ה וַֽיְהִי־כֵֽן׃and to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is a living soul, [I have given] every green herb for food.’ And it was so. Source: Sefaria
According to Ramban, it was only after the flood that humans and carnivorous animals became meat-eaters.  Once the messianic era begins, Israel will once again return to the state of humanity in the Garden of Eden so therefore not only will humanity no longer eat animals but "evil beasts" i.e. carnivorous animals will no longer be in the land.

The Ramban proves this based on the messianic visions in Isaiah Chapter 11.

ישעיהו פרק יא פסוקים ו-טוְגָ֤ר זְאֵב֙ עִם־כֶּ֔בֶשׂ וְנָמֵ֖ר עִם־גְּדִ֣י יִרְבָּ֑ץ וְעֵ֨גֶל וּכְפִ֤יר וּמְרִיא֙ יַחְדָּ֔ו וְנַ֥עַר קָטֹ֖ן נֹהֵ֥ג בָּֽם׃And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, And the leopard shall lie down with the kid; And the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; And a little child shall lead them.
וּפָרָ֤ה וָדֹב֙ תִּרְעֶ֔ינָה יַחְדָּ֖ו יִרְבְּצ֣וּ יַלְדֵיהֶ֑ן וְאַרְיֵ֖ה כַּבָּקָ֥ר יֹֽאכַל־תֶּֽבֶן׃And the cow and the bear feed; Their young ones shall lie down together; And the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
וְשִֽׁעֲשַׁ֥ע יוֹנֵ֖ק עַל־חֻ֣ר פָּ֑תֶן וְעַל֙ מְאוּרַ֣ת צִפְעוֹנִ֔י גָּמ֖וּל יָד֥וֹ הָדָֽה׃And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, And the weaned child shall put his hand on the basilisk’s den.
לֹֽא־יָרֵ֥עוּ וְלֹֽא־יַשְׁחִ֖יתוּ בְּכָל־הַ֣ר קָדְשִׁ֑י כִּֽי־מָלְאָ֣ה הָאָ֗רֶץ דֵּעָה֙ אֶת־יְהוָ֔ה כַּמַּ֖יִם לַיָּ֥ם מְכַסִּֽים׃ (פ)They shall not hurt nor destroy In all My holy mountain; For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, As the waters cover the sea. Source: Sefaria

The famous vision which begins with "the wolf shall lie with the lamb" is figuratively interpreted by many commentaries to mean that the carnivorous nations, the "wolves", will no longer victimize the weaker countries, the "lambs". For example, see Rambam in Guide to the Perplexed Part 3 11:1. It's interesting to note that many artists utilized this figurative interpretation of Isaiah's messianic prophecy for their depictions. For example, the painting below by the early American folk artist, Edward Hicks, juxtaposes the visions from Isaiah of carnivorous and herbivorous animals dwelling together side by side with a depiction of the early American settlers dwelling in peace with the Native Americans.

Edward Hicks - Peaceable Kingdom
Edward Hicks, The Peaceable Kingdom (1826), [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

However, the Ramban unlike the Rambam interprets this vision literally. The Ramban interprets that the wolf shall lie with the lamb because all animals and people will return to their original vegetarian state which they had in the days of Adam of Eve in the Garden of Eden. This idea is further elaborated on by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook. He writes that in the future ideal state of the messianic era, people and animals will once again return to the vegetarian ideal practiced at the time of the Garden of Eden. For further details see the following link:

The Ramban ends with a fascinating analysis of King Hezekiah, the king at the time of Isaiah, which touches upon another big idea, this one about the role of prophecy.

First, some background.

Isaiah Chapters 6-10 describes Isaiah's career as a prophet during the kings of Judah from Uzziah to Jotham to wicked King Ahaz and climaxing with King Hezekiah. During this time, the Assyrian empire is on the rise representing an existential threat to the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Israel eventually falls to the Assyrians. The Israelites are scattered throughout the diaspora and ultimately become known as the 10 Lost Tribes of Israel. Judah almost falls as well but after much of its cities are decimated and Jerusalem is besieged, the Assyrian army led by Sennacherib miraculously dies overnight and Sennacherib is forced to flee back to Assyria. This account is mentioned in both Jewish sources in the Books of Kings and Isaiah and in Assyrian sources as well. For example, see Sennacherib's Annals.

