Rabbi Yaakov Haber
Rabbi Yaakov Haber

True Prophecy, False Prophecy, Tests of Faith and Preserving Faith

Dedicated to all of the 3,000 courageous 'Olim Chadashim who have recently moved to Eretz Yisrael under the auspices of Nefesh B'Nefesh including my father-in-law and mother-in-law Rabbi & Mrs. Yitzchak Handel shlita


Among the many mitzvos and directives contained in Parshas Re'eh is a description of the navi sheker, the false prophet. After correctly predicting and producing a sign or miracle, the false prophet then demands that his listeners worship a foreign god. The Torah's response to such a person is swift and uncompromising: "You shall not listen to the words of that prophet ... And that prophet shall be put to death for he has spoken perversely about Hashem, your G-d, - who has taken you out of the land of Egypt and has redeemed you from the house of slavery - to cause you to go astray from the path Hashem, your G-d, has commanded you to follow and you shall eradicate the evil from your midst" (Re'eh 13:4,6).

A parallel section describing a true prophet appears in Parshas Shof'tim. There we are commanded "eilav tishma'oon" - " you shall listen to his commands" (18:15). From this passage Sifrei derives that even if a known true prophet (see Y'sodei HaTorah 9:3) commands you to violate one of the commandments of the Torah temporarily (hora'as sha'ah), such as Eliyahu HaNavi did at Har HaCarmel by offering korbanos outside of the Beis HaMikdash, you must obey. But how do we know who the true prophet is? To this the Torah responds: "That which the prophet says in the name of Hashem and it will not occur or transpire, that is the matter which was not spoken by Hashem, the prophet uttered it brazenly, do not fear him!" (Shof'tim 18:22). The simple reading of the text indicates that the prophet has to successfully predict the future to prove the truth of his prophecy. The previous text in Re'eh concerning the false prophet indicates that he performs a miracle. Of course, there he is not to be followed since he told his listeners to worship 'avodah zara, but the implication is that ordinarily performance of a miracle would be sufficient evidence of his prophecy. (See Ramban to Re'eh who explains that os (sign) refers to predicting the future and mofeis refers to a miracle. Hence, both are ordinarily acceptable validations of the prophet.) Moshe Rabbeinu, too, was told by Hashem to verify his prophetic status and his being sent by G-d to redeem the Jewish people through the means of miracles (Sh'mos 4:1-9). It would appear that the common denominator between the two is the ability to successfully predict the future as indicated in the text in Shof'tim. Performing a miracle only serves as a proof of prophecy when introduced by the prophet predicting that it would occur (see Ramban ibid). This two-step process: the prediction of the miracle and the performance of it is verified by a careful reading of Re'eh 13:1-2.

Rambam (Y'sodei HaTorah Chapter 8) presents a fundamental presentation as to why a prophet, even when producing the requisite proof of prophecy, must not be heeded with reference to any permanent change to Torah Law. The authentication of the revelation of Torah at Har Sinai was done via the entire Jewish nation rising for a moment in history to the level of prophecy and hearing G-d's voice. The content of this prophecy included a statement by G-d directing Moshe to climb the mountain and receive the Torah (see Yisro 19:9). Thus, the knowledge that Moshe was the appointed agent of prophetic reception of the Torah was a matter that was confirmed by each Jew present hearing this directly from G-d. If another prophet would arise with an alleged message from G-d concerning the changing of a part of the Torah and would verify his agency via predicting the future or performing a miracle, he cannot be followed. The degree of evidence confirming the original revelation - concerning which the Torah testifies that its commandments will not change (D'varim 29:28 and elsewhere) - which was based on individual knowledge is on a fundamentally different plane than the evidence produced by the false prophet, which is based on the performance of miracles. In a famous analogy, the Rambam compares this case to judges who know first-hand the facts of a court case and then receive contradictory testimony from witnesses concerning the same case. Even though the Torah states that we should accept the testimony of two witnesses, this directive clearly does not apply when one has direct knowledge to the contrary. Similarly, although the Torah commands us to follow a prophet who produces the necessary evidence of his authenticity, this commandment clearly does not apply when one has personal knowledge that the prophet is lying such as where he attempts to change the Torah, concerning which the original, higher-level revelation included many statements that its commandments are binding forever. However, in light of the fact that no prophet may permanently override any commandment, the Rambam explains that concerning 'avoda zara which is singled out in our Parsha, the prophet may not even temporarily override Torah law. Here, though, Rambam does not give the logic for such a distinction even though it seems intuitive.

