Parashat Shofetim contains the laws pertaining to the establishment of a Navi as trustworthy. Interestingly, the Torah remains vague in its presentation of how a Navi should go about establishing himself as trustworthy. The Torah is conscious of the fact that Bnei Yisrael will be skeptical of a new Navi at first as it states, “VeChi Tomar BiLvavecha Eichah Neida Et HaDavar Asher Lo Dibro Hashem,” “ When you say in your heart, ‘How can we know the word that Hashem has not spoken?’” (Devarim 18:21). The Torah then proceeds to explains that, (18:22) “Asher Yedabeir HaNavi BeSheim Hashem VeLo Yihiyeh HaDavar VeLo Yavo Hu HaDavar Asher Lo Dibro Hashem,” “If the prophet will speak in the name of Hashem and that thing will not happen and it will not come, that is thing which Hashem has not spoken.” The potential Navi will be asked to predict something that will happen in the future, with the outcome of this prediction being the deciding factor in his status as a Navi Sheker, a false prophet, or a Navi Emet, a trustworthy prophet.
Rambam explains that the only way a Navi can prove that he is trustworthy is by predicting a Nevu’ah Tovah. a prophecy that predicts a good event in the future, and not a Navu’ah Ra’ah, a prophecy depicting a catastrophe. This is based on the teaching of Chazal that Hashem will break evil decrees, but he will never break good decrees. If a Navi were to predict a bad event, he can always claim that the decree was nullified; however, if he predicts a good event, it will be apparent that the event not happening is as a result of the Navi’s false prophecy. Therefore, Rambam understands the Pasuk to be teaching that in order to be trusted as a Navi Emet, one must predict an undisputable future.
Ralbag, as quoted by Abarbanel, (18:21) supports the Rambam in that the issue is whether Hashem will nullify the decree after the Navi predicts it. He adds onto Rambam, though, and further delienates Tov and Ra. He claims that there is a difference between good that occurs naturally and good that is given as a reward for something that we earn. God can always take away a reward if we do an action that angers him; however, nothing we can do will cause Hashem to break the laws of nature and remove good that occurs naturally. Therefore, according to Ralbag, it is not enough for the Navi to predict a Nevu’ah Tovah, but it must be a Navu’ah Tovah that occurs naturally.
Rav Chasdai Crescas, also quoted by Abarbanel, argues that nothing from the text of the Pesukim teach that the issue is about Tov or Ra. He suggests that there is no reason to be concerned that Hashem will nullify a decree following a Navi’s prediction. Hashem is obviously not attempting to cause a Navi to look like a liar. Therefore, the Torah just states that the Navi must make a prediction, with the assumption being that if he is a true Navi, his prediction will come true, and, if he is a false Navi, the prediction will not come true. Whether the Nevu’ah is good or bad, he can still be considered a Navi Emet.
Abarbanel disagrees with all of these opinions. He feels that these Rishonim are basing their opinions on speculation and not on the Pesukim themselves. Abarbanel predicates his opinion on the fact that there are three main types of Nevu’ah. The first type is Ottot UMofetim, signs and wonders, which is the way Moshe Rabbeinu initially proved to Bnei Yisrael that he was a Navi Emet (Shemot 4: 1-9); the second type is a neutral prediction of any event that will occur in the future; the third is one that predicts a good or bad event that will befall a person or group of people. The Nevu’ah being issued as the test is neither positive nor negative—it is neutral. The Navi is not predicting that a great blessing will be bestowed on the Jewish people, and he is not predicting that a great calamity will befall the Jewish people.
The reason why Abarbanel demands that the prophecy be neutral may be based on the phraseology of the Pesukim. The Torah phrases one’s concern as to the legitimacy of a Navi as a question of, “How can we know if he is lying,” while it could have instead phrased the Pasuk as, “How do we know he is telling the truth?” Why did the Torah choose the seemingly more critical and suspicious question over the more neutral and poised question?
This question can be answered with an analogy: If a man were to tell someone that he was a Navi and that he was having a Nevu’ah that everyone must do Mitzvot and serve God, there would be no reason to challenge him or ask for proof. One is required to do Mitzvot, regardless of what the Navi says to do. However, once the Navi tells people to do something against the Torah, or against the words of another Navi, he must then prove his credibility and trustworthiness. It is for this reason that the Pasuk poses the question as, “How do we know if he is lying,” and not, “How do we know if he is telling the truth.” The Torah is telling us that we should not be suspicious of a Navi until he gives us a reason to be suspicious of him by allowing us go against the words of the Torah. Abarbanel requires that the Navi, as his “Rite of Passage,” predict a completely neutral prophecy because he does not want the Navi to begin his role as a “representative of Hashem” by either predicting a horrible future or by predicting a good future. Abarbanel is teaching us that the Navi’s premier Nevu’ah should be one that is predicated on the world Hashem created—a neutral world—rather than by the merits or demerits of His people.