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Melakhim Bet Chapter 5


The Recording

The Summary

Melakhim Bet Chapter 5

Naaman is the highly acclaimed general of Aram but suffers from tzaraat, often translated as “leprosy”. In one of his successful campaigns against Israel, he captured a young maiden who attends to his wife. The maiden suggests that Naaman seek out the prophet in Israel who can cure his disease. The King of Aram sends a message to the King of Israel directing him to arrange that Naaman, who is en route to Israel bearing gifts of precious metals and clothing, will be healed of his tzaraat.

The King of Israel, realizing that he is not capable of fulfilling the demand of the King of Aram, interprets it as an attempt to seek a pretext for war. He tears his garments as a sign of mourning, anticipating the worst. Elisha is apprised of the situation and sends word to the King of Israel not to worry. Elisha encourages the King to have Naaman come to him for healing. Naaman arrives with a large entourage and chariot and stations himself outside the home of Elisha. Elisha has his messenger convey instructions to Naaman: the general is to immerse himself in the Jordan River seven times, and he will be cured.

Naaman is very upset, disappointed that the prophet did not appear in person and perform some magical ritual. If all that is necessary is a bath in the river, Damascus has far superior bodies of water for that purpose than Israel! However, his attendant prevails upon him to at least try out the recommendation of Elisha; after all, had he told him to do something more difficult and mysterious, he would have complied, and it can’t hurt to simply bathe in the river a little. Naaman follows the instructions of Elisha and the health of his skin is immediately restored.

Naaman returns to the home of Elisha and stands before the prophet face to face. He acknowledges that Hashem, God of Israel, is the only true God, and urges Elisha to accept his gifts of tribute. Elisha adamantly refuses. Naaman takes some earth from the land of Israel in order to carry home with him and to build there an altar to Hashem for worship.He also asks Elisha to intercede on his behalf for forgiveness from the Almighty. Although Naaman himself will no longer serve any other gods, he occasionally must accompany his master into the idolatrous temple. His master leans upon him and so, when he bows down to his god, Naaman must prostrate himself as well. Elisha assures Naaman that this is accepted in the eyes of God.

Our Sages learn an important law from this incident: unlike a Jew who must die before bowing to a graven image even under duress, a gentile who believes in God is not obligated to sacrifice his life for his beliefs and may feign worship of an idol to escape death.

Gehazi, Elisha’s attendant, witnesses the exchange between Elisha and Naaman and is upset that this “Aramean” left without paying the prophet anything. He runs after Naaman and is greeted with great deference. Gehazi lies and tells Naaman that his master, Elisha, was just approached by two of the disciples of the prophets who are in dire straits and in need of one talent of silver and two changes of clothing. Naaman generously gives Gehazi two talents of silver and the clothing he requested, and Naaman and his men escort Gehazi back to his home where they are deposited for “safe keeping”.

When Gehazi returns to Elisha, he is questioned about his absence and denies having left the area. Elisha, of course, knows where Gehazi has been and rebukes him for taking advantage of Naaman for material gain. He curses Gehazi who contracts the very disease of tzaraat with which Naaman had been afflicted.

This episode is nearly the opposite of the opening chapter of Melakhim Bet. There, a seriously ill King Ahazya dispatched messengers to Eqron to consult with a foreign god about his prognosis. This was a potentially terrible desecration of Hashem’s name, as it implied that there was no deity in Israel worthy of consulting, and it was therefore intercepted by Eliyahu. Here, a foreign dignitary who is actually in a position of dominance vis a vis the Jewish people (the King of Israel is afraid of him and his maidservant is a Jewish girl he captured in battle) nonetheless leaves his country to seek advice and healing from the One God of Israel. This results in a spectacular sanctification of God’s name on multiple levels.

The orientation of the Arameans to the office of the prophet reflects pagan culture. First, they assume the prophet works for the king and therefore reach out to the monarch in order to access the prophet’s services. Second, Naaman arrives at Elisha’s home in full regalia and with a company of officers, placing himself in the position of superiority relative to the man of God. Third, Naaman expects Elisha to be a magician or miracle-worker who will enact some elaborate ritual of hocus-pocus to heal him. Finally, Naaman assumes that Elisha will expect to be compensated handsomely for his efforts and prepares accordingly.

Each of these preconceived notions is negated in the story. The prophet, a servant of God, is neither employed by nor beholden to any human king. As long as Naaman sits regally atop his chariot, Elisha declines to stand before him and sends a messenger instead. The instructions Elisha offers are deceptively simple because he wants to teach Naaman that humbly conforming to the will of God is the only path to recovery. No ritual, however impressive, can force Hashem to respond to our demands. Lastly, Elisha attributes the miracle to the Almighty and not to himself, adamantly refusing to accept any material reward for the assistance he has offered.

All of these “corrections” to the perspective of Naaman draw him closer to a true understanding and recognition of Hashem Who is absolute and transcendent, receives no benefit from His creatures and cannot be magically manipulated. Naaman has clearly been transformed by this experience and adopts a far more modest and self-effacing attitude toward Elisha after he is cured.

This helps us to appreciate why Gehazi’s sin was so terrible. Aside from lying and misrepresenting the prophet, Gehazi detracted from the sanctification of Hashem’s name for his own personal gain. He gave the impression that, at the end of the day, Elisha did want to “cash in” on his prophetic services, and was perhaps just being gracious in allowing Naaman to leave without paying. Gehazi was motivated here not only by a desire for material wealth but also by his disdain for Naaman, whom he terms “this Aramean”. He saw Naaman as the political foe of Israel and therefore someone who should not be granted any favors.

An opportunist by nature, Gehazi did not see the intrinsic value in sanctifying Hashem’s name before a fellow human being, let alone a great leader of a gentile nation; he merely saw the property of an enemy of Israel that would go to better use in the hands of a Jew. This arrogant perspective earned him the curse of tzaraat. Tzaraat is a divine punishment meted out to arrogant people who attempt to aggrandize and promote themselves at the expense of others. Since such an individual thrives on his ability to interact with and take advantage of others, isolating him from society robs him of his power and forces him to engage in meaningful reflection and repentance.

From the fact that Elisha maintained such an intimate relationship with him, we can infer that Gehazi must have been an impressive person, highly intelligent and talented. The two seem to have been inseparable and to have shared a level of closeness similar to the one Elisha himself enjoyed with his master, Eliyahu. Undoubtedly, Elisha had high hopes for Gehazi and expected him to work on and overcome the character flaws that held him back in his development. Consistent with his kind and patient disposition, Elisha was willing to allow Gehazi plenty of time to improve himself in his areas of weakness, and Gehazi was the beneficiary of the remarkable opportunity to develop a deep and edifying relationship with his illustrious teacher.