The end of Isaiah Chapter 10 poetically describes the armies of Sennacherib threatening Jerusalem and then being cut down by G-d.

ישעיהו פרק י פסוקים לב-לדע֥וֹד הַיּ֖וֹם בְּנֹ֣ב לַֽעֲמֹ֑ד יְנֹפֵ֤ף יָדוֹ֙ הַ֣ר בית־[בַּת־] צִיּ֔וֹן גִּבְעַ֖ת יְרוּשָׁלִָֽם׃ (ס)This very day shall he halt at Nob, Shaking his hand at the mount of the daughter of Zion, The hill of Jerusalem.
הִנֵּ֤ה הָאָדוֹן֙ יְהוָ֣ה צְבָא֔וֹת מְסָעֵ֥ף פֻּארָ֖ה בְּמַעֲרָצָ֑ה וְרָמֵ֤י הַקּוֹמָה֙ גְּדוּעִ֔ים וְהַגְּבֹהִ֖ים יִשְׁפָּֽלוּ׃Behold, the Lord, the LORD of hosts, Shall lop the boughs with terror; And the high ones of stature shall be hewn down, And the lofty shall be laid low.
וְנִקַּ֛ף סִֽבְכֵ֥י הַיַּ֖עַר בַּבַּרְזֶ֑ל וְהַלְּבָנ֖וֹן בְּאַדִּ֥יר יִפּֽוֹל׃ (ס)And He shall cut down the thickets of the forest with iron, And Lebanon shall fall by a mighty one. Source: Sefaria
This is a poetic account of the miraculous victory of King Hezekiah over Sennacherib.

The very next verse in the beginning of Chapter 11 shifts gears to an account of the messianic era.

ישעיהו פרק יא פסוק אוְיָצָ֥א חֹ֖טֶר מִגֵּ֣זַע יִשָׁ֑י וְנֵ֖צֶר מִשָּׁרָשָׁ֥יו יִפְרֶֽה׃And there shall come forth a shoot out of the stock of Jesse, And a twig shall grow forth out of his roots. Source: Sefaria
This account contains many famous visions including the one mentioned previously of the wolf lying with the lamb ushering in world peace and a perfected era. The question one must ask on this account is who is Isaiah describing as the Messiah. The only logical answer is King Hezekiah. He led the people in both a spiritual and military defense against Sennacherib's hordes which ultimately resulted in miraculous victory. However, this account in Chapter 11 cannot possibly be describing Hezekiah since he did none of the things Isaiah predicts. The wolf did not lie with the lamb during the time of King Hezekiah neither figuratively, there was no world peace, nor literally. So why didn't Hezekiah become the Messiah?

The Ramban references the Talmud in Sanhedrin 94a which addresses this question.

תלמוד בבלי סנהדרין דף צד עמוד א(ישעיהו ט, ו) למרבה המשרה ולשלום אין קץ וגו' א"ר תנחום דרש בר קפרא בציפורי“To him who increases the authority, and for peace without end…” (Isaiah 9:6) R’ Tanchum said: Bar Kappar expounded in Tzippori
מפני מה כל מ"ם שבאמצע תיבה פתוח וזה סתום‘why is every letter mem which is located in the middle of a word open at the bottom, and the one in this verse is closed?
ביקש הקב"ה לעשות חזקיהו משיח וסנחריב גוג ומגוגThe Holy One wanted to make Hezekiah the Messiah and Sancheriv Gog and Magog.
אמרה מדת הדין לפני הקב"הBut the aspect of judgment said before the Holy One:
רבש"עMaster of the World!
ומה דוד מלך ישראל שאמר כמה שירות ותשבחות לפניך לא עשיתו משיח חזקיה שעשית לו כל הנסים הללו ולא אמר שירה לפניך תעשהו משיחYou did not make David, who said before You many songs and praises, the Messiah. Will you then make Hezekiah, for whom You did all these miracles and who did not sing before, into the Messiah?!
לכך נסתתםTherefore it was sealed. Source: Sefaria
The Ramban explains that the intent of Isaiah was that the messianic predictions in Chapter 11 including the prediction of peace and tranquility, the wolf shall lie with the lamb, should apply to King Hezekiah. He was supposed to be the Messiah and his time was supposed to the the perfected time of redemption. However, since Hezekiah did not sing Shira, he did not compose songs of G-d's praises giving proper recognition for the great miracle that he and the nation had just experienced, the prophecy's original intent was changed. It would no longer describe King Hezekiah but a far off future messianic age.

