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7 Nissan 5763 - April 9, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Opinion & Comment
And Hashem "Reconsidered"

by HaRav Chaim Pass

Change of Heart?

In parshas Ki Siso the posuk (Shemos 32:14) says, "And Hashem reconsidered the bad that He had spoken about doing to His people." However, the posuk in parshas Bolok (Bamidbor 23:19) says, "G-d is not a man Who lies, or a human Who reconsiders." If Hashem does not reconsider, what does the first posuk mean?

There is a similar difficulty with the posuk at the end of parshas Bereishis (6:6): "And Hashem reconsidered having made man . . . and He was saddened to His heart." How are we to understand the idea of Hashem having changed His mind, as it were?

At the beginning of parshas Terumoh, the Meshech Chochmoh cites a question that is asked by the Yerushalmi. The mishnah (Shavuos 2:1) states that among the conditions for extending the boundaries of Yerushalayim or the courtyard of the Mikdosh are the approval of a prophet and of the urim vetumim (the Heavenly communication through the letters engraved upon the stones of the Cohen Godol's Choshen). The Yerushalmi asks why the urim vetumim are necessary if there is a novi conveying Heaven's consent through prophecy?

The Meshech Chochmoh answers by citing the gemora (Yoma 73) which says that although the decree of a prophet can be annulled, something decreed by the urim vetumim cannot. He then continues, "And it appears to me that the level of Moshe Rabbenu, who prophesied using the words, `This is the matter [that Hashem commanded]' (Bamidbor 30:2) was such that it cannot be nullified and it is part of Torah's eternity . . . Therefore, when Moshe was there, they did not need the urim vetumim to sanctify the Mishkon, for Moshe's prophecy was like the urim vetumim . . . "

If even ordinary prophecies of Moshe Rabbenu's were not nullified for they are part of Torah's eternity, this is certainly true of words of Torah itself.

For many years, I had difficulty in understanding this, in view of a gemora (Makkos 24) which says, "Rabbi Yossi bar Chanina said: `Moshe Rabbenu made four decrees on Yisroel and four prophets came and nullified them:

`Moshe said, "And Yisroel dwelt in safety alone, like the blessing of Yaakov . . . " (Devorim 33:28). Amos came and nullified it: "Desist . . . who will arise [on behalf of] Yaakov . . . " (Amos 7:5) and "Hashem has reconsidered this" (ibid. 3).

`Moshe said, "And among those nations you shall not be calm" (Devorim 28:65). Yirmiyohu came and said, "Going to calm Yisroel" (Yirmiyohu 31:1).

`Moshe said, "Who visits the sins of fathers on sons" (Shemos 34:7). Yechezkel came and nullified it: "The soul that sins, it [alone] shall die" (Yechezkel 18:20).

`Moshe said, "And you shall be lost among the nations" (Vayikra 26:38). Yeshayoh came and said, "And it shall be on that day, the great shofar will be blown and those who were lost in Assur will come . . . " (Yeshayoh 27:13). "

We see here that even things written in the Torah were revoked by later prophets, which is very hard to understand. I put this question to many of the gedolei hador.

Change in Level

I think that a passage in the Beis Halevi's writings on Chumash (in parshas Ki Siso) provides an approach to resolving these difficulties. The Beis Halevi cites a Mechilta (Bo, sect. 14) which poses a contradiction between two things that Hashem told Avrohom Ovinu (Bereishis 13-16): "And they will serve them and they will afflict them for four hundred years" and "the fourth generation will return here." Four generations is a much shorter time than four hundred years.

The Mechilta answers, "Hakodosh Boruch Hu said, `If they repent, I will redeem them by [i.e. after four] generations and if not, then after four hundred years.' " The Beis Halevi explains that two separate times were promised for leaving Egypt: after four generations if the nation repented, or after four hundred years if not. Clearly, although Hashem said simply that, "the fourth generation shall return here," this was to be understood as being conditional on the people's repentance.

The Rishonim tell us that all the Torah's promises are conditional. In Sefer Ho'ikarim (the Fourth Discourse, chap. 18), the author writes, "When any good thing is decreed for a person, the decree applies to a certain level of worthiness in deeds -- this is a general principle regarding the Torah's promises. Similarly, if something bad is decreed for him, it is applicable to him at a certain level of evil or preparedness [to do evil]. If that level or that preparedness changes, the decree must change for the better, or for the worse . . . Therefore, it is imperative to attempt to do good in any matter that is a preparation for receiving Heavenly bounty, or for annulling a decree.