However, Gehazi instead chose to use his position as Elisha’s attendant as a source of political clout, distancing others from the “inner circle” of the prophet and, in the case of Naaman, even undermining the holy efforts of Elisha when doing so served his own personal ambitions. He abused his relationship with Elisha as well as his standing in the eyes of others. For all of these reasons, suffering from tzaraat, which excluded him from social interaction indefinitely, was a fitting consequence.

Melakhim Bet Chapter 4

The Summary

(Sorry,  I realized that the Taamim recording for this chapter was corrupt – has to be redone!)

Melakim Bet Chapter 4

Elisha is approached by the widow of one of the disciples of the prophets. She has been left destitute and is being pressured by creditors to sell her two sons into slavery in order to settle her debt. She has nothing but a single vessel of oil in the house. Elisha instructs the woman to borrow empty vessels from her neighbors, close the door behind her and to start pouring the oil to fill them. Miraculously, the oil flows uninterruptedly until all of the containers are filled. Elisha tells her to sell the surplus oil to earn the money necessary to pay off her debts and then to live off of what remains.

Whenever Elisha visits Shunem, he is invited to dine with a prestigious woman and her husband. After a while, the woman convinces her husband to set up a modestly furnished attic apartment for the prophet to reside in when he is in town. Elisha wishes to repay the woman for her kindness and asks his attendant, Gehazi, to inquire what she would like to receive in exchange for all that she has done. The woman declares that she is content and needs nothing; Gehazi, however, points out to Elisha that her husband is elderly yet she has no son. Elisha promises the woman that by next year she will bear a child; she has difficulty believing the prediction, but it indeed comes true and she gives birth to a son.

One day, the boy is working with his father in the field when he collapses. His mother lays his lifeless body on the bed in Elisha’s apartment and sets off to Mount Carmel to find the prophet. Seeing her from afar, Elisha sends Gehazi ahead to meet her; however, she insists on interacting with Elisha directly, falling at his feet. Gehazi attempts to intervene but Elisha tells him to let her be.

The woman confronts Elisha for having promised her a child that she never asked for, only to allow him to die. Elisha sends Gehazi ahead with his staff and commands him to revive the child, but the woman will not leave unless Elisha accompanies them as well. Gehazi arrives first and cannot resuscitate the boy. Elisha enters the room, closes the door, prays to Hashem, and, after laying atop the child several times, he sneezes seven times and awakens. Elisha hands the child to his relieved mother and departs.

There is a famine in the land and Elisha’s disciples are suffering from the food shortage as well. He tells them to prepare a stew and they disperse to gather the various ingredients. Once they have begun to taste the food, it becomes clear that one of the items that had been added to the mixture was poisonous. Elisha requests that the disciples bring him flour, which he casts into the pot, nullifying its dangerous effects.

A man comes to visit Elisha with a care package of bread, fruits, and grain, and Elisha instructs the disciples to serve it to the famished community. They protest that there are insufficient provisions to feed to such a multitude. The prophet responds that Hashem has declared that the people will eat and even leave over extra when they have finished, which is precisely what happens.

The parallels between the stories of Elisha in this chapter and the accounts of the miracles of Eliyahu are unmistakable. Both prophets provide an “unending” supply of food to a widow and both find lodging with a family and revive the deceased child of that family. These similarities underscore Elisha’s emergence as the successor of Eliyahu and the perpetuator of his legacy.

However, the differences in the description of the activities of the two prophets are also very instructive. Eliyahu’s miraculous provision of unlimited oil and flour was prompted by HIS need for sustenance; in fact, he instructed the widow to prepare a cake for him before she did so for herself or her son, since it was in his merit that she was being granted divine assistance. In other words, Eliyahu’s support of the widow was a function of justice, not mercy.

By contrast, Elisha gains nothing personally from the widow whom he assists, nor does he know whether her claim is justified; he acts purely out of compassion and kindness. Moreover, not only does he provide her with sufficient funds to settle her debts, which could have been seen as justified by the merit of her husband, who was a prophet; far beyond this, Elisha ensures that she has a surplus that will benefit her and her children for the foreseeable future.

Similarly, when Eliyahu revives the dead child of his hostess, he complains that Hashem has harmed the person with whom he has found lodging – in other words, the tragedy affected him, disrupted his life, and therefore he sought for it to be reversed. The fact that, in the aftermath of her son’s death, the widow perceived Eliyahu as a liability rather than an asset was a denigration of his stature as a man of God and had to be addressed.

By contrast, Elisha only stays with the woman in Shunem occasionally, he is not dependent upon her; his initial miracle of bringing her the child as well as his intervention to save the child were both motivated by kindness alone. Elisha sought out the woman to promise her a child – she never asked for anything and never expected anything – and he responds sensitively and warmly when she arrives to complain about the boy’s sudden death.

The compassionate aspect of Elisha’s behavior is underscored by the postscripts to his miracles; he always follows up his wondrous deeds with a command to the beneficiary, like “lift up your child”, “go, sell the oil, pay your debt, and you and your sons live off of the rest”, “pour for the people that they may eat”, or “give to the people that they may eat”. In other words, Elisha empowers the recipients of his miraculous actions, equipping them with the tools they need to live a prosperous or happy life. He has no personal vested interest in the outcome of these interventions.

Unlike Eliyahu who embodied the Divine quality of justice – Midat Hadin – Elisha is a living example of the Divine quality of mercy, Midat HaRahamim, giving freely and generously to all. Both prophets were devoted to the cause of heightening awareness of Hashem in the world, one through a strict insistence on law, judgment and punishment and the other through the passionate distribution of an abundance of blessing and bounty.

Fascinatingly, during the period of Elisha, there were famines and wars; the Divine wrath is apparent, and yet Elisha never addressed this or sought to change it, he simply looked for ways to remind people of the infinite kindness of the Creator that can be experienced even in the worst of times.

There is much to comment upon in this remarkable chapter. For the sake of brevity, we must pass over much of its rich content and symbolism for now. However, I would be remiss if I did not address the fascinating parallel between Elisha’s interactions with the widow and the interactions between the three visiting angels and Avraham and Sarah in Parashat Vayera.

In both circumstances, following an act of hakhnassat orhim, welcoming of a guest, a barren woman and her elderly husband are promised a child. In both cases, the woman expresses her doubts about the possibility of the promise being fulfilled (we all recall Sarah laughing), and in both texts the term “at this time” (lamoed hazeh), an unusual phrase, is employed, indicating that the similarities being drawn between the two cases are deliberate.

