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August 22, 2014 / 26 Av, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘God’

What’s Your Sin? Removing the Number One Stumbling Block in Your Life

Thursday, August 22nd, 2013

With the High Holidays rapidly approaching, we begin to take stock of our lives. Here are five fundamental and common sins. Which one is your biggest stumbling block?

Wronging others. We may have wronged others emotionally or financially. We frequently excuse our behavior by saying, “I didn’t intend any harm. I was just…” But good intentions do not whitewash sinful acts.

Ask yourself, “Is there anyone I offended or whose feelings I have hurt? Have I caused someone distress? Have I made fun of someone (even good-naturedly)? Do I owe anyone money? Have I reneged on an agreement? Have I enriched myself at the expense of others?”

You may think, “I’ll straighten it out later. I’ll make good in the end.” But repentance is only possible while you are in this world. Nobody knows which day will be their last. Once a person’s body shuts down, so do the gates of repentance. Whatever you can correct, do so while you still can.

Action steps: Can you recall any time you hurt someone, perhaps a friend, neighbor, family member, fellow congregant or business associate? Even if you think you have both moved on since then, you still need to make amends and/or apologize.

Hating your fellow Jew. Perhaps you do not hate anybody, but how about intensely dislike? Are there people you cannot be with and feel distaste just looking at them?

We do not have to go out of our way to spend time with people we do not like; often, it is good to limit contact with those who push our buttons. But we are forbidden to harbor personal animosity toward our fellow Jew, as the Torah cautions us (Leviticus 19:17), “Do not hate your brother in your heart…”

Some people just rub us the wrong way. When we look at them, we think about their real or imagined faults. Instead, remind yourself that you do not know everything about them and judge them favorably. In addition, think about their good points. Everyone has good qualities and has done good deeds. Search for and admire the good in others.

Action steps: Make a list of those you dislike. Write down their admirable qualities and the good they have done. Next time you see them, bring to mind what you wrote and try to give them a genuine smile and greeting.

Being callous. Sometimes, our issue is not that we have wronged others, or that we hate them, it is that we ignore them. Often, we are so focused on our own lives that we do not pay enough attention to others. We may ignore the difficulties they have, perhaps in finding a job or a spouse, coping with illness or paying bills. Although we cannot help everyone, we still have to do whatever we can. Pirkei Avot reminds us, “It is not your responsibility to complete the work, yet you are not free to withdraw from it (2:21).”

When we hear about a difficulty or tragedy, often our reaction is, “What a pity. Thank God I’m not affected.” And we go on with business as usual. But we are affected: Our brothers and sisters are struggling. We have to ask ourselves, “How can I help? What can I do?” If you cannot provide physical, financial or emotional assistance, do not minimize the importance of including them in your prayers.

Action steps: Devote a portion of your time and resources to helping others. At least each week, preferably daily, do an act of kindness. When you meet someone, show an interest in that individual and see if you can be of assistance.

Neglecting our relationship with God. Sometimes, people get so busy with daily life they forget about their Creator. God created us to have a relationship with Him. Each day we do not develop this relationship is a day lost forever.

Action steps: Every day, connect with God by: Praying to Him, performing a mitzvah mindfully, sensing His presence, thanking Him for one of His blessings and thinking about how He guides every aspect of your life for your highest good.

An essential part of having a relationship with God is not disrespecting Him. For example, we must ensure that we do not talk during davening or leave the synagogue while the haftarah is being read.

Exacting Vengeance on the Gentiles?

Wednesday, August 21st, 2013

Once again we are treated to the sight of very religious looking Jews acting like a street gang. A statue of a cross with a figure of Jesus on it was defaced by a group of Breslover Chasidim in Uman. The cross was recently erected opposite the grave of the founder of this Chasidus, Rav Nachman of Breslov – located in the Ukrainian city of Uman. From JTA:

“To exact vengeance on the gentiles,” reads the message, which was scrawled across the torso of a figure of Jesus. A further inscription on Jesus’ leg reads, “Stop desecrating the name of God.”

