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The messengers returned to Yakov and said, "We reached your brother Esav, and he is in fact coming towards you with four hundred men." Yakov became very frightened and distressed.... (Bereishit 32:7-8)
What caused Yakov, when he heard of the approaching army of Esav, to fear for his life and the welfare of his family? Hadn't Yakov been promised divine protection when he fled from his hostile brother decades earlier?
[Yakov saw in his dream that Hashem was standing over him.] Hashem said, to him, "I shall be with you and watch you wherever you go; I shall return you to this land. I shall be with you until I have fulfilled all that I have told you." (Bereishit 28:13,15)
How can Yakov's seeming lack of faith be accounted for? The Gemara (Berachot 4a) asks this very question. Its answer: Yakov was concerned that he may have sinned after the promise was issued, making himself unworthy of the Divine assistance previously promised him. The implication of this statement is that a person's sins can even bring about the cancellation of a Divine promise.
The Rambam (in the introduction to his commentary on the Mishnah) asks a striking question on this supposition from a verse in the Torah:
If you wonder, "How can we know if a prophecy was not spoken by Hashem?" -- when a prophet says something in the name of Hashem and it does not take place nor come about, Hashem did not speak that prophecy. (Devarim 18:21-22)
If the word of Hashem can always be retracted, how can one be sure that a given prophecy is not the word of Hashem if it does not come true? Perhaps the prophecy was indeed a true one, but it was rescinded!
The Rambam answers that Hashem need not be bound to carry out a promise of reward to someone who exercised his right of free choice and became undeserving. However, in order to make it possible to discern the true prophet from the charlatan, Hashem promised that He will *unconditionally* fulfill the words of the true prophet. In this way it will be possible to apply a foolproof test to a prophet's veracity.
If so, continues the Rambam, Hashem will only fulfill a prophesy unconditionally when He relays it to man through His prophets. When Hashem speaks *directly* to a prophet and promises him personal reward, there is no need to ignore that man's future sins. Doubt cannot be cast on the prophesy if it does not come true. Yakov was issued his promise of protection by Hashem Himself, not through a prophet. Hence, the promise was subject to possible cancellation if Yakov's piety would be found wanting!
(The Rambam's opinion is discussed at length in Drashot ha'Ran, #2. See Maharal, Gevurot Hashem sec. 7, for a different approach to the Rambam's question.)
Hagaon Rav Elchanan Wasserman (Chiddushei Aggadot, end of Kovetz He'arot, #5) points out that the Rambam seems to contradict himself elsewhere in his works. In the seventh chapter of the Rambam's Shmoneh Perakim (his introduction to Avot), the Rambam notes that a prophet does not necessarily have to be perfect in all respects. After all, he continues, the patriarch Yakov, was lacking in faith, as it says "Yakov became very frightened and distressed." Presuming this to be a failing in Yakov's faith would seem to be at odds with the Gemara in Berachot and the Rambam's own words in his introduction to the Mishnah. If Hashem rescinds a promise when a person is found wanting, why shouldn't Yakov have feared?
To solve this apparent contradiction, Rav Elchanan cites the Vilna Gaon's commentary to Mishlei (14:26). Faith in Hashem can be expressed in two ways, explains the Gaon. "Bitachon" means placing one's trust in Hashem's promise. "Chisayon," means trusting in Hashem's protection even when it has *not* been promised.
The Gaon explains a verse from Hallel based on this distinction (Tehillim 118:8): "It is better to take refuge ("Lachasot," from "Chisayon") in Hashem than to trust ("B'toach," from "Bitachon") in man." It is safer to trust in Hashem even when he has given us *no* explicit guarantee of protection, than to trust in man even when he *has* guaranteed us protection!
Rav Elchanan uses this dichotomy to resolve the apparent contradiction in the words of the Rambam. The statement of the Gemara in Berachot explains why Yakov did not want to depend upon Hashem's *promise* of protection. This only accounts for Yakov's apparent shortcoming in *Bitachon*. Nevertheless, Yakov should still have exhibited the quality of *Chisayon* and trusted in Hashem even if the Divine promise was not in effect! This is the lack of perfection to which the Rambam refers in Shmoneh Perakim.
The Rambam's distinction between a prophesy given directly by Hashem and one passed down through a prophet can grant us a better understand of yet another passage in the Torah. At the Brit Bein Habetarim, Hashem promised Avraham the land of Israel:
Hashem said, "I am Hashem Who took you out of Ur Casdim to give you this land to inherit." [Avram] replied, "Lord, Hashem, How can I know for sure that I will inherit it?.".. Hashem said to Avram, "You may be assured that ("Ki") your descendants will be strangers in a land not their own... but the fourth generation will return here." On that day Hashem sealed a covenant with Avram saying, "I have given this land to your descendants....." (Bereishit 15:7-8,13,18)
"I have given" -- The past tense is used because the word of Hashem is so certain, it is as though it was already done. (Rashi ad loc.)
Here too one is amazed to see what appears to be a lack of faith on Avraham's part. If Hashem told Avraham that he was to receive the Land as an inheritance, there is no need for further proof for the truth of the statement!
With the words of the Rambam in mind, we can better understand Avraham's dialogue with Hashem. Avraham was afraid that he would sin in the future and prove insufficient to warrant the fulfillment of the Divine covenant. Since Hashem had promised him Eretz Yisrael in a direct communication, the promise could be rescinded.
Hashem reassured Avraham, saying, "The fourth generation of your descendants will return to Israel... I have given this land to your descendants." The promise to Avraham's descendants was one of prophesy, given to Avraham as a prophet to pass down to his descendants. As a prophesy, the promise would no longer be revoked even if Avraham or his descendants would sin!
(This interpretation is especially fitting if we translate the word "Ki" as "because," rather than "that." Hashem told Avraham, "You may be assured [that you will indeed be given Eretz Israel], *because* ("Ki") your descendants will be strangers ... and the fourth generation will return here." Since this prophesy is given to you to pass down to others, it is certain to come about.)
This is why the Torah tells us that Hashem said, "I have *given* this land to your descendants." Since the covenant consisted of giving the land "*to_your_descendants*," it was certain to be fulfilled. The covenant was transformed from a Divine promise into an irreversible prophecy!
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