Finally, in both stories, the “miracle child” almost dies while alone with his father – Yitzchaq at the Aqedah and the Shunnamite woman’s son in the field – until he is saved by an intervention from an angelic messenger – the prophetic vision revealed to Avraham to stop the process of sacrificing his son and the appearance of the prophet Elisha who resuscitates the Shunammite’s son. What is the deeper connection between these narratives that inspired the literary parallels we have identified?

I would like to tentatively suggest that the text here is emphasizing the power of kindness, and specifically of welcoming guests into one’s home. Extending yourself for the sake of other people demonstrates that you understand and appreciate their intrinsic value as human beings and wish to support and assist them. The Shunammite woman, like Elisha himself, was able to look beyond the four walls of her home and see the greatness of the prophet as well as his need for sustenance. Through welcoming him into her abode she revealed her interest in contributing to his mission of spreading knowledge of Hashem and manifesting Hashem’s compassion in the world.

This selflessness made the Shunammite woman similar to our ancestors Avraham and Sarah who opened their tents to all passersby in order to share the spiritual and material blessings they received with others, fellow human beings they recognized were also worthy of consideration and compassion. Once Avraham and Sarah had reached the pinnacle of their development, as expressed in their welcoming of the three angels, they were deemed worthy of the miracle of being blessed with a son who would carry on their legacy. Their child wouldn’t be a source of selfish pride for them but would be a gift of God to whom they would pass on their religious principles and ethical values.

When Avraham began enjoying little Yitzchaq too much, however – the Midrash says this reached its height when Avraham celebrated weaning the boy without sufficient acknowledgment of Hashem – our Forefather was given the task of the Aqedah. Confronted with the Divine command to sacrifice his son, Avraham had to refocus on his true mission in the world and remember why he had been given Yitschaq to begin with – for the sake of serving Hashem and not for his own sake.

Similarly, it stands to reason that the Shunammite woman had begun to take her son for granted as he toiled with his father in the field. The boy had to be taken away temporarily so that his mother would reflect upon the reason why she had been blessed with him in the first place – because of her dedication to Hashem, her admiration of the prophet and the expectation that she would raise her son with proper Torah values, not merely so he could help contribute to the family business!

Interestingly, the Zohar states that this mysterious “miracle child” was none other than the Prophet Havaquq, whose name derives from the statement of Elisha “you will be embracing [hoveqet] a child”; according to the Zohar, the second letter “quf” is a reference to the embrace of the child by Elisha when he resuscitated him. This suggests that the Shunammite woman learned the lesson of her son’s temporary “death” and quickly placed him back on the path to spiritual success.

Melakhim Bet Chapter 3

The Recording

The Summary

Melakhim Bet Chapter 3

Yehoram, son of Ahav, rules over the Kingdom of Israel. He does not follow the path of Torah; however, he is not as wicked as his parents. In fact, he removes the monument to the Baal created by his father, indicating that he did not participate in the worship of foreign gods. Nevertheless, he did not dismantle the illicit sanctuaries erected by Yarovam.

Mesha, King of Moav, had been paying a very large annual tribute of wool to the King of Israel for many years. After the death of Ahav, however, he rebels. Yehoram enlists the support of his ally, Yehoshafat, King of Yehuda, to put down the rebellion. They partner with the king of Edom who joins their military operation. After a seven day journey through the wilderness of Edom, the kings’ water supply is depleted, human beings and animals are weakened, and chances of defeating Moav under these circumstances are bleak.

True to form, Yehoshafat, the righteous king of Israel, inquires whether there is a local prophet who can be consulted immediately. He is advised that Elisha dwells nearby, and the three kings visit with him. Elisha has harsh words for Yehoram whom he condemns as a hypocrite for seeking an audience with a prophet of Hashem. Elisha clarifies that he only consented to meet the kings out of deference to the upstanding Yehoshafat. Elisha summons a musician to play music and this enables him to enter the prophetic trance necessary for him to receive a communication from Hashem.

Elisha informs the kings that Hashem will provide them with an ample supply of water very soon; moreover, he assures them that they will vanquish Moav in the impending war. Elisha commands them to adopt a “slash and burn” approach to the battle, cutting down all trees, filling up all wells, and covering the ground with stones.

As Elisha predicted, the valley becomes filled with water that night (possibly this was due to a flash flood in the mountains that flowed down to them). The Moabites awaken in the morning and see that the liquid that has permeated the area has a reddish hue – possibly because of the sunlight shining on the water or the mud it had dredged up – and they infer from this that the “alliance” of the three kings fell apart and that the armies slaughtered one another.

Assuming that all that remained for them to do was to swoop down and collect the spoils left behind by the armies who had decimated one another, the men of Moav arrive at the Jewish camp unprepared for battle and are handily defeated. The Jewish armies follow the instructions of Elisha in carrying out a harsh and destructive campaign against Moav. Perceiving these setbacks, the King of Moav panics and orders his soldiers to confront and break through the ranks of the King of Edom, but they fail.

Ultimately, in an act of supreme desperation, the King of Moav ascends to the wall of his city and slaughters his first born son as a burnt offering. This unspeakable act spells the end of the conflict; the armies of Yehuda, Israel and Edom return to their respective homelands.

On the surface, there is a basic theological difficulty with this narrative. Yehoram has “repented” for at least some of the sins of his parents. At the very least, he does not worship the Baal. Why is he punished with having to handle the rebellion of Moav – something his parents, who were more wicked, never had to face – and the harsh rebuke of the prophet Elisha?

One possibility, mentioned by some of the modern commentators, is that Yehoram’s move away from idol worship occurred after this encounter with Elisha, not before. In fact, perhaps his experience in this war contributed to his change of heart. Although his removal of the monument to Baal is mentioned at the opening of the chapter, that is the signature form of the Book of Melakhim – briefly summarizing the whole career of each king before providing the details – and need not be interpreted as suggesting that the actions described happened first.

On the other hand, we may suggest that Yehoram had already engaged in some repentance prior to the battle against Moav. There are a couple of pieces of evidence that support this approach. First, we hear no objection from Yehoram when Yehoshafat suggests that Elisha be consulted; were Ahav the King of Israel, we would have expected him to register a protest here as he did when Mikayhu ben Yimla was summoned to the royal court. Second, we find that it is one of Yehoram’s own men who recommends Elisha as a local prophet of Hashem who could be contacted, indicating that Elisha was no stranger to the officers of Yehoram.

