Prophecy With a Guarantee
The Talmud (Berakhot 4a) indicates that Ya’akov feared his confrontation with Esav, despite G-d’s promise of protection. This was not because of a lack of faith but out of fear that he himself, through sin, had forfeited his claim to G-d’s promise. Many commentaries, such as the R’em (cited in the Lechem Mishneh, Hilkhot Yesodei HaTorah, 10:4), question this possibility, noting the statement (Berakhot 7a) that G-d never retracts a positive prophecy.
This difficulty is apparently perceived by the Rambam (Introduction to Commentary on the Mishnah, s.v. v’ha-chelek ha-sheni) as well. He questions the notion that a false prophet can be discerned when his prophecies fail to materialize (Devarim 18:22). As negative prophecies can be nullified with repentance, only the positive type would be eligible for this test. However, if Ya’akov’s fear was well founded, it would seem that no prophecy is secure; even a positive one can be cancelled if merit is lacking.
Thus, the Rambam suggests a distinction, asserting that the only time a prophecy is irreversible is when G-d tells the prophet to express the promise to the people. However, a statement by G-d to the prophet, not meant to be transmitted, can be cancelled. The commitment to Ya’akov was in the latter category. Even though he was the subject of the promise, it was considered a communication to a prophet, rather than a transmitted message to the Jewish people.
The Rambam explains his reasoning. In essence, all prophecy should be subject to change, if the circumstances warrant a shift. However, since the Torah specifically states that the test of a false prophet is in the truth of the message, it must be the case that the prophecy will not be cancelled. However, since the context of that test is a prophecy that had been communicated to the people, it is only that situation that is irreversible. (For further applications of this concept, see Chavatzelet haSharon al haTorah, Bereishit, page 96 and pp. 494-5, and Gevurat Yitzchak al haTorah, I, p. 185).
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