Changing Human Nature

  • Harav Yehuda Amital
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Student Summaries of Sichot of the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion




Changing Human Nature


Summarized by Zev Frimer

Translated by Kaeren Fish



Moshe said: Six hundred thousand foot-soldiers are the people in whose midst I dwell, and You say, "I shall give them meat and they shall eat for an entire month"?! Shall flocks and herds be slaughtered for them, to suffice for them? Shall all the fish of the sea be gathered for them, to suffice for them? (Bamidbar 11:21-22)


Rashi, commenting on these verses, quotes a debate among the Tannaim as to how Moshe's words should be understood (Tosefta Sota 6:4). Rabbi Akiva understands the verses on the literal level, and concludes that Moshe sinned in doubting God's ability to provide meat for such a large number of people. Rabbi Shimon, in contrast, asserts that Moshe did not doubt God's abilities, but rather argued that it was not appropriate to God's honor to supply meat for Bnei Yisrael and then to kill them: "Saying, as it were, to a donkey: Take a measure of barley and we shall chop off your head."


Further on, Rashi brings a third interpretation:


Rabban Gamliel, the son of Rabbi Yehuda ha-Nasi, said: … Since they are merely looking for an excuse to complain, nothing You give them will satisfy them. If you give them beef, they will claim that they wanted mutton; if You give them mutton, they will say that they wanted beef, or poultry, or fish and locusts.


What Moshe is saying, according to this view, is that Bnei Yisrael are complaining not because they actually lack something, but rather because they simply feel like complaining, and therefore it is impossible to satisfy them. Am Yisrael are moaning because that is their nature; they are never satisfied with what they have; they always want more. Hence, argues Moshe, since the problem is rooted in the nature of the people, there can be no solution, unless God actually changes their nature for the better.


But God does not solve problems by changing human nature. This is one of the foundations of the concept of free will. If God were to change man's nature, such that people would fulfill His commandments naturally, there would be no point to the whole system of Divine laws. Rambam emphasizes this point in his Moreh Nevukhim (3:32):


The nature of human beings is not miraculously altered by God. On the basis of this principle it is written, "If only they had given heart…." And it is because of this that we are given commandments and warnings, and reward and punishment… We do not assert this because we believe that changing the nature of any human individual would be difficult for God; rather, it is possible, and He is able to achieve it, but He does not want to, and never will want to – in accordance with the foundations of Torah law. Were it God's will to change the nature of each individual to what He wants of him, there would be no point in sending prophets, nor in all of the commandments.


In this context, Rambam makes mention of the verse at the beginning of parashat Beshalach:


And it was, when Pharaoh sent the nation out, that God did not lead them on the road of the land of the Philistines, for it was near; for God said, "Lest the nation regret it, when they are faced with war, and return to Egypt." (Shemot 13:17)


If God worried that Bnei Yisrael would return to Egypt at the first hint of war, why did He not change their nature and strengthen their spirit, so that they could approach battle bravely? The answer is that God does not change human nature; rather, He lets man deal with reality just as he is.


On the other hand, God also knows man's weaknesses. Therefore, although He is not prepared to change man, He will sometimes adjust the environment in which man finds himself, in order to make it easier for him and to influence his choices in a positive direction. God did not imbue the nation leaving Egypt with special valor so that they would be better equipped to deal with the war awaiting them; rather, He chose to lead them on a path that would postpone the battle, giving them time to fortify themselves.


The same answer is given by God to Moshe in our parasha. Moshe argues that it is impossible to satisfy Bnei Yisrael, because it is their nature always to complain; the only solution is to change their basic character. God answers that He does not change man's nature, but He is prepared to alter the environment in which Am Yisrael finds itself, making it a better one:


God descended in a cloud and spoke to him, and He took some of the [Divine] spirit that was upon him, and bestowed it upon the seventy elders. And it was, when the spirit rested upon them, that they prophesied, and did not [prophesy] again. (11:25)


God gives some of His spirit to the seventy elders, so that they can influence Bnei Yisrael in a positive way. Indeed, we see that the word "meat" (basar) appears in our parasha ten times, and correspondingly the word "spirit" (ruach) also appears ten times. To overcome the materialism of Bnei Yisrael, who complain endlessly about all kinds of material problems, God lends them some of His spirit and creates an environment that is based on spirituality, so that the problem of material aspiration will dissipate on its own.


Often, when we encounter problems that seem to arise from a person's character and nature, the solution lies not in trying to change his or her nature, but rather in creating a more positive environment that will cause the problem to disappear on its own.


(This sicha was delivered at seuda shelishit, Shabbat parashat Beha'alotekha 5761 [2001].)