Therefore, it seems likely that Yehoram had already begun something of a shift of direction toward service of Hashem prior to the conflict with Moav. The emergence of the rebellion was not a punishment for past transgressions as much as it was an opportunity to deepen Yehoram’s understanding and awareness of Hashem and perhaps inspire him to implement even greater changes in the religious life of his kingdom.

Along these lines, we may speculate that Elisha offers his criticism precisely because he knows that Yehoram may take it to heart and benefit from it. Since Yehoram has been contemplating his relationship with Judaism and Torah, Elisha urges him to fully disengage with the “heritage” of his ancestors and embrace Hashem as his ally, Yehoshaphat, has done.

The miraculous provision of water and military triumph of this chapter are, as we will see in upcoming episodes, typical of the career of Elisha. Unlike the fiery and combative Eliyahu, Elisha is calm, conciliatory and positive. When Elisha is distraught, as when he interacts with Yehoram, he does not persist in that state; rather, he immediately calls for a musician to set his mind and heart at ease. Although the Jewish people during the time of Elisha were still steeped in idolatry and perhaps unworthy of divine intervention for many reasons, Elisha nonetheless predicts blessing and success for their armies so that they will perceive the hand of Hashem in their activities.

In other words, Elisha’s educational philosophy puts more emphasis on the proverbial “carrot” than the “stick”; his preference is for showcasing the kindness and compassion of Hashem to draw the people closer to Him rather than serving as a mouthpiece for God’s judgment, ceaselessly challenging the shallowness and stupidity of their idolatrous and immoral culture like his teacher, Eliyahu, had done.

The concluding verses of the chapter are the subject of much debate. What prompted Mesha’s human sacrifice, and how did this idolatrous action achieve its desired objective of putting an end to the battle? There are numerous approaches to this thorny issue. Some traditional commentators opine that the heinous deed of Mesha was a “reminder” of the corruption of the Jews themselves and an indictment of their own equally wicked practices; therefore, perhaps when they saw the behavior and identified with it, this caused the divine favor to withdraw from Israel.

Another interpretation suggests that Mesha did this to galvanize and raise the morale of his own troops who had been losing their motivation, and that it restored their faith in the cause and enabled them to fend off their enemies. In other words, it was effective for psychological, not theological reasons.

One classic interpretation found in the writings of the Geonim and cited by some of the traditional commentaries is that Mesha did not sacrifice his own son but the son of the king of Edom, who is mentioned in the previous verse. Consider that the act of human sacrifice is described immediately after the account of the failed attempt to break through the ranks of the King of Edom. Apparently, according to this view, the soldiers of Mesha succeeded in kidnapping the crown prince of Edom, and Mesha made a public spectacle of executing him as a sacrifice to the god of Moav.

This interpretation maintains that the consequence for the Jewish people was not the result of the Divine “recollection” of their sins nor the rise in the morale of the Moabite troops; rather, it was because their coalition with Edom fell apart in the wake of this incident. Just as he had hoped, Mesha was able to drive a wedge between Israel and Edom that weakened Israel considerably. The King of Edom was not likely to forgive the kings of Israel and Yehuda for enticing him to participate in a battle in which his first born son was slaughtered.

Looking at the chapter as a whole, we see how significant but complicated a role this Israel-Edom alliance plays. For example, the troops approach the battle by traversing the wilderness of Edom, testifying to the strategic benefit for Israel in this political friendship. The troops of Moav who believed that they saw blood filling the valley immediately assumed that it must have been as a result of the dissolution of the partnership between Edom and the Jews and the bloody civil war that must have ensued. This itself indicates that the agreement between them must have been assumed to be a precarious one.

Even on a literary level, when the text describes the water that fills the valley and appears red like blood, we cannot avoid being reminded of the origin of the name “Edom” as an appellation for Esav who was ruddy (“admoni”) and who desired the “red stuff”, the soup of his brother Yaaqov. Clearly, the text is going to great pains to highlight the remarkable teamwork and partnership between the descendants of Yaaqov and Esav, Israel and Edom; a partnership that is, in the final analysis, a tenuous and temporary one.

Melakhim Bet Chapter 02

The Recording

The Summary

Melakhim Bet Chapter 2
Eliyahu and Elisha are together in Gilgal. Eliyahu informs Elisha that Hashem has commanded him to travel to Bet El, and he tells Elisha to remain behind; Elisha, however, insists on accompanying him. Once in Bet El, a group of young prophets approach Elisha and ask him if he is aware of the fact that this is the day that Eliyahu will finally disappear. Elisha responds that he is, indeed, aware of this, but tells them to be silent about it.

Eliyahu again attempts to leave Elisha behind in order to fulfill a divine command he has received to travel to Yeriho; Elisha, once again, refuses to part from his master and goes as well. The young prophets in Yeriho have the same exchange with Elisha that their counterparts in Bet El did.

Finally, Eliyahu announces his plan to head to the Jordan River and to leave Elisha behind; Elisha, still standing his ground, escorts Eliyahu to his destination. Eliyahu removes his cloak and strikes the waters of the Jordan with it; they split and allow the two prophets to cross, in clear view of a group of young prophets who are watching the event from afar.

Eliyahu asks Elisha what he can do for him before he departs. Elisha requests a double portion of the spirit that has rested upon his master. Eliyahu comments that this is a tall order. However, he tells Elisha that if he witnesses Eliyahu’s final ascent to heaven, this is a sign that the spirit he seeks will indeed rest upon him.

As they are walking and talking, a chariot of fire driven by horses of fire appears between them, and Eliyahu is whisked away in a whirlwind. His mantle falls to the ground and is retrieved by Elisha, who uses it to miraculously split the waters of the Jordan once again.

Once back on the mainland of Israel, he is greeted by the younger prophets who recognize that he has inherited the spiritual power of Eliyahu. Nevertheless, they wish to organize a search party to find Eliyahu; at first, Elisha protests, but at their repeated urging, he relents. Unsurprisingly, Eliyahu is not found.

The young prophets in Yeriho share with Elisha that their city is very pleasant but the water is bitter and induces illness. Elisha requests a new container with salt inside, and he pours it into the water, permanently “healing” it. Retracing the steps of his teacher, Eliyahu,

Elisha proceeds to Bet El, where he is taunted by a group of youths who hurl insults at him, calling him “bald one”. Elisha curses the boys and forty two of them are mauled by bears. Elisha then travels to Mount Carmel, the site of the famous showdown between Eliyahu and the prophets of the Baal, and ultimately returns to Shomron.