If one properly examines this idea of the Ramban, one realizes something revolutionary about the role of the prophet. The role of the prophet is not to predict what will happen but to paint a picture of what could happen if we deserve it. Prophecies, even positive ones, are in fact conditional. According to the Ramban and others, they will ultimately come true, but can be shifted to an earlier or later time based on our actions. This concept is further explicated by the Malbim on Isaiah Chapter 11 and elsewhere. See Hayyim Angel's article, Prophecy as Potential for a complete treatment of this.

This Ramban then has much to say both about the times of Moshiach and our role in bringing this messianic age to being. According to Ramban, the messianic age will feature a fundamental shift in the nature of all living things. We will be perfected and live perfected lives. Even our diets and those of the animal kingdom will be transformed by this great moral clarity. But these prophecies although predicted will only come true through human actions. Prophets do not guarantee what will happen but rather open up a window into what could happen. It is up to us through our actions to make it so.

Below is a sourcesheet containing the primary sources discussed in this post.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Shortest Distance Between Two Points

Image courtesy of

The classic documentary film The Long Way Home which chronicles the Jewish experience in Europe from the liberation in 1945 until the founding of the State of Israel three years later begins by quoting the first verses in Parshat Beshalach:

(יז) וַיְהִ֗י בְּשַׁלַּ֣ח פַּרְעֹה֮ אֶת־הָעָם֒ וְלֹא־נָחָ֣ם אֱלֹהִ֗ים דֶּ֚רֶךְ אֶ֣רֶץ פְּלִשְׁתִּ֔ים כִּ֥י קָר֖וֹב ה֑וּא כִּ֣י ׀ אָמַ֣ר אֱלֹהִ֗ים פֶּֽן־יִנָּחֵ֥ם הָעָ֛ם בִּרְאֹתָ֥ם מִלְחָמָ֖ה וְשָׁ֥בוּ מִצְרָֽיְמָה׃ (יח) וַיַּסֵּ֨ב אֱלֹהִ֧ים ׀ אֶת־הָעָ֛ם דֶּ֥רֶךְ הַמִּדְבָּ֖ר יַם־ס֑וּף וַחֲמֻשִׁ֛ים עָל֥וּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃

(17) And it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God led them not by the way of the land of the Philistines, because that was near; for God said: 'Lest the people regret when they see war, and they return to Egypt.’ (18) But God led the people about, by the way of the wilderness by the Red Sea; and the children of Israel went up armed out of the land of Egypt.

The Jews after the liberation did not have an easy road to Palestine and the State of Israel. Rather they continued to suffer for years as refugees. Lasting redemption usually does not take an expected linear path. Sometimes the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line but a circuitous route.

This is not because God wants to make our lives difficult, rather it is because God loves us.

The Daat Zkenim on Exodus 13:17:1 elaborates on this in answering a difficulty in the text. Why does the verse add כִּ֥י קָר֖וֹב ה֑וּא because it was close? Is it not obvious that the way of the land of the Philistines is the shortest route? Rather the Daat Zkenim states, it is not the road that is close, it is the nation that is close.

כי קרוב. כלומר העם קרוב של הקב"ה שנאמר לבני ישראל עם קרובו. ולכך לא הנהיגם כמנהגו של עולם. 
כי קרוב, “because the people were close to the Lord,” as stated in Psalms148.14: לבני ישראל, עם קרובו הללוי-ה, “for Israel, the people close to Him.” This is the reason why He did not lead them as is the custom of the world...

God did not lead us the way of the land of the Philistines because we are God’s beloved nation. Because he loves us, he knew that we needed to travel a circuitous path through the desert so we could experience 40 years of growth and closeness to God. This would transform us from slaves into a strong and God fearing nation.

Often the shortest distance to life's goals is not a straight line, it is a meandering path. These points of departures are not detours towards reaching greater goals but necessary life experiences to achieve these goals.

