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Several places in Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) we read that God "repented of the evil which He thought to do." (Exodus 32:14, Samuel II 2:16, Jonah 3:10, and Jeremiah 18:8).

What does the word "evil" mean in this context? Does it reflect Torah definitions of good and evil, which, on the face of it would mean that, had God not repented of this evil—that is, for example, had God punished the people of Nineveh, notwithstanding their tshuvah—it would have been undeserved and unjust, and thus evil.

God repented of doing such an evil, even though God had apparently been "inclined" to do it—so should we try to imagine that somehow God had an evil inclination? If not, what does it mean to say God repented of it? Obviously, God had to have the inclination to do the evil in order to repent of the evil that he had not yet done.

But what does it mean that "God repented of the evil which He said that He would do to them"?—which we are told God did not do. If we say that God’s inclination to evil is manifested in the fact that God creates opportunities for our evil-doing—"Resh Lakish said: Satan, the evil prompter, and the Angel of Death are all one. He is called Satan, as it is written, And Satan went forth from the presence of the Lord" (Baba Bathra 16a)—then what does it mean to say that God repents of the evil God was going to do? Certainly it can’t mean that God removes all such opportunities for evil, because they are not, in fact, removed; they are continuously created and ongoing in life. Does it mean then that God will not allow such evil to reach fruition or be realized in a particular instance that would be unjust?

What is it that causes God to repent of evil in a particular instance? The Midrash (Ecclesiastes 5:4) teaches that "Three things annul evil decrees, viz. prayer, charity [righteousness], and repentance [tshuvah]. . . ." But in Bamidbar Rabbah (23:8) we read that Moses "came forward and made Him repent" (Exodus 32:14). There the intervention of a righteous person precedes prayer, righteousness, or tshuvah on the part of evil-doers. Why does it make sense that a righteous person intervenes? The Scriptures say that in several cases—Moses, Abraham, and Jonah—they seemingly had the power to reverse God’s evil inclination. But how are we to understand that?

If it is the case that the way God repents of evil is by not allowing the evil to be realized in a particular instance, how is it that the intervention of a righteous person influences God? Moses is God’s creation; he acts at God’s behest. If Moses petitions God on behalf of the people, who or what is the source of his yetzer ha-tov (good inclination) to do so? God! So God created the opportunity for Moses to act for the good, just as God creates the opportunity for people to act for evil. Moses acts for good, intervening with God on behalf of the people who are sinning. How does that influence God? Since God had already sent Moses, what are we to make of this kind of influence? Why does God direct Moses to petition to God? Why does God need Moses petitioning him? Does God not know what God wants when he calls upon Moses to do something? Moses has to tell God what he wants? So, if God is not sending Moses to petition God for the sake of the petition, why does God send him? Presumably for the sake of the people who are sinning—which, of course, is why he speaks out to God.

The Dubner Magid taught:
"Prayer is not a device to arouse God, to make God aware of us and our needs. The true purpose of prayer is to arouse us, to keep us aware of our obligations—toward our community, our people, our God, and even towards ourselves.
"In the shtetl, the night watchman walks the streets and every hour on the hour calls out the time. The purpose of 'calling out' is not to awaken the residents in the middle of the night. The purpose is to indicate that he, the watchman, is alert, tending to his tasks, and has not fallen asleep.
"Prayer is a means of keeping us spiritually alert and morally awake."

In this way we understand how the influence of a righteous person can change the mind of God. In his action, he influences the Divine motives and actions in himself and in the spirits of the people, and that potentially can change everything.

What do we learn from an understanding that God has an evil inclination? We see in this metaphor that the unfolding of Creation is not a foregone conclusion, but there is a window of opportunity in which we may act—as Abraham, Moses, and Jonah did—to influence God’s evil inclination. We see a model for responding to our own evil inclination, that we can reverse the Divine Decree.

Exodus Rabbah (32:8) teaches that although God rules the world, "one who observes the commandments can nullify the Divine Decrees." This must be so because, in response to our tshuvah, God can repent from an evil action that God has contemplated. That is to say, we may influence the course of Divine Providence. In a manner of speaking, our actions can serve as the conscience or good inclination (yetzer hatov) of God.

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© 2019 Moshe ben Asher & Khulda bat Sarah