Contending with The Promised Land

  • Rav Aytan Kadden







This shiur is dedicated in memory of Dr. William Major z"l.


The VBM mourns the untimely passing of Adam Bengal z”l of Ktav Publishing House,
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Contending with the Promised Land

By Rav Aytan Kadden



            Sefer Devarim deals with the issues that the Israelites must contend with as they enter the Promised Land.  On the one hand, they must understand their history and how they have arrived at this point.  On the other hand, they must begin to conceive of their future.  This is a nation that has lived in relative isolation for 40 years.  Their existence and sustenance have been of a miraculous nature.  They now must deal with the realities not only of creating a new society for themselves but also of living with the nations around them, as well as the nations currently inhabiting the Land of Canaan.  Although the Torah clearly instructs the nation how to deal with the individual people of the Land of Canaan, the Torah seems much more concerned with the spiritual remnants of these prior inhabitants.  Beginning with the second half of Leviticus (also in smaller sections towards the end of Exodus) the Torah warns several times against adopting the idolatrous practices of the nations of Canaan.


            In parashat Re'eh we are warned of a situation where not only do the other nations lead us astray, but even Jews will rise up and attempt to lead us to idolatry.  These are the portions of the false prophet, the inciter, and the wayward city (13:2-19).  We will focus our discussion on the false prophet (13:2-6).


            Our section introduces the prophet as follows:


"If there arise among you a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams, and he gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder comes to pass about which he spoke to you saying: 'Let us go after other gods, which you have not known, and let us serve them.'  You shall not listen to the words of that prophet or the dreamer of that dream: for the Lord your God is testing you to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul ... And that prophet or dreamer of dreams shall be put to death for he has spoken to turn you away from the Lord your God ..." (13:2-4,6)


            There are many questions that arise out of this portion.  First, assuming that this is a false prophet (seeing as he calls for idolatry) how does he have the power of to produce miracles?  Second, what is the meaning of the passage that God is testing us?  If God is omniscient, He surely knows our beliefs and should have no need for us to prove ourselves to Him.  Third and more broadly, what is the entire nature of prophecy?  What is the value of prophecy if there are false prophets together with truthful ones?  How are we to decipher between two such prophets?


            The Talmud in Sanhedrin (90a) records a debate regarding the nature of the prophet in these verses:


"It was taught: R. Yossi Ha-Gelili said: The Torah understood the full intent of idolatry, therefore the Torah afforded it the power that even if it could make the sun stand still in the sky, one should not listen to it.

It was taught: R. Akiva said: God forbid that the Lord should make the sun stand still on behalf of those who transgress His will.  Rather this portion is dealing with those who are originally true prophets and then change to false prophets."


            In this passage it is clear that the earliest sages were disturbed by our first question.  How can a false prophet possess miraculous powers?  R. Yossi Ha-gelili contends that there is no problem; God after all can bestow powers on whomever He wishes.  R. Akiva, however, is very bothered by the ethical problems presented by that possibility.  Therefore, he concludes that the signs mentioned in this portion were performed at a time when this individual was a true prophet.  Then, after he soured and became a false prophet, he relied on his previous miracles as signs that the people should continue to trust him.  For R. Akiva it is unthinkable that God should bestow such powers to a fake.  It is worthwhile to point out that R. Akiva is willing to completely change the simple meaning of the text (where it is clear that the sign is used as a proof towards the prophecy of idolatry) in order to retain the sanctity of the role of the prophet and the miracle.


            The medieval commentators to the Torah quote this talmudic passage and many of them take sides with either Sage.  The Rashbam states unequivocally that the prophet is a false one who knows how to predict events through "the impure spirit, idols" and other ancient idolatrous practices.  The Chizkuni, meanwhile, quotes the position of R. Akiva that this was indeed at one time a true prophet who has gone bad.  It seems as if the Ibn Ezra attempts to find a middle ground by noting that the wonder or miracle presented by the prophet need not be of miraculous nature.  The Ibn Ezra provides other sources where the words used here, "ot" and "mofet," are used to denote a sign.  Other prophets had performed certain non-miraculous actions to prove the validity of their prophecies.  Through this interpretation we would not be forced to discuss the power of the idolater.


            Whichever way one chooses to understand this prophet, one would still be bothered as to why this prophet is given a voice.  As the Chizkuni puts it, if God knew that this prophet would ultimately sour, why did He reveal Himself to him originally?  The text tells us that this was in order to test the people and the resiliency of their love of God.  How is this to be understood?  There is a wide discussion on this topic amongst the medieval commentators.  Maimonides, in his Guide to the Perplexed (3:24), notes that a prevalent belief at that time was that the test is in order to provide the tested with ample reward upon completion.  He rejects this view quoting a verse which implies that God would not "play games" with someone.  What, therefore, is the meaning of the test?  Many commentators have followed the lead of the Sa'adia Gaon who asserts that the test is to exhibit the faithfulness of the Jewish people in front of the other religions.  With this interpretation, the phrase "the Lord your God is testing you to know" in our context does not reflect God's knowledge but that of other nations: God tests you so that it will be known how much you love God.  In a similar vein many (Maimonides, Radak, Chizkuni) have interpreted the test of the binding of Isaac as the setting of a standard of devotion to God from which subsequent generations could learn.  So it seems that this prophet is not sent to trip us up, rather he is sent to build us up in the eyes of the world.  As the Ramban notes in the story of the binding of Isaac, in the Scripture we find that it is the righteous who are tested, for God knows not to test the evil.