"This is why they said that changing a person's name or changing his deeds, helps avert a decree. And this is also why repentance helps a wicked person. Through repentance, it is as though he is transformed into someone else, upon whom that decree was not made. The posuk (Melochim I 24:25- 8) tells us that, `There was none like Achov, who was devoted to doing what is evil in Hashem's eyes.' However, when he fasted and donned sack Hashem said, `Because Achov has humbled himself before me, I shall not bring the evil in his days; in the days of his son I shall bring the evil upon his house.' This shows us that what is decreed for an evildoer only applies while he is on that particular level of evil but if he shifts from it through repentance, it is as though he is transformed into someone else, upon whom the decree was never made.

"This is why prayer or improving deeds helps a person receive Heavenly bounty, or annul a decree against him . . . Our sages said, `Crying out in prayer is always advantageous, both before a decree has been made and after.' There is no place for the question, how is it that Hashem's wishes change through a person's prayers? [The answer is that] this was what Hashem wanted to begin with -- that the decree should be fulfilled if the person remained the same and that it should be nullified if he changed."

Changing Course

I recently saw the Arizal quoted as having explained the gemora's discussion (Sotah 2) about predestined matches, in this vein. The gemora asks that on the one hand, a Bas Kol declares whose daughter is destined to marry whom, forty days before the fetus is formed. While on the other hand Rabba bar Chana said in Rabbi Yochonon's name, `It is as hard to match them as to part the Yam Suf,' which Resh Lokish explains is due to the fact that matches are determined according to the level of a person's deeds. The gemora answers that the first statement applies to a first match and the second, to a second match.

The Arizal explains that a `first match' means one that fits a person's unchanged nature, not taking into account changes in his level or his deeds. According to this, a `second match' takes such changes into account. It is the match a person merits through his own toil which, as Resh Lokish said, is as difficult as the parting of Yam Suf. I later found this explanation in Akeidas Yitzchok, shaar 8.

This provides us with a means of reconciling the problem from the gemora in Makkos, which we posed as a question on the Meshech Chochmoh. According to what we have just seen, even things written in the Torah (as shown by the Beis Halevi) apply to a specific level and to particular conditions. If these change, the individuals involved change and a different fate, or path of Divine guidance, becomes suitable.

The four decrees mentioned by the gemora in Makkos were appropriate to a certain level, which Hakodosh Boruch Hu expected Klal Yisroel to maintain and to live at. When the nation's level changed, the prophets came and declared that with the change, a different approach was now suitable. Both what the Torah writes and what the prophets uttered are thus the truth, for all eternity.

This change in course seems to be what the Torah means with the expression, "And Hashem reconsidered," the term which is also quoted in Makkos from the posuk in Amos. This indicates a change of the sort is not a retraction but a shift from one course to another, both of which Heaven reckoned on to begin with. The Torah nevertheless terms such change as "reconsideration."

Oath and Covenant

With this, we can understand the pesukim at the end of parshas Bereishis (6:6-7), when Hashem changed his approach of being beneficial to mankind to being punitive to them, and in parshas Ki Siso (32:14) where Hashem changed from wanting to destroy Klal Yisroel to forgiving them.

There are cases where Hashem decides to follow a particular approach all the way. Alternatively, there are cases where He decides to abandon a particular approach altogether and never use it again. Rashi tells us when this is so. On the posuk (Bamidbor 23:19) "G-d is not a man who lies, or a human who reconsiders," Rashi explains, "He must bring them and give them possession of the land of the seven nations." Through an oath, Hashem determines a particular path from which there is no change. The reason for this is straightforward. The mechanism by which a person's vow or oath can be nullified -- by finding an eventuality that was originally overlooked, in which the vow would not have been made -- is obviously inapplicable to Hashem.

As soon as Noach came out of the ark (Bereishis 8:26), Hashem promised never to bring another flood, using the expression, "I shall no longer . . . " This expression is used twice. Rashi explains, "He repeated it to be an oath" and the posuk (Yeshayoh 54:9) says, "I have sworn not to bring the waters of Noach to pass." After having reconsidered mankind's creation, as we are told at the beginning of the topic (6:6), Hashem now promised never to bring another flood, sealing His promise with an oath.

After Klal Yisroel abrogated their covenant with Hashem (parshas Mishpotim 24:1-11) by serving the eigel, the term "and Hashem reconsidered" is used for Hashem's retraction from His intention to destroy them.

There were thus several possibilities for Klal Yisroel henceforth, one of which involved their being led through a mal'ach. The presence of a Heavenly intermediary between themselves and Hashem involved a degree of distance from Hashem, which Moshe Rabbenu did not want. He sought ways to increase Klal Yisroel's closeness to Hashem and establish the uniqueness of their relationship, such as his requests that Hashem should never rest His Presence upon the nations any more and that he be allowed to glimpse Hashem's glory. Hashem gave a degree of permanency to this agreement by making it the subject of a covenant (Shemos 34:27). Here, a covenant replaced an oath which, as we have seen, is the mode that Hashem employed elsewhere to give permanency to a new policy.