This is something we should consider when educating our students. Often as parents and educators we make general statements for all of our children. Every child must learn in a certain Yeshiva, spend a year of more in Israel, or go to a certain college or else they will not turn out as a committed Jew. Each of our children is עם קרובו, a member of G-d's beloved close people, and each need to discover their own path to religious growth. For some this route is a straight path. For other's the shortest distance towards reaching a relationship with God is a circular route.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Parshat Behaalotcha: Totally Dependent on Hashem

This last Shabbat's Parsha is one of my favorites. Of course, I am a bit biased. Parshat Behaalotcha is my Bar Mitzvah Parsha. Parshat Behaalotcha features something in it for everyone. The lighting of the Menorah, the choosing of the Leviites, Pesach Sheni, the flags and formations of the camp as they prepared to march into Eretz Yisrael, the blowing of the trumpets (the obligation for Tefilla according to Ramban), Chovav Moshe's father-in-law AKA Yitro, the upside down nuns of Chumash baseball fame, the Ark of the Covenant marching into battle, the complaints of the Benay Yisrael including one for "real" meat, Moshe's questioning his leadership abilities, Eldad and Meidad's mysterious prophecy in the camp, ending with Miriam's Lashon Hara and Tzaraat. What a packed Parsha!

The Rav, Rav Joseph Soloveitchik zt"l, uses this portion as a basis for a seminal lecture on leadership. I highly recommend that you listen to the recording and read the transcript as you will never be able to learn this Parsha and really the entire Sefer Bamidbar the same way again.

When I was learning through the Parsha today, I found two incidents to be particularly fascinating. The first half of the Parsha spends an inordinate amount of space focusing on the travels and encampments of Benay Yisrael in the desert led by the heavenly cloud, the Anan. Towards the end of the Parsha, there is a long story devoted to the Kivrot Hataavah, the graves of lust; the people who lusted for meat complaining that the Manna from heaven was inadequate and ultimately died in their own gluttonous orgy with the meat of the birds that Hashem sent still stuck between their teeth.

I believe that these two stories are actually two sides of the same coin. The story of the travels in the desert is presented in great detail. The Torah emphasizes that traveled according to the bidding of Hashem and encamped according to G'd's bidding. Sometimes the cloud would linger for days, months or a year so they stayed encamped. Other times the cloud lifted after a single day so they traveled. They never knew from one day to the next whether they would be staying or leaving being totally dependent on the will of G-d. The Seforno comments that this is presented to praise Benay Yisrael for their total obedience to G-d, quoting the famous verse from Yirmiyahu, לֶכְתֵּךְ אַחֲרַי בַּמִּדְבָּר בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא זְרוּעָה, they followed after G-d into the desert, a land without vegetation.

The story of the graves of lust is the polar opposite. Benay Yisrael complained about the Manna, lusting after meat instead. The Ramban explains that this was a thinly veiled critique not of the Manna per se but of the method of food procurement in the desert. Benay Yisrael wanted the security of having פת בסלו, food in their pantry available to be eaten later. The Manna fell every day and could not be stored from one day to the next except over Friday night for Shabbat. Dependence on the Manna was a constant act of total faith and dependence on Hashem. What guarantee did they have that they would have food from one day to the next? If the Manna didn't fall the next day, they starved. Only their constant G-d awareness is what gave them hope that they would have food in the future.

The people rebelled against this. They preferred the meat, the fish, the cucumbers, onions, watermelons, and garlic that they had in Egypt, free of charge. They no longer wanted this total dependence on Hashem for their daily sustenance. These people no longer wanted to follow after G-d into the desert, a land without anything to eat. They wanted a dependable source of food which they could trust in. For this they were punished.

I believe that this desert experience where Benay Yisrael were totally dependent on Hashem for their basic needs is a microcosm for our daily lives. The desert experience was not an otherworldly existence, actually it was the REAL world. Really, we are all always totally dependent on Hashem EVERY day of our lives. Just in the desert, this was much more obvious. There was no way anyone could say otherwise. It was clear that everything came from G-d. Recognizing this is what Benay Yisrael is praised for early in the Parsha and a lack of this recognition leads to tragic results later in the portion. In our world, this is less clear. We need to put in effort and it appears that it is this effort that determines if we get more or less, if we make millions or live barely over the poverty line. However, in reality, we are just as dependent on Hashem as our ancestors in the desert. It is our challenge to recognize this and act accordingly.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Show your support for innovative ideas in Jewish education. Please vote for the Atid Day School Innovation Challenge. #atidchallenge

Now I know why I never became a politician. I HATE asking for your vote. BUT, please click on this link to watch the presentation of our 10th grade Nach Pottery project designed by myself and my other very talented and devoted colleagues at The Frisch School. This was an interdisciplinary project which every 10th grade Nach class participated in before Yom Kippur in which our students experienced Jeremiah's vision from chapter 18 at the Potter's House first hand by creating their own pottery. They then compared this vision with the classic piyut from the Yom Kippur liturgy, כחומר ביד היוצר. I could explain in detail what made this process such a substantial and deep learning experience but I have already blogged about this on this TanachRav blog here, here, and here.