This chapter is shrouded in a considerable amount of mystery. We won’t be able to dispel or even explore all of it, but we must touch upon at least a few points. What is the nature of Eliyahu’s ascent to heaven, and why is he the only prophet in our history to have concluded his career in such a dramatic and remarkable manner? Moreover, what is the significance of the lead up to his departure – his visit of various communities, crossing of the Jordan, and dialogue with Elisha?

The commentaries are divided on the precise nature of Eliyahu’s “ascent”. Some, like Radaq, interpret it in purely spiritual terms and explain the story as the death of Eliyahu and his entry into the World-To-Come. Others, like the Ralbag (and, seemingly, most of the mainstream Sages of our tradition), understand that Eliyahu continues to live in the physical world in a secret location where he awaits the future redemption.

Of course, there are difficulties with both approaches. On a fundamental level, Radaq’s interpretation basically amounts to saying that Eliyahu died but that his remains – like those of Moshe Rabbenu – were not buried by human hands. While this downplays the supernatural aspects of Eliyahu’s ascent, it does little to explain how is fate is much different than that of an ordinary person who passes away. On the other hand, the view that Eliyahu continues to live for eternity in this world can be hard for us to imagine and accept; it would be the most extraordinary and long-lasting miracle Hashem has ever performed!

The reason behind the ascent of Eliyahu can be found not in these differences of opinion but in the common denominator between the two schools of thought. Both agree that Eliyahu will one day reappear as the harbinger of the Messianic Age, preparing the way for the arrival of the Mashiah. So, one way or another, his unusual departure conveys the message that his career is not over – the idea that he “lives forever”, whether in this world or the next, means that his mission as a prophet is “on pause” but has not yet reached its conclusion. In his own era, Eliyahu did all he possibly could to bring the Jews back to the way of Torah, but his efforts were ultimately not successful. We know that he will have another opportunity to achieve his goal under better circumstances, in the future…And, in one way or another, he is waiting for it.

We can best understand the travels of Eliyahu as a farewell tour; he visits each community of prophets and repeatedly attempts to bid farewell to his own protégé, Elisha, before departing from the world. Fascinatingly, the route that Eliyahu takes – from Gilgal to Bet El to Yeriho to the opposite side of the Jordan River – is a reversal of the path taken by the Jewish people when they entered the Land of Israel by crossing the Jordan River, conquering Yeriho, passing through Bet El, and camping in Gilgal.

Symbolically, Eliyahu is taking leave of his students, his people, and his role in Jewish history – he is exiting the stage, at least temporarily. Elisha, who grasps the mantle of his master and crosses back over the Jordan to retrace the journey to Yeriho and Bet El and ultimately Mount Carmel, demonstrates his assumption of the role of Eliyahu and his “reentry” onto the scene as the new prophet of the generation.

Until the very end, Eliyahu seemed like he was not quite sure if Elisha would be able to “fill his shoes” after his departure. Elisha’s stubborn insistence upon accompanying his teacher was evidence of his determination to serve as a worthy successor to Eliyahu. Unlike the way Yehoshua succeeded Moshe – as a “second choice” because the ideal, Moshe himself, was unavailable – Elisha asked to have the capability to continue the legacy of his great master fully and authentically. His witnessing of the ascent of Eliyahu – his participation in the prophetic experience of his teacher – was proof that he had, in the eyes of Hashem, reached a level of development that qualified him to take Eliyahu’s place.

Nevertheless, if Elisha is to gain the respect of the nation, the community must also embrace him as the “new Eliyahu”. The younger prophets, although they saw the power of Elisha in his splitting of the Jordan, were not convinced that he was the official replacement for Eliyahu until they conducted a search and determined that Eliyahu was no longer among them.

Similarly, the young boys who taunted Elisha as “bald” – in contrast with Eliyahu, who was known as a hairy fellow (as reported by Ahazya’s messengers) – were essentially stripping him of his credibility, accusing him of being a usurper or a pretender to the “throne” of the great prophet. When all was said and done, in the eyes of Hashem and in the eyes of the community, Elisha emerged as the preeminent prophet of his generation, filling the shoes of Eliyahu but enriching and improving his teacher’s educational methods with his softer, gentler and more compassionate style.

Melakhim Bet Chapter 1

The Recording

The Summary

Melakhim Bet Chapter 1

Moav rebels against Israel following the death of Ahav; however, we will not learn more about the details of the uprising until later. Ahazya, son of Ahav, falls from the attic of his residence and sustains serious injuries. He sends messengers to Baal Zevuv, god of Eqron, to inquire whether he will survive his accident or not. Eliyahu the prophet is sent by Hashem to intercept Ahazya’s emissaries and sends them back to Ahazya with a harrowing message.

Ahazya’s behavior in seeking guidance from a foreign god implies that there is no God in Israel, and is the ultimate desecration of Hashem’s name; therefore, he will not recover from his illness and will die imminently. From the content of the communication and the messengers’ description of the appearance of the man who confronted them, Ahazya correctly infers that it was Eliyahu, and he sends a company of fifty troops to apprehend and probably kill the prophet.

The first group of soldiers approach Eliyahu and order him to surrender to them by the command of the king; instead, a fire descends from heaven and consumes Ahazya’s men. Undeterred, Ahazya sends a second set of troops who are even more aggressive and meet the same fate. When a third delegation arrives, the leader begs Eliyahu to have mercy on their souls and not to destroy them.

Eliyahu receives a command from Hashem not to fear these men but to accompany them to the bedside of their master. In the presence of Ahazya, Eliyahu once again announces the Divine decree that the king will die for having cast aside the God of Israel and gone in search of guidance from foreign deities. Ahazya indeed perishes and, since he had no sons, his brother, Yehoram, reigns in his stead.

There are a couple of key points worth highlighting in this chapter. Ahazya has certainly departed even more from the fold of Israel than his father did. While Ahav participated in idol worship and endorsed it, at a fundamental level he acknowledged Hashem and valued his Jewish identity. Ahazya has abandoned that identification and awareness entirely, as evidenced by his dispatch of messengers to Eqron to inquire about his fate. This loss of any regard for the God of Israel cost Ahazya his kingdom.

Eliyahu Hanavi’s interactions with the messengers who approach him are quite instructive. On the surface, his reaction of incinerating them with heavenly fire seems excessive. However, when we consider the interactions more deeply, we can understand Eliyahu’s motives more clearly. There is a “contest” here between the word of Hashem as declared by Eliyahu, His messenger, and the “word of the king” as declared by his messengers.

