כי יקום בקרבך נביא או חלם חלום ונתך אליך אות או מופת. ובא האות והמופת אשר דבר אליך לאמר נלכה אחרי אלהים אחרים אשר ידעתם ונעבדם. לא תשמע אל דברי הנביא ההוא או אל חולם החלום ההוא כי מנסה ה’ אלהיכם אתכם לדעת הישכם אהבים את ה’ אלוהיכם בכל לבבכם ובכל נפשכם.
(דברים י”ג’, ב’-ד’)
The Torah warns us about false prophets:
If there arise in the midst of you a prophet or a dreamer of dreams, and he gives you a sign or a wonder and the sign or the wonder come to pass, whereof he spoke to you saying: ‘Let us go after other gods, which you have not known, and let us serve them’, you shall not hearken to the words of that prophet, or to that dreamer of dreams, for LORD your God puts you to proof, to know whether you do love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. (Devarim 31, 2-4)
Asks Abarbanel: if the prophet is indeed a false one, how come his “sign or wonder” come to pass? Either he’s a real prophet and his prophecies come true, or he’s a false prophet in which case we need not worry about his prophecies coming true.
The Midrash quotes two sages who debated this matter. R. Yossi says that the prophet of which the Torah speaks is indeed a real prophet, because even idol-worshipping prophets have powers. R. Akiva says that this false prophet was once a true prophet which has gone to the dark side (like the prophet Chanania ben Azur who prophesised in the days of Yirmiyahu). Abarbanel rejects R. Akiva’s explanation, exclaiming that we cannot expect a true prophet of God, one who has a “direct channel” to the heavenly word, to start worshipping idols.
So we are left with the existence of false prophets, those who call for worshipping other Gods and provide “signs and wonders” that come true. The Talmud in Sanhedrin (4a) allows for this by decreeing that despite the prophet’s successes we should not heed his call. Rambam states that his success is merely a magical trick, but he’s a prophet all the same.
Why has God given power to false prophets? Surely, if the word of God is true, then false prophets should fail. The Torah itself provides the answer: “God puts you to proof, to know whether you do love your God”. It is a nisayon, a test, to see whether we are worthy enough in our belief of God to avoid the teachings of the false prophet.
How is this test relevant to our days, millennia after the disappearance of prophecy As strange as it may seem, it is more relevant than ever. We are surrounded by false prophets, from those who claim to know who the Messiah is to those who claim how current geopolitical events will pan out. How do we withstand the test of listening to these false prophets?
The essence of this test today derives from the reality in which we live, that oof hester panim (the hidden face of God). Our world is devoid from the direct word of God and we do not know anything for certain. When a person faces uncertainties in his faith and asks himself questions about God, there is a void within him that needs filling. False prophets, which take many shapes and forms, fill this void. A person who has no questions about his faith will not listen to false prophecies, but a person who had doubts and seeks answers, is in constant risk of listening to voices that might sound promising. Especially in an age where God is hidden from us.
This is why the Torah actually never uses the term “false” when speaking about these prophets. From the perspective of the person listening to the prophet’s words, these prophecies might not sound false at all. It is easy to deal with a falsehood and dismiss it outright. It is much harder to deal with things that do not appear false and are seemingly backed by “signs and wonders”. Hence the warning of the Torah: beware, this is a test! God is testing your faith to know whether you truly love him with all your heart and with all your soul.
How does one pass this test? There is no easy way, but the opening of our parasha provides a clue: “Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse”. Both the blessing and curse are laid down before us. It is up to us to make the choice which one to pick up.