This kind of thing would not surprise me if it were being done by extremists from a community that embraces an isolationist lifestyle. But although they are hardcore Chasidim who dress and look much the same as Satmar Chasidim – Breslovers do a lot of outreach. I would expect them to know how to behave in a more civilized manner. They must have had a socialization process that taught them that or they could not do outreach. And yet here they have acted in a completely uncivilized way.

So it comes as a bit of a surprise that a Christian symbol near their venerated Rebbe’s grave site was desecrated with graffiti. I guess their socialization process goes just so far. A statue of Jesus so close to their Rebbe’s grave site was too much to handle.

I don’t know why the Ukrainian Government chose that site for its statue. I don’t think it was a wise decision. But at the same time, I don’t think it was necessarily meant to ‘stick it’ to the Breslovers either. It was probably just not a well thought out plan.

I can understand why these Chasidim felt outrage. They consider the Breslover Rebbe’s gravesite to be so holy that make annual pilgrimages to it. Tens of thousands of Jews (mostly Breslover Chasidim) from all over the world visit it during Rosh Hashanah – one of the holiest times of the year. It is almost as though they were making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem’s Holy Temple. Seeing the sight of Jesus on a cross must have made them feel like they were seeing Avodah Zara in the Beis HaMikdash.

The outrage is understandable. But their expression of it is inexcusable. It is the kind of behavior that can bring tragedy upon the Jewish people. Uman is not Jerusalem. R. Nachman’s gravesite is not the Beis HaMikdash. The citizens of Uman are their hosts. Breslovers are guests. And the guests have just defaced the image of the god their hosts worship.

The more responsible Breslover leadership has apologized. Sort of. From JTA:

“We respect other religions, and don’t wish to damage symbols of other religions. But, unfortunately, not all of our coreligionists understand this. They could break or destroy the cross. That would lead to a genuine war between hasidim and Christians. We cannot allow that, so we request that the cross be moved to a different location,” said Shimon Busquila, a representative of the Rabbi Nachman International Fund…

It may have been a legitimate request. But it was made too late. If made at all it should have been made politely before the statue was vandalized. Nonetheless the deputy mayor of Uman agreed with it.

On the other hand the citizens of Uman were so outraged by the vandalism – that they will have no part of moving the statue. They promised retaliation against Rav Nachman’s grave if it is moved. I can’t say that I blame them.

I think the point to be made here is contained in the response made by Shimon Busquila: ‘…not all of our coreligionists understand this’.

That is exactly the problem. Why don’t they understand this? It is not enough for a leader to simply say that some of their co-religionists do not understand the consequences of being uncivilized – thereby damaging the property of their hosts.  Especially their religious symbols. No matter how upsetting it is to them.

The Chasidim who did this are taught to hate non Jewish religious symbols much more than they are taught to behave in civilized ways when encountering them. So when they get upset at the sight of one of those hated symbols, they react in ways that bring ill repute upon – and ill will against – our people. They do so without thinking or perhaps even caring about the consequences.

Temptations, Tests, and the Search for Spiritual Courage

Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

I was recently walking down the street when I smelled one of the most amazing unkosher cuisines I could ever remember smelling. As I stared at my food enemy, I had a thought which I imagine most religious Jews have at one point or another. I wondered: Was God testing me with this great smell? Was this amazing scent a way to bring my downfall?

Pondering this trivial “test” led to a greater philosophical and theological question: What is the religious nature of temptations and tests?

The Torah says, “Remember the entire path along which the Lord your God led you these forty years in the desert, He sent hardships to test you.” (Deut. 8:2). We read that G-d has Bnei Yisrael wander in the desert for 40 years as a test.

What is this about? To place a nation (man, woman, and child) through such transient and confused misery for decades as a test? I also often wonder if the Jewish people are being tested today, with our own state in Israel and unprecedented wealth and influence in the US. What will we do with the great blessings we’ve been granted? What does this idea mean that G-d tests us as individuals and as a nation?

It must be more than schar v’onesh (that God is merely keeping our score card) or that G-d is merely flexing power in the world.

I also can’t relate to the cynical answer found in the book of Job, where God tests Job because of a disagreement with Satan. My belief in a benevolent and personal G-d precludes the possibility of random tests.