One thing that I am particularly proud of is that this was not an individual project for just my Nach class but a group project for the entire 10th grade. In my role in educational technology, I always like to work behind the scenes. I tell my fellow colleagues that my job is to make them look good. I am almost embarrassed to promote something that was just done in my classroom. However, in this case, thanks to strong leadership from our Nach Department Chair, Mrs. Rachel Besser, and the head of our Art department, Ms. Ahuva Mantell, every 10th grade Nach student was able to participate in this unique experience. That is why we chose to enter it in the Atid Day School Innovation Challenge, we could publicize this model for others to use with their classes as well.

Now a little word about the Atid Innovation Challenge in general. One of the areas of Jewish education which we can always do more of is in sharing good ideas, creating a community of practice of professional Judaic educators. Obviously, there are many venues for this especially with the cognitive surplus that the online world brings to our fingertips through Lookjed, JEDCamp, JEDLab, and blogs like this space and others like Aaron Ross' Thinking About Chinuch. However, there is always the need for more innovative ideas in Jewish education so I applaud The Jewish Education Project, UJA Federation of NY, and PresentTense for setting up this exciting new space for showcasing Jewish innovation.

Once you are at the Atid Innovation Challenge take a look around at some of the other presentations. You can vote for more than one if you like. Two that I LOVE are the project by my good friend Moshe Rosenberg on bringing augmented reality into the Judaic Studies classroom and the project from Yeshivat Noam, where one of my daughters attends, about utilizing iPads to bring music education into the lower school classroom.

So PLEASE vote both for our project at Frisch, if you so desire, and for others that interest you as well. Then please share this posting with your friends and family so that others can recognize some of the innovative and creative lessons going on in Jewish education today.

Crossposted from TechRav

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Do ALL Positive Prophecies have to come true? The Perspectives of Jeremiah Chapter 18 and Chapter 28

The Book of Jeremiah appears to present two distinct perspectives on positive prophecies.

In the vision of the Clay in the Hands of the Potter from Chapter 18 which I have discussed at length here and here, Jeremiah appears to say that ALL prophecies are conditional.

7One instant I may speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to uproot and to demolish and to destroy.ז. רֶגַע אֲדַבֵּר עַל גּוֹי וְעַל מַמְלָכָה לִנְתוֹשׁ וְלִנְתוֹץ וּלְהַאֲבִיד:
8And when that nation repents of its evil for which I spoke concerning it, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do to it.ח. וְשָׁב הַגּוֹי הַהוּא מֵרָעָתוֹ אֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתִּי עָלָיו וְנִחַמְתִּי עַל הָרָעָה אֲשֶׁר חָשַׁבְתִּי לַעֲשׂוֹת לוֹ:
9And at one instant I may speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant,ט. וְרֶגַע אֲדַבֵּר עַל גּוֹי וְעַל מַמְלָכָה לִבְנוֹת וְלִנְטוֹעַ:
10And it will do what is evil in My eyes, not to hearken to My voice, I will repent of the good I said to benefit it.י. וְעָשָׂה הָרַע בְּעֵינַי לְבִלְתִּי שְׁמֹעַ בְּקוֹלִי וְנִחַמְתִּי עַל הַטּוֹבָה אֲשֶׁר אָמַרְתִּי לְהֵיטִיב אוֹתוֹ:

G-d states that he will repent, or more literally "change" so to speak, from both an evil prediction and an good prediction based on the people's actions. This is the approach of both Malbim and Shadal.

Shadal states that G-d can decree something good on the nation and if the nation goes back, transforming her ways from the [the good] way it was before [to evil ways], then G-d will transform his positive decree, completely changing the situation of the nation [for the bad].

Malbim is a bit more hopeful, emphasizing the fact that any act of destruction on G-d's part is really a positive act to ultimately improve the person.

גם השבירה הוא כדי לתקן ולהיטיב וזה רמז במה שאמר להיטיב אותו שהיה לו לומר להיטיב לו, שרצה לומר בכונת הנמשל שמתנחם על הטובה ותכלית ההתנחמות הוא כדי להיטיב את האיש ולהחזירו למוטב.

