Predicting and Locking In the Future

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Last time, we saw Ran’s theory that Yitzchak is described as praying “opposite” his wife because situating oneself in physical proximity to the subject or object of one’s prayers or miracles makes them more effective. This time, we’re going to analyze how much of a role a prophet’s prediction of the future has in setting that future in stone.

In this series
* 1: Communities, Combination and Creation
* 2: What Science Doesn’t Know
* 3: What’s the Best Way to Physical Health?
* 4: The Permanent Friction Between Esav and Yaakov
* 5: Changing the World with Evocative Acts
* 6: Predicting and Locking In the Future
* 7: Moshe’s Speech Defect and the Dangers of Demagoguery
* 8: Drasha 3: Aharon and the Rewards of Sincere Humility
* 9: Drasha 3: Embracing the Metaphysics in the First Mitzvot of the Torah

Ran starts with a question Ramban raises in his Commentary to Bereshit 12:6, why prophets act to accompany their prophecies. For example, Avraham travels the Land of Israel soon after he arrives, having been told that his descendants would inherit the Land. Perhaps more dramatically, Yirmiyahu (51: 61-64) tells Serayah to read a prophecy, tie a stone to the scroll on which it was written and, as he threw it into the Euphrates, to announce that similarly Bavel would sink, the casting down of the prophecy dramatizing the future defeat and collapse of Bavel. Elisha on his deathbed, II Melachim 13:14-19, receives a visit from Yoash, the king of the Northern Kingdom. Elisha tells him to take arrows and bang them on the ground, prefiguring the defeats he would inflict on Aram. Why not simply predict what was going to happen—what do the actions add?

Uncertain Prophecies

Ramban suggests that the future, even the prophesied future, isn’t certain. This is a daring idea, since it means that when Hashem tells a prophet what is going to happen, that prediction is only valid for the circumstances that reign at the time of the prophecy. Enough of a change, such as a whole people repenting their evil ways, alters the future as well (as happens with Nineveh).

That makes immediate sense for negative prophecies, since Hashem is ארך אפים, long to anger, and נחם על הרעה, quick to forego evil that was slated to come, as Yonah complains, Yonah 4:2, when Hashem spares Nineveh. But Ramban applies his theory to positive actions as well, such as Avraham’s walking the Land to fortify the promise that his descendants would inherit it.

Before we get to the problem Ran raises about this approach, note what it says about Hashem, prophecy, freewill, and world events. My instinct would have been that the predictions of an omniscient and omnipotent God would be unalterable. Ramban and Ran are reminding us that the Jewish concept of freewill means that even when Hashem tells us the future, Hashem leaves it open enough that we can still change it.

Certifying Prophets

Ran has a problem with this idea, which leads him to yet another remarkable notion. Ramban can’t be right about all prophecies, since one of the ways to certify a prophet is by verifying that his or her predictions come true. If predictions are always tentative, that doesn’t work. Tradition therefore had it that good prophecies always come true, as a way for prophets to prove themselves to the people—they’d make good prophecies, large and small, over and over, and always be right, establishing their bona fides.

Ran suggests that this leaves an opening for Ramban to have been right about the prophecies given to the Patriarchs. Since they didn’t have to prove themselves to anyone, their prophecies were all tentative and needed strengthening by actualization. That explains Avraham’s walking the Land, etc., but it also makes me wonder about the long-term prophecies we have in Tanach. Those prophets are no longer alive and are well-established—what would Ran say about how necessary their prophecies are, how susceptible to change by our successes or failures?

I ask because R. Moshe Lichtenstein, Rosh Yeshivah at Yeshivat Har Etzion, once suggested that different prophets offer different versions of the future Redemption, based on how we manage to earn them. That is, some of the visions are better than the others—some have the Jews returning only in small numbers, after a hard war, etc., whereas others have all the nations of the earth participating in bringing us back, and sharing in the bounty of the future with us.

While some might argue that all of the prophecies will come true, in various stages, my memory is that R. Mosheh Lichtenstein entertained the possibility that these are alternate paths, and our actions determine which one we take. Sanhedrin 98a speaks of the possibility that Mashiach will arrive at different times based on how we act; R. Lichtenstein expanded that to our actions affecting how Mashiach arrive, the kind of redemption we will experience. Ran’s view that prophecies that don’t require verification are always dependent on our later actions works well with that idea.

The Need for a Competition Over Yitzchaks Brachah

Ran also uses this idea to explain two problems in the fight over Yitzchak’s brachah. Yitzchak fears his life is coming to a close, so he summons Esav to hunt and cook a meal for him, such that he might bless him. Rivkah hears and moves quickly to steer that blessing to Ya’akov instead. Both bother Ran—why does Yitzchak need food, and why does Rivkah care so much?

Nor is it just Yitzchak who does it. Ran points out that prophets commonly accepted a gift, even though it smacks of paying for prophecies. Ran argues that the gift was to establish a connection between the prophet and the person, a way to help the prophet direct his prophecy, to secure information relating to that person (another idea that could be expanded greatly, but not here).

As for the blessing, Ran wonders whether it’s meant to be a prayer or a prediction. If just a prayer, Rivkah should not have worried. Before the twins were born, she had been told Ya’akov would be the master, as long as he (and his descendants) acted as Hashem wanted them to. If it’s a prediction, she should have had even less to worry about, since she already had a prior prediction.

Ran’s answer builds on his view that prophecies then were not ironclad. Rivkah worried that, despite what she had heard, Yitzchak’s giving a brachah to Esav could circumvent and/or uproot what she had heard, and give Esav the upper hand in the brothers’ relationship. By ensuring that Yitzchak said those words to Ya’akov, she strengthened the original prophecy. Ran also thinks Yitzchak suspected he was speaking to Ya’akov and readily ratified his blessings once he found out for sure.

The Responsibility of Freewill

That is where Ran ends this second Derashah. His reconstruction of Yitzchak’s prayers for Rivkah and the competition for his brachah might seem to be only about Parshat Toledot, but the segment we saw today challenges us to consider how open the future is. Jews, who believe in a history with purpose and direction, heading towards a Messianic era, should be particularly interested in how much of the future is set and fixed, and how much is open to change and our input. Ran gives more than the usual leeway for human input by denying that even prophecies aren’t certain, with the lone exception (a big one, I admit) of those positive prophecies issued by a prophet who needs to verify his status as a prophet.

Other than that, including the Patriarchs, Ran’s future isn’t as firm as we think. Dramatization or prefigurative acts help strengthen a prophecy, as does adding a Patriarch’s blessing to a prior prophecy, but mostly Ran implies that it is up to us to bring about the best future possible (within the limits of fitting Hashem’s broad plan for history). What do we think?

About Gidon Rothstein

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