Still within distance of smelling my temptation of the day, I began to ponder answers:

For years, the most compelling answer to me has been that it is through the struggle of these challenges that we truly grow. These temptations are ways of teaching people about G-d and the incredible human capacity for compassion and spiritual depth. The Ramban argues that this was exactly the purpose of the Akeidah (the binding of Isaac) for Avraham.

Alternatively, perhaps there is a utilitarian approach that more people can learn from a test than the one having to undergo the discomfort of the test. The Rambam and Radak argue that the purpose of the test at the Akeidah was not for Avraham to learn but for the future adherents of the Abrahamic faith to learn. This sets a gold standard for others to try to follow.

Rav Kook goes even further, arguing that Avraham was being tested in order to “prove” to the pagan religions that monotheism can match the religious passion of pagan worship through the act of inward sacrifice, without the need for savage and barbaric sacrifices. One is being tested in order to teach others through its example.

Another utilitarian approach is that tests can provide opportunities for others to do mitzvot to help when we are struggling. It is for the moral good of the community at large.

These explanations may be true and all of them are worth thinking about but Rav Tzadok teaches that just as a person needs to believe in G-d so too one needs to believe in oneself. These days many of us (including myself) are struggling less with why we are tested by G-d and more with how we can overcome our obstacles and challenges to live a happier, more meaningful, more successful life. Do we believe in our own capacity to overcome in the face of adversity?

One tool that we can all consider experimenting with: The Gemara says that the Torah is the seasoning for the yetzer hara (personal evil inclination). The Maggid of Mezritch offers a beautiful interpretation that since the yetzer hara is the main dish and the Torah is the seasoning, we must serve God with the full ecstasy of the yetzer hara. The purpose is not to destroy or subdue the yetzer hara but rather to spice it up – to access its energy and channel it towards good.

This is to say that when we experience struggle we should use that temptation and channel that new energy towards good rather than attempt to dismiss or remove the temptation. This is why the Midrash explains that without the yetzer hara there would be no business or procreation. In a complex way, we need our desire for self-advancement to further societal goals.

Religious Right and ACLU Protest Judge’s No Messiah Ruling

Monday, August 19th, 2013

It began when Jaleesa, 22, took the father of her baby, Jawaan P. McCullough, 40, to family court in Tennessee, to establish paternity and to set child support. Oh, and the baby’s name was Messiah, according to the LA Times.

In court it was revealed that the father had wanted to name the baby Jawaan P. McCullough Jr., but he no longer objected to calling the boy Messiah Deshawn. But the judge decided to change the baby’s name anyway.

“It is not in this child’s best interest to keep the first name ‘Messiah,’” Magistrate Lu Ann Ballew wrote in her decision. “‘Messiah’ means Savior, Deliverer, the One who will restore God’s Kingdom. ‘Messiah’ is a title that is held by only Jesus Christ.”

An entire Jewish family of Iraqi extract named Mashiach would argue differently, but you don’t get many Iraqi Jews in Tennessee. But even without that Iraqi-Jewish input, “Messiah” is an increasingly popular American baby name, according to the LA Times, as are the names Lord and King.

The name would impose an “undue burden on him that as a human being he cannot fulfill,” the judge wrote, although she really didn’t know just how spiritually gifted the baby Messiah was.

She also noted that in Cocke County, Tenn., where the new Messia resides, there is a “large Christian population” as evidenced by its “many churches of the Christian faith.”

“Therefore,” the judge concluded, “it is highly likely that he will offend many Cocke County citizens by calling himself ‘Messiah.’”

Maybe, maybe not – there’s a slew of Jesus’s out there and no one seems to mind, and then, come to think of it, using that same logic, the name David should also irk some people. So the ACLU of Tennessee got on the case, and, surprisingly, received many calls of support from the religious right, which typically threatens to blow up their offices over abortion cases.

“I got the classic call the other day,” Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee, told the LA Times. “They said, ‘I really don’t like the ACLU, but I support what you are saying and doing about the baby Messiah.”

UC Davis constitutional law professor Carlton F.W. Larson said the judge’s “entire line of reasoning totally violates basic freedom of religious purposes. This kid can’t be a Messiah because the Messiah is Jesus Christ? Judges don’t get to make pronouncements on the bench about who is the Messiah and who is not.”