However, fundamentally the Malbim still agrees that G-d will "change his mind" about doing the good that was originally planned for the people since the people have changed for the bad.

The Radak interprets the verses quite differently in a way that I believe is not the simple pshat.

לבנות ולנטוע -פירש וכן עשיתי שבניתים ונטעתים ואחר כך עשה הרע ונחמתי והוצרכנו לפירוש הזה, לפי שצריך להפריש בין שתי המדות האלה, כי הרעה לא תחול אם יעשו תשובה, אבל הטובה תחול על כל פנים, כיון שיעדה האל אבל לא תעמוד אם יעשו הרעה, כמו שאמר ירמיהו לחנניה בן עזור ויש רמז בענין הזה, כי ברעה אמר:

According to the Radak, G-d must perform the positive prophecy even if the people have changed for the bad. The good prophecy might be short-lived in such a case but it will occur nevertheless. The reason for this, the Radak states is the existence of a second perspective on prophecy later in the Book of Jeremiah, the showdown between Jeremiah the Prophet and Hananiah the son of Azzur the prophet in Chapter 28.

1And it came to pass in that year, in the beginning of the reign of Zedekiah king of Judah, in the fourth year in the fifth month, Hananiah the son of Azzur, the prophet who was from Gibeon, said to me in the house of the Lord before the eyes of the priests and all the people, saying:א. וַיְהִי | בַּשָּׁנָה הַהִיא בְּרֵאשִׁית מַמְלֶכֶת צִדְקִיָּה מֶלֶךְ יְהוּדָה בַּשָּׁנָה הָרְבִעִית בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַחֲמִישִׁי אָמַר אֵלַי חֲנַנְיָה בֶן עַזּוּר הַנָּבִיא אֲשֶׁר מִגִּבְעוֹן בְּבֵית יְהֹוָה לְעֵינֵי הַכֹּהֲנִים וְכָל הָעָם לֵאמֹר:
2So said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, saying: I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon.ב. כֹּה אָמַר יְהֹוָה צְבָאוֹת אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר שָׁבַרְתִּי אֶת עֹל מֶלֶךְ בָּבֶל:
3In another two years, I will restore to this place all the vessels of the house of the Lord, that Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon has taken from this place and brought to Babylon.ג. בְּעוֹד | שְׁנָתַיִם יָמִים אֲנִי מֵשִׁיב אֶל הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה אֶת כָּל כְּלֵי בֵּית יְהֹוָה אֲשֶׁר לָקַח נְבוּכַדְנֶאצַּר מֶלֶךְ בָּבֶל מִן הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה וַיְבִיאֵם בָּבֶל:
4And Jeconiah the son of Jehoiakim the king of Judah and all the exile of Judah coming to Babylon, I will restore to this place, says the Lord, for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon.ד. וְאֶת יְכָנְיָה בֶן יְהוֹיָקִים מֶלֶךְ יְהוּדָה וְאֶת כָּל גָּלוּת יְהוּדָה הַבָּאִים בָּבֶלָה אֲנִי מֵשִׁיב אֶל הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה נְאֻם יְהֹוָה כִּי אֶשְׁבֹּר אֶת עֹל מֶלֶךְ בָּבֶל:
5And Jeremiah the prophet said to Hananiah the prophet before the eyes of the priests and before the eyes of all the people standing in the house of the Lord.ה. וַיֹּאמֶר יִרְמְיָה הַנָּבִיא אֶל חֲנַנְיָה הַנָּבִיא לְעֵינֵי הַכֹּהֲנִים וּלְעֵינֵי כָל הָעָם הָעֹמְדִים בְּבֵית יְהֹוָה:
6And Jeremiah the prophet said, "Amen! So may the Lord do. May the Lord fulfill your words that you have prophesied, to return the vessels of the house of the Lord and all the exile from Babylon to this place.ו. וַיֹּאמֶר יִרְמְיָה הַנָּבִיא אָמֵן כֵּן יַעֲשֶׂה יְהֹוָה יָקֵם יְהֹוָה אֶת דְּבָרֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר נִבֵּאתָ לְהָשִׁיב כְּלֵי בֵית יְהֹוָה וְכָל הַגּוֹלָה מִבָּבֶל אֶל הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה:
7But, hearken now to this thing that I speak in your ears and in the ears of all the people.ז. אַךְ שְׁמַע נָא הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי דֹּבֵר בְּאָזְנֶיךָ וּבְאָזְנֵי כָּל הָעָם:
8The prophets who were before me and before you of old, and prophesied concerning many lands and great kingdoms for war and for evil and for pestilenceח. הַנְּבִיאִים אֲשֶׁר הָיוּ לְפָנַי וּלְפָנֶיךָ מִן הָעוֹלָם וַיִּנָּבְאוּ אֶל אֲרָצוֹת רַבּוֹת וְעַל מַמְלָכוֹת גְּדֹלוֹת לְמִלְחָמָה וּלְרָעָה וּלְדָבֶר:
9The prophet who would prophesy for peace, when the word of the prophet would come, the prophet whom the Lord had truly sent would be known.ט. הַנָּבִיא אֲשֶׁר יִנָּבֵא לְשָׁלוֹם בְּבֹא דְּבַר הַנָּבִיא יִוָּדַע הַנָּבִיא אֲשֶׁר שְׁלָחוֹ יְהֹוָה בֶּאֱמֶת