There is a fundamental difference between a covenant and an oath. An oath establishes a certain understanding unconditionally. Hashem took an oath never to bring another flood upon the world, under any circumstances.

The conduct of each of the two parties to a covenant however, is determined by the undertaking and conduct of the opposite party. Hakodosh Boruch Hu is bound to the covenant to the degree that Klal Yisroel adheres to it and they conduct themselves according to its provisions, i.e. to what extent they observe the Torah.

One With Torah

Chazal tell us that this covenant was made over Torah shebe'al peh in particular. The Beis Halevi explains this (Shu"T Beis Halevi, droshoh 18), first quoting a medrash which says that after Hashem told Moshe Rabbenu the entire Torah shebe'al peh, Moshe said, "I will put it down for them in writing." However, Hashem replied, "No, because it is revealed before Me that in the future, the nations will control them and will take it from them . . . I am therefore giving Scripture in writing and Mishnah, Talmud and Aggadah orally."

The Beis Halevi explains that this actually happened later, in the time of King Ptolemy, when the Torah was translated into Greek. As a result, Yisroel were no longer distinct from the nations in that respect. Torah shebe'al peh was therefore given orally, so that they would always remain separate from the nations of the world and we can see that this is indeed the principle agent of their distinction. He explains further that this is the meaning of Rav Yochonon's statement (Gittin 60), "Hashem only made a covenant with Klal Yisroel over the things which were said orally, as the posuk says, `for according to [lit. al pi by the word of] these things.' "

"Klal Yisroel attained a tremendous level by receiving Torah orally," writes the Beis Halevi. "Hitherto, when the whole Torah was alluded to in the tablets, Yisroel and the Torah were two separate entities. Yisroel were [merely] those who kept the Torah and observed it, similar to a receptacle inside which Torah is kept, like an oron hakodesh which serves the Torah. When they were given Torah shebe'al peh however, they became like parchment bearing the oral Torah, as the posuk (Mishlei 7:3) says, `Write them upon the tablet of your heart.' The parchment upon which a sefer Torah is written is an integral component of the sefer; it does not merely serve it. Just as parchment and writing together comprise a sefer Torah, so too do Yisroel and Torah form one integral unit together. Not every individual can attain all of Torah shebe'al peh, as it was alluded to on the first set of tablets. However, everyone's attainments depend on his level and the amount he toils in Torah."

The Covenant in Our Times

Klal Yisroel's covenant and its unique relationship with Hakodosh Boruch Hu is thus cemented through Torah shebe'al peh. Strengthening our study of Torah shebe'al peh is the way we fulfill our side of the covenant and this compels Hakodosh Boruch Hu, as it were, to treat us in a unique way.

Gedolei Yisroel in our times have said that all the Torah that is printed in seforim is considered Written Torah. The uniqueness of Torah shebe'al peh is only found among those individuals who toil over Torah in order to understand its full depth and clarity. This and this alone is Torah shebe'al peh. Nowadays, any gentile can amass Torah knowledge from printed works and he can even quote statements made by Chazal. Only those who toil and labor over Torah are preserving our tradition and Klal Yisroel's uniqueness.

I remember that once, a grandchild came and asked our master and grandfather [HaRav Shach] ztvk'l for advice. In his father's beis haknesses, sifrei Torah were not given to children to dance with on Simchas Torah. Grandfather got up immediately, ran over to his bookshelves, took one of Rabbi Akiva Eiger's seforim and said, "Take this and dance with it!"

All who are bound to Torah shebe'al peh must know that in our times especially, which are so fraught with dangers both from within and without, and especially during these days from Pesach to Shavuos which are known to be days of preparation for the heights of Kabbolas HaTorah, it is our duty to strengthen ourselves with all our might and to engage in our chosen pursuit, rather than in temporal affairs. Hakodosh Boruch Hu will thus associate Himself exclusively with us. By fulfilling the covenant of toiling over Torah shebe'al peh and gaining deep understanding thereof, Hashem will bestow His Presence upon us and favor us, thereby transforming individuals and Klal Yisroel into a completely different entity.

By following this path, in conjunction with our prayers, we may be sure of Hashem's fulfillment of His covenant. Even at a time of evil decrees, the evil will be changed to good. May we merit Hashem's Presence and the rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdosh swiftly, omein.

HaRav Chaim Pass is Rosh Kollel Oros Chaim UMoshe, Ashdod.

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