The ACLU’s Weinberg agreed: “The judge is crossing the line by interfering in a very private decision and is imposing her own religious faith on this family. The courtroom is not a place for promoting personal religious beliefs, and that’s exactly what the judge did when she changed the baby Messiah’s name to Martin.”

On the other hand, if a certain Miriam from Nazareth had gone ahead and changed her own child’s name to Martin, we’d all be spared a lot of embarrassment…

St. Peter and the Reform Movement

Sunday, August 18th, 2013

The three articles we ran at the end of last week regarding the notion that the Reform movement now ordains “rabbis” who are not Jewish resulted in a huge explosion of responses, and that’s always a good thing, even if in the process yours truly came across as a big meanie, a racist, an extremist, a divider, a hater, and someone who contradicts the very spirit of the month of Elul.

There is a midrash (homily) about Shimon Kefa, who was none other than Peter the Rock, the first Christian pope. Jewish sources have been doing battle over the veracity of this story since at least the time of Rashi and the Machzor Vitri (earliest cited Jewish prayer book), in the 11th and 12th centuries. There are at least four versions of the same midrash, which vary on specifics, but relate essentially the same story:

The Christians were persecuting Jews and encouraging Jews to join their fold, which they did in droves. The sages were distraught about this, until one of them, a sage by the name of Shimon Kefa (rock in Aramaic) volunteered to go as a Trojan horse into the Christians’ camp and change Christianity forever so it would not look Jewish.

He received the sages’ blessings and went to carry out his mission. In a major Christian enclave, he told the gathered that he is the messenger of Jesus. To prove this, he performed some of the miracles Jesus was famous for: healed a leper and resurrected a dead person. When they were convinced he was truly a messenger of their departed master, he started instructing them—and here each version differs on what he told them to do, except that they all emphasize not attacking Jews any more.

Other than persuading the Christians to leave the Jews alone, in several versions Shimon Kefa—Peter—tells them to move the day of rest to Sunday, to eat all the animals and all the blood they wish, and not to circumcise their sons. And so, in short order, the gap between Christianity and Judaism became so wide, no one in his right mind would suggest they’re the same religion.

What was is it about Christianity that so disturbed the sages? After all, Christians to this day embrace many of the Torah commandments and rely on Biblical verses for practically everything they do and say. Why couldn’t the sages say, well, it’s true that Christianity is not exactly Orthodox Judaism (a 19th century term which I doubt they were familiar with), but at least it keeps them away from paganism.

Because it doesn’t. By placing man at the center of the story, even when it is a god who becomes man through congress with a mortal woman, Christianity is paganism 2.0, promoting the same self-centered ideas but using Biblical verses in the process.

I’m well aware of the scant few sources in the Talmud which defend Christianity as an essentially monotheistic religion which employs pagan concepts. I’m not a scholar and this is not a scholarly article, so I’ll cut to the chase: according to Jewish law, a Jew is not allowed inside a Christian church where Christian icons and symbols are on display (but we are permitted to enter a mosque and even pray—Jewish prayers—there).

Our modern poskim, most notably Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, have already prohibited Religious Jews to set foot in a Reform temple. Rabbi Feinstein rules that Conservative and Reform temples are the same as places of idol worship with respect to both of the following rabbinical notions (source: Institute for Dayanim):

1. Since praying together with a Conservative or Reform congregation is forbidden, the need to avoid the appearance of worshipping in a prohibited manner is applicable to these temples.

2. Similarly, the prohibition on being in the vicinity of a place designated for people with heretical beliefs applies equally to idol worshippers and to Jews who do not accept the fundamentals of Orthodox Judaism. (Orthodox Judaism itself has a broad spectrum of beliefs. For a working definition of Orthodox Judaism we can use the thirteen fundamentals of the Rambam [Maimonides]. All streams of Orthodoxy accept the thirteen fundamentals of Judaism of the Rambam as correct. Anyone deviating from those principles is considered a kofer-heretic).