Ahazya’s attempt to seize and execute Eliyahu was prompted by his desire to demonstrate that he could extinguish the Divine pronouncement by eliminating its spokesperson. The messengers intercepted by Eliyahu made the correct decision, forsaking their role as agents of the human king and embracing the mission of conveying Hashem’s word. The two groups of soldiers, by contrast, refer to Eliyahu as the “man of God” yet invoke the supreme authority of Ahazya, a mere human king who intends to thwart the Almighty’s designs. In fact, the second group is even more brazen in its language than the first (although they keep their distance, perhaps hoping to be “out of range” of Eliyahu’s miraculous firebombs), insisting that Eliyahu rush and conveying Ahazya’s demands in the language of prophecy – “so says the king” – as if setting him equal to God. This indicates that they have failed to take the implications of the first group’s demise to heart.
Although these officers and troops were just “following orders”, they were morally responsible for their behavior. In taking the “wrong side” in this dispute, they suffer the consequences of attempting to undermine God’s word, learning that Hashem’s will and his messenger cannot be overcome by human resistance, artifice or attack. Only the last delegation, which accepts the Divine authority of Eliyahu’s position and the inviolable nature of God’s word, is spared – they had the wisdom and humility to appreciate that human might was powerless against Hashem, and that all they could do was serve as agents to support Eliyahu and enable him to proclaim his message to the king.

Sefer Melakhim Alef Chapter 22 – Conclusion!

The Audio Recording

The Summary

Melakhim Alef Chapter 22

After three years of peace with Aram, tensions arise as Aram occupies Ramot Gilead, territory that belongs to the Kingdom of Israel. Ahav reaches out to Yehoshaphat, King of Judah, with whom he has a strong alliance, and requests his support in fighting Aram and reestablishing his dominion over Ramot Gilead. Yehoshaphat expresses solidarity with Ahav but requests that before they proceed, they seek the word of Hashem regarding their course of action.

Ahav gathers his four hundred “government employed” prophets who all declare in the name of Hashem that the Jewish forces will prevail in the war. Among them is the memorable Tzidqiya ben Kenaanah, who fashions horns of iron, places them on his head and announces that “with this shall you gore Aram!” Yehoshafat perceives that these alleged prophets are not genuine, and presses Ahav to consult with a bona fide prophet of Hashem. Ahav is loath to do so, because the only available prophet of Hashem is Mikhayhu ben Yimlah, and he has a reputation for delivering pessimistic and negative messages to the king.

Nonetheless, Mikhayhu is summoned to the court of Ahav, informed that all of the prophets thus far have given positive predictions, and is asked for the word of Hashem. He replies that he will only convey the message that Hashem has instructed him to preach. At first, he mocks the request and simply mimics the declaration of the false prophets. Ahav chastises Mikhayhu and demands that he report the word of Hashem fully and truthfully. Mikhayhu states that Hashem has decreed that Ahav will be seduced by the empty assurances of his false prophets and will fall in battle at Ramot Gilead, leaving his kingdom without a leader.

Tzidqiya ben Kenaana slaps Mikhayhu in the face and berates him for lying in the name of Hashem; Mikhayhu responds that Tzidqiya will, indeed, learn the truth of the matter when he must run and hide from the imminent devastation. Ahav orders that Mikhayhu be placed in jail and fed meager rations until the day that he returns from the battle in peace. Mikhayhu replies that if Ahav does, in fact, return in peace, then he should rightly be considered a false prophet.

Ahav and Yehoshafat head to the battle. Ahav disguises himself so that he will not be a target of the Aramean forces. The army of Aram has been given strict instructions to focus on assassinating the king of Israel and not be distracted by the other troops. At one point, they pursue Yehoshafat, believing him to be the man that they seek; however, when they realize he is not Ahav, they leave him alone.

An archer of Aram shoots a random arrow that happens to hit Ahav in one of the cracks of his armor, wounding him severely. He is carried away from the battlefield in his chariot and dies. The rest of the men of Israel escape the war and return home. Ahav’s chariot is cleansed of his blood by the pool of Shomron, a place where dogs drink and harlots bathe, in fulfillment of the prophetic vision that his blood would suffer this demeaning fate.

The chapter then provides a brief biography of Yehoshaphat, son of Asa, king of Yehuda. Yehoshaphat was a righteous king who adhered to the Torah and continued his father’s efforts to rid the land of the practitioners of immorality. However he, like his father, did not dismantle the Bamot, or personal altars, that proliferated in Israel during the time of Rehavam and diluted the centrality and exclusivity of the Bet Hamiqdash. At one point, Yehoshafat had commissioned a fleet of ships to bring gold from Ophir, something reminiscent of the opulent days of Shelomo. However, the ships were damaged and the project was abandoned.

Although Yehoshaphat made peace and cooperated with the Kingdom of Israel during the reign of Ahav, this relationship seems to have weakened or fallen by the wayside during the rule of Ahav’s son, Ahazya. Ahazya, like his father and mother, did not follow the ways of Hashem and served the Baal. The description of his brief and tragic reign will be the first topic addressed in Sefer Melakhim Bet.

One intriguing point in this chapter is that Yehoshaphat can readily distinguish between “real” and “fake” prophets of Hashem. How did he know that the men encouraging them to battle Aram were not authentic representatives of the Almighty? Apparently, this reveals to us one of the fundamental differences between pagan prophets in the ancient world and prophets of Israel.

The “prophecies” of pagan prophets were like blessings they conferred upon the king; they would endorse, promote, and encourage the leader on the course of action he had already decided to take. The job of such a professional prophet was to give the impression that there was some kind of spiritual backing to a king’s initiatives that gave them larger-than-life significance and would therefore win the commitment and support of the populace and the troops.

Prophets of Israel, by contrast, primarily serve an instructive and educational purpose. At times, they convey Divine approval of choices made by the king, but at other times – especially when the very essence of a particular king’s agenda runs counter to the will of Hashem – the job of the true prophet is to oppose, criticize and redirect a misguided ruler for the benefit of the nation. Yehoshaphat could immediately perceive – and so could Ahav, who does not protest – that the so-called prophets initially gathered by Ahav were merely his “cheerleading squad” who were expected to engage in dramatic and theatrical behavior and to repeat slogans and mantras in support of the king’s decisions.

In today’s terms, we might compare their function to that of the media outlets that are decidedly biased and engage in propaganda and spin on behalf of the cause, political party or movement to which they are dedicated. They are not critical thinkers or meaningful sources of objective insight; they are helping to drum up popular support for one or another agenda.

