Rosh Hodesh Tevet Torah Essay
Dr. Brachi Elitzur
One of the biblical quandaries Chazal attempted to decipher relates to the quick succession of events in the Judean Kingdom in the time of King Hezekiah . In under twenty years, the northern Kingdom is exiled from its land to Assyria. The cities of the Judean Kingdom are conquered by the Assyrians, and thousands of Judeans are exiled. Jerusalem, the last stronghold of the kingdom, is placed under siege, and its residents are positive that they will suffer a similar fate to that of their neighbors. But somehow, one night, the Assyrian army falls back, and the besieged Jerusalemites are saved.
The prophets had warned the nation that destruction was imminent due to their sin of betrayal against God, and maintained this was so after the exile. Conversely, the reason for the miraculous redemption remained a riddle, as did the death of Hezekiah approximately three years later. The answer proposed by Chazal seems to deepen the riddle:
“That the government may be increased (למרבה) and of peace there be no end” – R. Tanḥum says that bar Kappara taught in Tzippori: Why is it that the letter mem in the middle of a word is open and in this instance it is closed? The Holy One, Blessed be He, sought to designate King Hezekiah as Messiah, and Sennacherib as Gog and Magog. The attribute of justice said before the Holy One, Blessed be He: Master of the Universe, if David, king of Israel, who recited several songs and praises before You, You did not designate him Messiah, then Hezekiah, for whom You performed all these miracles, and he did not recite praise before You, will You designate him Messiah?? Therefore, it was closed.
Bar Kappara refers to the fact that in the description of the redeemer who will emerge after the demise of Assyria in Isaiah’s prophecy, the letter mem in the word למרבה is written in the form of a mem that usually appears at the end of a word, which is a sealed square – closed on all four sides. This form expresses an unrealized messianic potential. Bar Kappara explains that while Hezekiah possessed this potential, he squandered it by failing to ‘recite praise.’
Is it possible that it was God’s praise that prevented Hezekiah from becoming Israel’s redeemer? Does praise have the power to determine the fate of the kingdom?
Two suggestions come to mind in the spirit of the current war:
According to the first, Hezekiah did not praise God due to hubris – the source of all evil. Hezekiah asked himself why his own kingdom merited a redemption denied of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and praised himself for the military and religious success under his leadership.
In the opening prophecy of the book, Isaiah voices sharp criticism of the nation for not acknowledging God. “The ox knows its master, the donkey its owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand” (Is. 1:3). The event mentioned later in his rebuke leaves no doubt that the message is directed at Hezekiah and his men after the siege:
Your country is desolate, your cities burned with fire, your fields are being stripped by foreigners right before you, laid waste as when overthrown by strangers. Daughter Zion remains like a shelter in a vineyard, like a hut in a cucumber field, like a city under siege. Had the Lord Almighty not left us few survivors, we would have become like Sodom, we would have been like Gomorrah. (7-9)
The few remaining survivors after Sanherib’s campaign were Hezekiah and his kingdom, who ‘did not know’ and ‘did not understand’ the source of their redemption, while the cities around them burned. To what, then, did Hezekiah and his nation attribute their redemption?
The rebuke continues with an unprecedented criticism of the sacrificial worship in Jerusalem:
“The multitude of your sacrifices—what are they to me?” says the Lord.
“I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—I cannot bear your worthless assemblies. Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals I hate with all my being. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening. Your hands are full of blood! (11-15).
How can God’s contempt for the Temple sacrifice be explained in this era of Isaiah, whose actions in this area are described in such a positive light? Moreover, despicable as they may be, do the Temple rituals (Shabbat and Festival sacrifices, prayers), correlate with the prophet’s rebuke of the nation’s betrayal of God, since the rituals are intended for God and not foreign gods?
Hezekiah and his contemporaries concluded that if Jerusalem was saved, after all the cities of Israel and many of the cities of Judah and the Lowlands surrounding Jerusalem were destroyed – this is an indication that its rescue was the result of God’s worship which took place there. Instead of thanking God for the miracle that saved Jerusalem, Hezekiah took credit for the rescue, attributing it to the religious reform he led in Jerusalem, and to the restoration of the Temple worship (similarly, during his illness, when he prayed to God, and instead of mentioning the merit of the Patriarchs, he listed his own deeds (2 Kgs. 20:3): “Remember, Lord, how I have walked before you faithfully and with wholehearted devotion and have done what is good in your eyes …”).
Isaiah directs a similar rebuke toward Hezekiah and his soldiers. The prophet describes the kingdom’s preparations for the inevitable war against Sennacherib’s army, including collecting arms, a census, and redirecting the waters of the Gihon spring into the city, to ensure that water was available during the siege. He also describes the euphoria that stems from the nation’s confidence in their military power:
The Lord stripped away the defenses of Judah, and you looked in that day to the weapons in the Palace of the Forest. You saw that the walls of the City of David were broken through in many places; you stored up water in the Lower Pool. You counted the buildings in Jerusalem and tore down houses to strengthen the wall. You built a reservoir between the two walls for the water of the Old Pool, but you did not look to the One who made it, or have regard for the One who planned it long ago. The Lord, the Lord Almighty, called you on that day to weep and to wail, to tear out your hair and put on sackcloth. But see, there is joy and revelry, slaughtering of cattle and killing of sheep, eating of meat and drinking of wine! “Let us eat and drink,” you say, “for tomorrow we die!” (Is. 22:8-13).
The military preparations blinded the survivors of Sennacherib’s campaign of destruction to the source of the miracle that saved them, and instead of recognizing its creator, attributed the victory to the military estimations and their own strength.
According to another possibility, Hezekiah was unable to make the transition from mourning to thanksgiving. When his sons were abducted and exiled by the cruel enemy, Hezekiah sunk into grief for those who did not receive the miracle of salvation, as the prophet Micah laments: “Shave your head in mourning for the children in whom you delight; make yourself as bald as the vulture, for they will go from you into exile” (Micah 1:16). A song of thanksgiving requires the strength of recognizing the miracle of divine rescue in spite of the severe blow, as Deborah requests in the introduction to her song: “When the princes in Israel take the lead, when the people willingly offer themselves—praise the Lord!” (Judg. 5:2). In the cantillations on this verse, the etnahta (which indicates a pause) does not appear in its ‘natural’ place which would create a balance between the two parts of the verse, instead positioning the imperative “praise the Lord” as one which applies to both situations: the nation’s ability to stand tall despite the blow of a harsh calamity, and to enlist and succeed in their mission.
Our generation did not merit a prophecy that could explain what unleashed God’s terrible wrath in the midst of our chag, or the reversal of our reality in a short period of time (although too long for those who paid with their lives) and the phenomenal achievements of the IDF that inflicted a fatal blow on the enemy, with a unique cooperation between the various divisions, and the systematic eradication of terror nests. However, we may draw two conclusions from the unrealized potential of Hezekiah’s messiahship. One is the obligation to fight the natural tendency to wallow in grief, and to recognize God’s hand and the heartbeats of redemption which call upon us to swallow the pain and stand up to our potential as a condition for its realization. The second is the need to identify the deficiencies in our society, and make a united national effort to correct them:
“There will come days with forgiveness and grace… and with an honest heart, you will once again be humble and surrender.”