(There are some who make a distinction between the Conservative and the Reform, in that while the Reform completely removed themselves from rabbinical halacha, the Conservative still consider halacha as their legally binding law, they just interpret it differently. Not my place to decide that one.)

Before we continue, I want you to understand that these supposedly harsh and firm demands, as presented by Maimonides, are broad enough to include a huge variety of Jewish congregations, all the way from ultra-Haredim in the neighborhood of Geula in Jerusalem, to the most left-wing shuls in hip America. They all manage to find themselves inside this tent, and quite comfortably and happily at that (OK, some not as happily as others, can’t win everything).

There is only one fundamental, unwavering rule at the core of all these varied congregations: we all connect to God through the commandments, and we all do this in line with rabbinical interpretation.

This is the core difference between the monotheistic and the pagan: in our tradition, we do the will of God, in theirs, it’s the god who does their will.

Their god provides the beauty of a great singer, the loving kindness of a great teacher, the spiritual wonder of the seeker, the helping hand to the needy, the diversity of all of mankind, the generosity of the human spirit – there are so many incredible things their god does for them. It’s truly lovely, and as a recent comment suggested on one of our articles: “Yori Yanover, listen to the singing one more time. Only THIS time, listen with your 2,000 year old ‘wandering Jew’ neshamah, and NOT with your intellect.”

And that is the essence of paganism. A Jewish relationship with God is anchored in a covenant, a legal document the essence of which we recite twice a day, every day, in the Sh’ma. We accept the yoke of mitzvot and in return we have a relationship with God, we get to be alive and to have national and personal continuity.

It’s wonderful when this relationship results in a lot of beauty and personal satisfaction – why the heck not. But it is there also when He in His wisdom kills us en masse, kills our babies, ravages our fields, inflicts cancer and boils on us – we still hold on to the covenant, and we work hard to love Him, especially when He in His wisdom makes it so difficult.

We don’t do this out of an emotional or spiritual yearning – those are wonderful aspects of our faith, but not the essence of our religion. We do this out of a commitment to the mitzvot as a clear expression of the Will of God. we don’t need to imagine what would God want of us – He came down on Mount Sinai and told us specifically, and empowered our sages to teach us the meaning of His words.

And so, we insist that Jews be made aware that only our places of prayer and study are sanctioned by our Jewish tradition, and that non-Orthodox places are not – despite all the sometimes incredible beauty emanating from them.

An ugly etrog is still an etrog, but a beautiful lemon is never an etrog.

Haredi Settlers Push Back: Rebbe’s Dad Was Pro-Settlements

Monday, August 12th, 2013

In response to the Sunday report about the unrestrained attack by the visiting Rabbi Shmuel Dovid Halberstam, the Sanz-Klausenberger Rebbe of Borough Park (Grand Rebbe Attacks Settlers, Compares Israeli Media to Nazis), a local movement of pro-settlements Haredim known as Halamish (acronym for Haredim for Judea and Samaria) published considerably different statements on the same issues by Rabbi Halberstam’s father, the late Grand Rabbi Yekusiel Yehudah Halberstam, the First Klausenburger Rebbe and the author of “Shefa Chayim” and “Divrei Yatsiv.”

The Klausenburger dynasty was founded by the late Rabbi Halberstam in 1927, when he became the Rav of Klausenburg, capital city of Transylvania, Rumania. The Klausenburger Rebbe was the great-grandson of Rabbi Chaim of Sanz, founder of the Sanz Chasidic dynasty.

According to Kikar Hashabbat, which quotes from the Halamish messsage citing what the late Rebbe has said in 1976 about settling Eretz Israel:

“When we look at the map today we are ashamed that, because of our numerous sins, Eretz Israel looks so shriveled, compared with the black, threatening balloon. And when you need to write ‘Jerusalem’ on the map, the word ends up somewhere abroad and you’re unable to write ‘Jerusalem’ within the map. And they want to take that, too, away from us, that, too, they won’t have the charity to give the Jews, that, too, they wish to divide, God forbid, may God wipe out the names of the wicked and the terrorists with whom Jews are collaborating…”

In fact, when it came to comparisons with the Third Reich, it appears the first Klausenburger Rebbe had his priorities straight: “There are Jews, may we be spared this, who join up with the Arabs, who are worse than the cursed Nazis,” he said.