Despite his awareness of this fact, Ahav disregards the prophecy of Mikhayhu and trusts the false claims of his “yes men”. We must bear in mind that this is an unusual move for Ahav; in the past, he has been generally receptive to the word of Hashem as conveyed by true prophets, even though he has had adversarial relationships with them on a personal and political level. However, as Mikhayhu’s vision revealed, this “seduction” of Ahav by the false prophets was part of his punishment from Hashem; it was out of character but, like Pharaoh whose heart was hardened in the story of the Exodus, Ahav had exhausted his chances to repent and Hashem took away his clarity of judgment and discernment so that he would inevitably meet his final downfall.

One remarkable feature of this chapter is that Ahav is not once mentioned by name – he is referred to simply as “the King of Israel” throughout, with the exception of the verse describing his death. The reason for the omission of his name is a mystery. It is possible that this is the text’s way of showing disdain for Ahav, effacing his name and referring to him only by his title. On the other hand, it is possible to interpret this anomaly as a veiled praise of Ahav.

As we saw in the previous chapter, Ahav took pride in his accomplishments and all that he had achieved for the sake of his nation. He was more troubled by the prediction that the legacy he had established as a successful leader in Israel would be destroyed than he was by the prospect of his own disgrace and demise. In the merit of his demonstration of humility before God, Ahav was spared the pain of having to witness the obliteration of his dynasty.

Perhaps it was in the same spirit of “accepting the repentance” of Ahav that the prophetic author adorns him here with the name “King of Israel”, a title and an office that he showed meant more to him than life itself. The “King of Israel”, as it were, ignored the danger that battle posed to him personally, put himself at risk to defend the territory of his people, and died a tragic but manifestly patriotic and heroic death. However, when all is said and done, he is simply Ahav – a Jew with tremendous leadership potential who failed to live up to the expectations Hashem had of him.

Melakhim Alef Chapter 21

The Recording

The Summary

Melakhim Alef Chapter 21
Navot of Jezreel owns a vineyard that is located adjacent to Ahav’s palace. Ahav attempts to persuade Navot to give him the vineyard in exchange for a superior one; alternatively, he offers to pay him a handsome sum of money for it. Navot refuses on religious and traditional grounds, wishing to preserve the ancestral heritage of his family.

Ahav returns home depressed and forlorn, lying in bed and refusing to eat. When Izevel asks him what is troubling him, Ahav explains that he desires the vineyard of Navot but that Navot rejected his offer to purchase it. Izevel encourages Ahav to hold his head high and promises that she will make sure that he receives the vineyard.

In collaboration with the elders of Jezreel, Izevel orchestrates a plot to have Navot killed. Corresponding with them in the name of Ahav, she orders the elders to declare a fast day and to have two unscrupulous men stand up before the entire congregation and accuse Navot of cursing Hashem and the king. The plan is implemented and Navot is carried out of the city and stoned to death.

As soon as Izevel receives word that Navot has been executed, she informs Ahav that Navot is dead and urges him to arise and take possession of the vineyard for which he had been pining. Ahav arrives at the vineyard and is met there by Eliyahu, whom Hashem has sent to confront the king with the famous phrase “have you murdered and also inherited?”

Ahav is at first rudely dismissive of the rebuke delivered by Eliyahu, which includes a prediction that the king will die and dogs will lap up his blood. Eliyahu then pronounces a condemnation of the entire house of Ahav which, like the royal lines of Yarovam and Baasha, will utterly perish, leaving no survivors.

Ahav is genuinely moved and responds by tearing his garments, wrapping himself in sackcloth and fasting. Hashem informs Eliyahu that in the merit of Ahav’s humbling himself before God, the destruction of his household will be postponed until the next generation and will not occur during his lifetime.

The impression of Ahav that we gather from this story is quite complex. On one hand, Ahav himself seeks to obtain the vineyard of Navot through legal and amicable methods. Although he is devastated by the rejection of his offer of purchase, he accepts the rejection as final and respects it. The language used to describe Ahav’s reaction to the bad news is the same language used in the previous chapter to describe his acceptance of the prophetic message delivered in the wake of his release of Ben-Haddad; in other words, he acknowledged the right of Navot to tell him “no”.

(Interestingly, even Izevel seems to feel beholden to the rule of law, arranging for Navot to be executed “legally” rather than simply murdered; apparently, outward gestures of fealty to the law were expected of royalty in Israel.)

Ahav does not attempt to acquire the vineyard by force, nor does he conspire with Izevel in her plot against its owner. The text indicates that he had no knowledge of the process by which Izevel managed to arrange Navot’s demise.

At the same time, Ahav seems to have blinders on and to remain intentionally oblivious to the actions of his nefarious wife. Even if he could not have imagined the immoral lengths to which Izevel would go to secure ownership of the field for her husband, he seems a bit too blissfully ignorant of the plot unfolding around him. He never asks how Izevel could possibly promise him the vineyard, nor does inquire how Navot died or whether Izevel had a hand in his death. Certainly he must have realized that something not-so-kosher had transpired, yet he chose to stifle whatever lingering concerns may have tugged at his heart and to proceed with his acquisition of the vineyard. Ahav’s deliberate removal of himself from the situation enabled Izevel to commit treachery in his name and to take an innocent life.

I have not seen any commentaries remark upon the similarities between Eliyahu’s confrontation of Ahav here and Natan the Prophet’s confrontation of David after the sin of Batsheva; however, upon reflection, they seem clear. In both cases, a man was killed by presumably “legal” means in order to secure an “inheritance” desired by the king. In both cases, a leader who generally attempts to comport himself in accordance with the law and to serve his subjects loyally compromises his principles for personal gain. And in both cases, the consequences decreed upon the transgressor are severe.

Fascinatingly, this may be why the Midrash comments on a certain connection between King David and King Ahav – both were great leaders who were sincerely devoted to their citizens and who strove to make decisions and enact policies that were in the best interests of their people. Of course, the schemes of Ahav were based upon flawed ideas and distorted values, but his heart was genuinely set on the good of his kingdom even when his methods were misguided. In the words of the Rabbis, Ahav was an “Ohev Yisrael”, he loved Judaism and the Jewish people, and he cared deeply about the land of Israel and the future of the nation of Israel.