Rav Yosef Albo, in his Seifer Ikkarim (3:18), provides a fascinating approach to this very issue. The first two of the ten commandments were heard directly by K'lal Yisrael from Hashem and not through Moshe Rabbeinu as were the other commandments (Makkos 24a). (See Ikkarim who explains that this is the reason they are written in the first-person as opposed to the other eight of the 'Aseres HaDib'ros.) They consisted of a positive commandment of belief in the One and Only G-d and a negative commandment not to believe in or worship any other deities. Thus, knowledge of belief in One G-d alone and the prohibition to serve any false deity was based on direct, first-hand revelation. Knowledge of all of the other commandments, on the other hand, was based on first-hand knowledge that Moshe was chosen as the prophet and agent to teach them to B'nei Yisrael, not through direct individual prophecy. Therefore, even a temporary abrogation of the commandment against 'avoda zara, contradicting the individually received prophecy, would require direct revelation to every member of K'lal Yisrael which of course would never happen. For a temporary suspension of another commandment, merely establishing oneself as a navi muchzak, a tried and proven prophet, based on miracles or successful predictions is sufficient.

Interestingly, many new religions have been founded through exactly the route warned about in the Torah. A charismatic "miracle-worker" arose and stated that the previous divine laws or a portion of them had been abrogated and replaced. He then would proceed to "prove" his authenticity by performing miracles. The Torah clearly warns against exactly this phenomenon through the section dealing with the navi sheker. The core principle negating this supplanting of Torah is the nationwide revelation of Torah at Har Sinai. This is of course why this momentous event is such a fundamental part of Judaism - not just because through it we received the Divine Torah but because it established for all eternity a ready source of religious strength against all who would eventually try to convince the Jewish people of a change in the Divine plan (see Va'Etchanan 4:9-10 and Ramban Hashmatos l'Seifer HaMitzvot - Lo Ta'ase 2).


A final question addressed by the Torah remains. Why would Hashem allow a charlatan to possibly dupe his audience through the performance of sham "miracles"? To this, the Torah responds, "ki m'nase Hashem Elokeichem eschem loda'as hayishchem 'ohavim es Hashem Elokeichem b'chol l'vavchem uv'chol nafsh'chem" - "for Hashem, your G-d, is testing you to see if you love Hashem, your G-d, with all of your heart and all of your soul." A fascinating conclusion emerges. Hashem expects of us and demands of us to remain loyal to Him and His Torah even when presented with enormous challenges to faith. A prophet ostensibly bringing with him the word of G-d performs miracles before our eyes and yet we are expected to remain loyal to the original word of Hashem! Apparently, the solid foundation of Ma'amad Har Sinai and its faithful transmission from father to son, from teacher to student is so powerful, so overwhelmingly convincing, that such faithfulness and loyalty becomes readily attainable even to the average individual. Those who have fallen prey to such charlatans did not withstand this quite passable test.

Our individual lives and collective lives as a nation are constantly marked by moments of challenge to our faith in Hashem, His Torah, and our ultimate Destiny. Especially troubling to many is the question of "tzaddik v'ra lo, rasha v'tov lo" - the suffering of the righteous, and the prosperity of the wicked. Some are disturbed by how redemption and world peace can come about as promised by the prophets in a world filled with confusion, war, and a constant threat of terrorism. Although these are difficult challenges to overcome, here again, based on the overwhelming evidence of the Hashgacha P'ratis, Divine Providence, of Hashem - "Who took you out of Egypt" and continues to guide history - assuring the preservation of K'lal Yisrael and our heritage, the Torah, throughout our tumultuous history, we have a ready wellspring from which to draw spiritual fortitude to maintain our 'emuna and bitachon in HaKadosh Baruch Hu. In our own recent history, although so many of our people have suffered by the hands of our cruel enemies including during the most recent war in Lebanon, we should not ignore the fact that b'chasdei Hashem alone, K'lal Yisrael, M'dinas Yisrael and Toras Yisrael continue to exist and thrive. M'dinas Yisrael continues to be rejuvenated by new 'olim every year and continues to grow both spiritually and physically. Notwithstanding the fact that every Jewish life lost is an irretrievable loss, we should marvel at the Divine protection that caused relatively few civilian casualties after a barrage of almost 4,000 enemy missiles! Even during periods when Hashem's Attribute of Justice is stretched against His beloved people, we can observe how He remains constantly "meititz min hacharakim" - "peeking between the slats" - overseeing and protecting His nation. May we always merit strong faith and reliance on the Nosein HaTorah and the Eternal Protector of the Jewish people.

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