In 1984, according to Halamish, the Klausenburger Rebbe made another WW2 comparison: “To our chagrin, there are Jews who join up with the terrorists and try to appease them all the time, and they hate the Jewish faith, especially the press and the media who curse the Jews and glorify the haters of Jews.”

The Rebbe was an enthusiastic supporter of the Haredi town of Imanuel, established in 1983 in Samaria. It was growing and flourishing initially, but the Oslo accords discouraged new investors and the town declined to only a few thousand residents today.

But in 1984, the Rebbe said proudly, during a visit to the Haredi town: “Praise and thanks to Hashem Yisborach that I merited to participate with a group of Jews in the prominent city in Israel, Immanuel, and even though there are some who try to discourage the founders of the city, saying it’s dangerous to live in it because of its vicinity to Arab settlements—but according to us this only means that because there’s the possibility of danger involved, the reward for this mitzvah would be greater in the world to come.”

And then, as if in a direct rebuke to his son, who actually said last week that the National Religious teach that “for the sake of settling Eretz Israel we should uproot all the 613 mitzvahs of the Torah,” the first Klausenburger Rebbe said:

“The mitzvah of settling Eretz Israel is among the biggest mitzvahs… and he who bought a parcel in Eretz Israel it’s as if he bought a share in the world to come.”

On a personal note: my original article, Sunday, received mostly supportive comments, but there were a few who accused me of promoting hatred against Haredim. And, of course, there were the usual calls to get over my apparent penchant for Sinas Chinam-baseless hatred, for which, according to our sages, the second temple was destroyed.

I must say that, in my opinion, those very calls for inhibiting an honest discussion of our values as religious Jews, under the bizarre guise that any reporting of the truth might somehow add to hatred, is in itself the most blatant expression of baseless hatred to the value of Truth.

The language Rabbi Shmuel Dovid Halberstam, the Sanz-Klausenberger Rebbe of Borough Park, used in his speech in Beit Shemesh, was violent, brutal, uncivilized and rife with self pity. Reflecting the worst in modern haredi punditry, it accused religious Jews of the worst possible motives–that their goal is to eradicate Torah, for heaven’s sake–and compared to Nazis the non-religious Jewish journalists critical of the Haredi society in Israel. That was not civilized language, and the notion that an inspired Chassidic leader who influences many Jews would use this language is saddening and, frankly, scary.

I come from a family of Gur Chassidim, I wrote a book about a great Rebbe and I davened many years with Chassidim. I never imagined this kind of speech coming from a Rebbe. I don’t know the man, I don’t wish him any harm, God forbid, but as a lover of Chassidism and Chassidic Jews, I had to voice my personal objection.

Testing And Prophecy

Wednesday, August 7th, 2013

How did our ancestors distinguish a true prophet from a false one?

Unlike kings or priests, prophets did not derive authority from formal office. Their authority lay in their personality, their ability to give voice to the word of God, their self-evident inspiration. But precisely because a prophet has privileged access to the word others cannot hear, the visions others cannot see, the real possibility existed of false prophets – like those of Baal in the days of King Ahab.

What was there to prevent a fraudulent, or even a sincere but mistaken, figure, able to perform signs and wonders and move the people by the power of his words, from taking the nation in a wrong direction, misleading others and perhaps even himself?

Moses addresses this concern in our sedra:

“You may say to yourselves, ‘How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the Lord?’ If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him.”

On the face of it, the test is simple: if what the prophet predicts comes to pass, he is a true prophet; if not, not. Clearly, though, it was not that simple.

The classic case is the Book of Jonah. Jonah is commanded by God to warn the people of Nineveh that their wickedness is about to bring disaster on them. Jonah attempts to flee, but fails – the famous story of the sea, the storm, and the “great fish.” Eventually he goes to Nineveh and utters the words God has commanded him to say – “Forty more days and Nineveh will be destroyed” – the people repent and the city is spared. Jonah, however, is deeply dissatisfied:

But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:1-3).

