by HaRav Chaim Pass
And Hashem "Reconsidered"
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
`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
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."
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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