            Having dealt with our first two questions, we must consider the third one.  What is the general concept of prophecy?  What are the methods for determining a true prophet?  Is preaching for idolatry the only disqualification?


            The Torah continues in Sefer Devarim to discuss how the nation must set up a just society in the land of Israel.  One of the institutions included in this vision of society is that of the prophet (18:15-22).  The Torah describes how just as the people asked Moses to be their emissary to God at Sinai and beyond, so too God would appoint for them a prophet to bring God's message to the people.  In this context, the Torah reiterates our question:


"And if you say in your hearts: 'How will we know the thing that God has not spoken?'"  (18:21)


The Torah responds immediately:


"That which the prophet has spoken in the name of the Lord and this thing shall not come to pass, this is the thing which God has not spoken, the prophet has spoken it spitefully, you need not fear him."


From a simple reading of the text, it would seem that each prophet must provide a sign to prove himself.  Only then would we decide whether to follow him as we saw in parashat Re'eh: if he were to preach idolatry regardless of how dazzling the miracle was, this prophet is to be killed, otherwise we would heed the prophet.  Yet, there seems to be a discussion amongst various commentators about how crucial this miracle is in establishing the prophet.


            In Maimonides' Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah (chapter 8) he states that the miracles Moses (the paradigmatic prophet) performed were not to establish his prophecy, rather they were needed at those times.  (For example, he had to split the sea to escape and drown the Egyptians.)  He goes on to say that anyone who believes based on signs has false beliefs.  He explains that Moses held the people's faith as a prophet only because of the prophetic vision that they witnessed and even shared with him at Sinai.  If the Rambam does not place any value in signs and wonders of the prophet, how then does he understand our verse?  He explains that we do not believe the prophet because of signs, rather Moses has commanded us that if the prophet should provide a sign that comes to pass, then we must heed his word.  Just as we trust two witnesses in court since that is the law, eventhough they could be lying, so too we trust the prophet who provides a sign since this is the law.  The Rambam strips the signs of prophet of any deeper significance than the fulfillment of a Mosaic law.  The Ramban, however, following the simple understanding of this verse demands that any prophet seeking validity must provide a sign.  The Sa'adia Gaon, meanwhile, escapes the debate by providing this verse with a new interpretation: if the prophet seeks to permit something forbidden, this is the false prophet.  Based on this idea, many have noted that only a prophet who has proven himself to be a worthy individual may temporarily suspend a Torah law (except for idolatry).  An unproven prophet who does this is not to be heeded.  This teaches us how to distinguish a true from a false prophet, but what is the role of a prophet?


            In the description of the prophet in Devarim 18 we find an interesting term.  Moshe tells the people that future prophets will be "like me."  Many have offered interpretations to this.  The Ramban writes that to appreciate this term we must understand the circumstances under which Moses was appointed prophet.  After hearing the first two of the ten commandments from the voice of God, the people turned to Moses and said that they could not survive further divine contact and that he should act as their middleman.  According to the Ramban, we should note that Moses was selected as a prophet by the people specifically because he was already respected and accepted as a leader by them.  So too, any prophet that will speak to the people should be one from amongst the people, someone whom they already know and respect.


            Tanakh relates various stories dealing with the issue of false prophecy.  One of the most famous stories tells of the debates between Jeremiah and Hananiah ben Azur.  Jeremiah had predicted the downfall of Judea while Hananiah prophesied the immediate salvation of Judea.  In that discussion (Jeremiah 28) Jeremiah provides an interesting measuring stick: the prophet who prophesies good, this prophet is true only if his words come to pass.  Therefore, there need never occur doom in order to validate the prophet of doom (see the story of Jonah and the city of Ninveh).  Such a prophecy may be seen as a rebuke and a call to repentance.  The one who predicts peace, however, the one who does not rebuke the people of teach them to improve their ways, his prophecy must come true to be considered a true prophet.


            In the days when prophecy and idolatry were common, one can imagine that the temptation to follow a prophet was great.  The ability to predict the future, to produce wonders could certainly lure many spiritual souls astray.  The Torah is very careful to place down very specific laws.  Anyone attempting to lead the people to idolatry should not be heeded.  There are no compromises with idolatry.  The Torah further teaches us the role of the prophet.  He is not only a liaison, but also a teacher like Moshe.  Lastly, as Jeremiah teaches, he is also one who must rebuke the nation and seek out their betterment, not just reassure them while they walk away from God; rather, they were needed at those times.