Jonah’s complaint can be understood in two ways. First, he was distressed that God had forgiven the people. They were, after all, wicked. They deserved to be punished. Why then did a mere change of heart release them from the punishment that was their due?

Second, he had been made to look a fool. He had told them that in 40 days the city would be destroyed. It was not. God’s mercy made nonsense of his prediction.

Jonah is wrong to be displeased: that much is clear. God says, in the rhetorical question with which the book concludes: “Should I not be concerned about that great city?” Should I not be merciful? Should I not forgive?

But what then becomes of the criterion Moses lays down for distinguishing between a true and false prophet: “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken”? Jonah had proclaimed that the city would be destroyed in 40 days. It wasn’t; yet the proclamation was true. He really did speak the word of God. How can this be so?

The answer is given in the book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah had been prophesying national disaster. The people had drifted from their religious vocation, and the result would be defeat and exile. It was a difficult and demoralizing message for people to hear. A false prophet arose, Hananiah son of Azzur, preaching the opposite. Babylon, Israel’s enemy, would soon be defeated. Within two years the crisis would be over. Jeremiah knew that it was not so, and that Hananiah was telling the people what they wanted to hear, not what they needed to hear. He addressed the assembled people:

He said, “Amen! May the Lord do so! May the Lord fulfill the words you have prophesied by bringing the articles of the Lord’s house and all the exiles back to this place from Babylon. Nevertheless, listen to what I have to say in your hearing and in the hearing of all the people: From early times the prophets who preceded you and me have prophesied war, disaster, and plague against many countries and great kingdoms. But the prophet who prophesies peace will be recognized as one truly sent by the Lord only if his prediction comes true.”

Jeremiah makes a fundamental distinction between good news and bad. It is easy to prophesy disaster. If the prophecy comes true, then you have spoken the truth. If it does not, then you can say: God relented and forgave. A negative prophecy cannot be refuted – but a positive one can. If the good foreseen comes to pass, then the prophecy is true. If it does not, then you cannot say, “God changed His mind” because God does not retract from a promise He has made of good, or peace, or return.

It is therefore only when the prophet offers a positive vision that he can be tested. That is why Jonah was wrong to believe he had failed when his negative prophecy – the destruction of Nineveh – failed to come true. This is how Maimonides puts it:

“As to calamities predicted by a prophet, if, for example, he foretells the death of a certain individual or declares that in particular year there will be famine or war and so forth, the non-fulfillment of his forecast does not disprove his prophetic character. We are not to say, ‘See, he spoke and his prediction has not come to pass.’ For God is long-suffering and abounding in kindness and repents of evil. It may also be that those who were threatened repented and were therefore forgiven, as happened to the men of Nineveh. Possibly too, the execution of the sentence is only deferred, as in the case of Hezekiah.

“But if the prophet, in the name of God, assures good fortune, declaring that a particular event would come to pass, and the benefit promised has not been realized, he is unquestionably a false prophet, for no blessing decreed by the Almighty, even if promised conditionally, is ever revoked … Hence we learn that only when he predicts good fortune can the prophet be tested (Yesodei ha-Torah 10:4).

Fundamental conclusions follow from this. A prophet is not an oracle: a prophecy is not a prediction. Precisely because Judaism believes in free will, the human future can never be unfailingly predicted. People are capable of change. God forgives. As we say in our prayers on the High Holy Days: “Prayer, penitence, and charity avert the evil decree.”

There is no decree that cannot be revoked. A prophet does not foretell. He warns. A prophet does not speak to predict future catastrophe but rather to avert it. If a prediction comes true it has succeeded. If a prophecy comes true it has failed.

The second consequence is no less far-reaching. The real test of prophecy is not bad news but good. Calamity, catastrophe, disaster prove nothing. Anyone can foretell these things without risking his reputation or authority. It is only by the realization of a positive vision that prophecy is put to the test.

So it was with Israel’s prophets. They were realists, not optimists. They warned of the dangers that lay ahead. But they were also, without exception, agents of hope. They could see beyond the catastrophe to the consolation. That is the test of a true prophet.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/judaism/jewish-columns/rabbi-lord-jonathan-sacks/testing-and-prophecy/2013/08/07/

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