In this story, Hananiah, who is described throughout as "the prophet" just like Jeremiah, challenges Jeremiah's predictions of doom and gloom. The setting is the time of King Zedekiah after King Jehoiakim has been killed and his son and heir to the throne, Jeconiah, has been deposed from the throne by Nebuchadnezzar and exiled to Babylon together with the Cheresh U'Masger, the upper echelon of Jewish thinkers and leaders. Nebuchadnezzar has installed Zedekiah, Jehoiakim's older brother as the puppet ruler, and Judah is itching for a rebellion to throw off the yoke of Babylon, return the exiles, and restore the glory of the Temple and monarchy. 

Jeremiah for years has been beseeching the people to submit to the yoke of Babylon, actually wearing a yoke around his neck. The prophet Hananiah brings a more positive message. The yoke of Babylon has been broken and in two short years the temple treasures will be returned and the rightful king, Jeconiah, will be restored. How does one distinguish between these two competing prophecies?

Jeremiah gives a clear, unequivocal response. He wishes Hananiah's prophecy would be proven true. And if it would, this would in no way, contradict Jeremiah's predictions of bad since a bad prophecy can in fact be overturned and change if the people change. But Hananiah's prophecy since it was a prophecy of peace, MUST come true. If it does not, then it is clear proof that Hananiah is an impostor, a false prophet.

The chapter ends with a definitive conclusion to the showdown.

15And Jeremiah the prophet said to Hananiah the prophet: The Lord did not send you, and you assured this people with a lie.טו. וַיֹּאמֶר יִרְמְיָה הַנָּבִיא אֶל חֲנַנְיָה הַנָּבִיא שְׁמַע נָא חֲנַנְיָה לֹא שְׁלָחֲךָ יְהֹוָה וְאַתָּה הִבְטַחְתָּ אֶת הָעָם הַזֶּה עַל שָׁקֶר:
16Therefore, so said the Lord: Behold I send you off the face of the earth; this year you shall die, for you have spoken perversion against the Lord.טז. לָכֵן כֹּה אָמַר יְהֹוָה הִנְנִי מְשַׁלֵּחֲךָ מֵעַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה הַשָּׁנָה אַתָּה מֵת כִּי סָרָה דִבַּרְתָּ אֶל יְהֹוָה:
17And Hananiah the prophet died in that year, in the seventh month.יז. וַיָּמָת חֲנַנְיָה הַנָּבִיא בַּשָּׁנָה הַהִיא בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי:

Hananiah is proven to be a false prophet and less than a year after his prediction of a glorious return in two years time, Hananiah is dead.

It is for this reason, that the Radak felt it necessary to interpret chapter 18 in a way that is less than the simple understanding of the verses. Based on Chapter 28, it is clear that when referring to real prophets, good prophecies MUST come true. Bad prophecies are conditional on the behavior of the people who can always do Teshuva to transform their fate.

What of Shadal and Malbim who have already interpreted in Chapter 18 that even predictions for the good can be changed to evil based on the actions of the people?

Both Malbim and Shadal emphasize that the reason that the good prediction of Hananiah must come to true is in order to prove that he is a true prophet. It is not that ALL positive prophecies must come true. It is that a positive prophecy coming true precisely as predicted is the method utilized to PROVE the veracity of a true prophet.

The Malbim explains.

אך שמע נא וכו' הנביאים וכו' -הנה רוב הנביאים נבאו נבואת פורעניות, כי תכלית שליחת הנביא הוא להודיע את העם הרעה שעתידה לבא עליהם כדי שישובו בתשובה, ולבעבור זה היה ה' שולח נביא, אבל לא לבשר טובות העתידות לבא בזמן קרוב, שלמה יודיעם זאת על ידי נביא, ולא יצוייר שישלח את הנביא להודיע יעוד של טובה רק אם נצרך לזה כדי להחזיק את הנביא, שהנביא יוחזק לנביא אמת אם יתקיימו יעודיו אשר יעד, כמו שאמר: וכי תאמר בלבבך איכה נדע את הדבר אשר לא דברו ה', הדבר אשר ידבר הנביא בשם ה' ולא יהיה הדבר וכו' הוא הדבר אשר לא דברו ה', וזה דווקא אם נבא יעוד טוב, משאם כך ביעודים הרעים כשלא יבואו לא יכזב הנביא, כי יוכל להיות שישתנה הגזרה אם ישובו בתשובה...

הנביא אשר ינבא לשלום -
רצה לומר אם תראה שנביא ינבא לפעמים נבואה טובה, זה הוא רק על התכלית כדי שבבא דבר הנביא יודע הנביא, הוא לצורך הנביא עצמו להחזיק אותו לנביא אמת שיודע כי שלחו ה' באמת, רצה לומר ואם כן אתה שבאת לבשר בשורה טובה, אם שלחך ה' לזאת. על כן הוא כדי שבבוא הבשורה תודע לנביא אמת ואם כן צריך אתה להמתין עד שיהיה כדבריך כי אז יודע שאתה נביא, ועתה עדיין אין נבואתך מוחזקת.

The purpose of prophecy according to Malbim is not to predict the future but to shape the future. Therefore, true prophets rarely predict positive events. This is especially true of positive predictions that are for the near future. Prophets might bring positive messages for a distant messianic era. But they will rarely make a positive prediction with a short event horizon. This is because their job is to mostly focus on what the people are doing wrong that needs improving. It is like the rabbi giving a sermon in a shul. He will rarely say, "Guys, you are doing great!" This has little positive purpose. Rather, he will focus on areas of improvement.

Therefore a true prophet will really only make a positive prediction about a near term event to prove his veracity as a prophet. In addition, because of the possibility for Teshuva, a prophet can only be proven based on his positive prophecies. A negative prophecy that does not come true can always be attributed to the people's transformation and would not cast a doubt on the mission of the prophet.

It is for this reason that in the showdown with Hananiah, Jeremiah's response was to wait it out. Hananiah at that moment could neither be proven or disproven. But if his prophecy did not come true in the two year window he gave, then certainly he would be proven to be a false prophet.

Similarly, Shadal says based on Abravanel that the only reason that Hananiah's positive prophecy in this case MUST come true is because it he is contradicting negative predictions by many other verified prophets. When trying to determine who is the true prophet, a positive prophecy must come true.

Both Malbim and Shadal believe that the fundamental perspective on prophecy is that of Chapter 18. G-d is the potter molding the fate of his people. The job of the prophet is to assist in molding the people by giving long term prophecies, usually negative but sometimes positive in nature, that can help mold the people. Chapter 28 is talking either about the stage when the prophet is still being verified as a true prophet or when the prophet is challenging the prophecies of other established prophets who preceded him. To prove the prophet, his positive predictions MUST come true. But once he is established as a prophet this is no longer the case, since predicting the future is really not the prophet's primary job description. His job is to change the people.

Radak, on the other hand, believes that Chapter 28 is the fundamental source. All positive prophecies MUST come true. No exceptions. The actions of the people could minimize the duration or affect of the positive vision but the vision must occur nevertheless. This could be based on the idea which is stated in the Talmud Berachot 7a, that when G-d makes a prediction for good, it can never return empty handed. It is like a parent who promises his child a reward for good behavior. Even if the child then do something bad, he must follow through on his promised reward. He can then punish the child in a different way later, but to take back the promised reward could cause the child to lose faith in the truthfulness of the parent.

In my next post, I will focus on the opinions of Rambam and Ramban about the nature of positive prophecies. I welcome your constructive feedback in the comments to this posting.