Nonetheless, Ahav sinned in the matter of Navot, putting his personal, petty concerns ahead of the sanctity of life and the principles of justice. Ahav stuck his head in the sand during the entire episode so that he could position himself to get what he wanted without having to carry a burden of guilt. But in recusing himself from the situation – just like David’s command to Yoav to send Uriah to the front lines and pull back a bit, allowing Uriah to be killed – Ahav seals the fate of Navot, ensuring that his death is all but inevitable. As HaRambam tells us, it was this act of bloodshed caused by Ahav that sealed his own fate – it was the sin that eclipsed all of his previous transgressions and brought the Divine wrath upon him once and for all.

Ahav’s bitter response to Eliyahu’s initial appearance gives way to contrite repentance. What happened here? Apparently, Ahav was unwilling to acknowledge his culpability for the death of Navot, and wished to assert his right to his newly acquired vineyard. When Eliyahu accused him of murder, he denied or brushed aside the charge. However, when Eliyahu places this act of evil in the context of Ahav’s whole history of deviation from the Torah, abandonment of Hashem and endorsement of idolatry, and then predicts the disintegration of the House of Ahav altogether, this is more than Ahav can handle.

The thought that his entire career was a waste, that all he had worked for and built up would go up in smoke, was devastating for Ahav. He thought of himself as a servant of the people who had restored political stability and economic growth to Israel. He had dedicated himself to the welfare of his citizens to the extent that he understood how. Being informed that his glorious dynasty was destined to become obsolete was not just a criticism of a particular sin or instance of immoral behavior – it meant that his whole existence and his life’s work had been for naught.

This instilled humility in Ahav and inspired him to fast and repent before the Almighty, at least temporarily. And because it was the total destruction of his royal line that was most fearsome to him, Hashem decided to spare Ahav the pain of having to witness it during his lifetime.

Placing this story in the chronology of Ahav’s life and career is difficult. Assuming that the text follows a linear progression would entail that this episode occurred toward the end of Ahav’s life. However, this is problematic for a number of reasons. First of all, what is Eliyahu doing in the story, and why would Hashem have sent him rather than another available prophet? Eliyahu, after all, has already retired from public life and begun training his disciple, Elisha, to assume his prophetic role. Plus, in the kingdom of Israel, Eliyahu has been declared by Izevel a “wanted man”.

Second, in the previous chapter, Ahav seemed to have been on a positive trajectory from a religious standpoint, liberated from the influences of Izevel; here, in our chapter, she is once again at the forefront of his political and personal life.

Of course, we can still accept the timeline of the text and simply explain that Eliyahu returned to the scene for some reason or other, and that Ahav had a setback or two in the meantime. However, it is also possible to suggest that this narrative took place earlier in the reign of Ahav, perhaps even prior to the drought declared by Eliyahu. It may have been included here for one of two, or both of the following reasons.

One is in order to juxtapose the prophecy of Ahav’s downfall with the fulfillment of that prophecy in the following chapter. The other is to juxtapose Ahav’s failure as a king in his handling of the situation with Navot with the description in the previous chapter of his mishandling of the situation with Ben-Haddad. In that story, Ahav begins at a relatively high point, seeking Hashem’s wisdom and attempting to follow his will, and only falters at the end when selfish concerns interfere with his better judgment. Here too, Ahav starts out a fair, just and principled king who is unwilling to encroach upon the legitimate rights of Navot, but he winds up succumbing to his greed and allowing Izevel to commit terrible crimes in his name for the sake of satisfying his avarice.

Melakhim Alef Chapter 20

The Recording

The Summary

Melakhim Alef Chapter 20
Ben-Haddad, king of Aram, gathers an enormous coalition army of thirty-two kings and prepares to lay siege upon Israel. He sends a threatening message to Ahav, claiming that all that belongs to Ahav really belongs to him. Ahav appears to agree to become a vassal of his kingdom. Ben-Haddad then threatens that his men will come to Israel, enter Ahav’s home and the homes of his officers, and confiscate everything they desire.

Interpreting this as a declaration of war, Ahav summons his advisers and they support his mobilization of troops to defend the realm. He once again conveys to Ben-Haddad that he is willing to subjugate himself to Aram but not to allow the kind of pillaging Ben-Haddad proposed. Ben-Haddad, replies with haughty bravado, and Ahav retorts with a pithy phrase, “he who girds armor should not boast like he who takes it off”, the ancient wartime equivalent of “don’t count your chickens before they hatch.”

An anonymous prophet of Hashem approaches Ahav and assures him that Israel will win the battle. Ahav asks for advice as to who should initiate the military engagement and whom should be sent out to fight; the prophet answers that Ahav should initiate by sending the young men of the princes of the provinces, a small force of only two hundred and thirty two men, followed by seven thousand troops.

Ahav dispatches the modest force and when they arrive at the camp of Ben-Haddad, he and his associates and officers are drunk. The army of Israel routs the Aramean forces and chases them away; Ben Haddad himself escapes on horseback. The prophet warns Ahav that Ben-Haddad will return before the end of the year for another battle.

The servants of Ben-Haddad suggest that the reason for their loss in battle is that the God of Israel is a god of the hills and therefore had an advantage. They propose attacking the Jews on a plain so that this time they will be victorious. The servants recommend assembling an army equal in size to the one that Ben-Haddad mobilized previously. Moreover, they advise that the kings be replaced with lesser officers this time – men who will be more interested in fighting than in drinking.

The relatively tiny forces of Israel array themselves facing the vast army of Aram. A prophet of Hashem approaches Ahav and tells him that since the people of Aram conceive of this as a battle between their gods and the true God, falsely believing that Hashem’s power is limited to the hills, the Jewish people will win this battle for the sake of His name. After seven days of posturing, the fighting begins, and the Jewish people achieve a decisive victory, slaying one hundred thousand footmen. The remainder take refuge in the city of Afeq, but the wall collapses, killing twenty-seven thousand men.

Ben Haddad and his attendants hide safely in an inner chamber in Afeq. The servants of Ben Haddad tell him that the kings of Israel have a reputation for being especially merciful. Hoping to find favor and receive a compassionate response from Ahav, they dress in sackcloth and place ropes on their heads to project a pitiful image before approaching the king.

When they meet Ahav, they convey a message from “your servant, Ben-Haddad”, begging Ahav to spare his life. Ahav, learning that Ben-Haddad is still alive, refers to him as “my brother”; Ben-Haddad’s servants, noticing the change of tone, adjust their language and call him “your brother, Ben-Haddad” as well.

Ahav instructs the servants to bring forth Ben-Haddad, to whom he will grant clemency. Ben-Haddad emerges from his hiding place and offers to restore to Ahav the cities that his father had taken from Omri, Ahav’s father. He also gives Ahav permission to open up a market for trade in Damascus. Ahav and Ben-Haddad establish a treaty of friendship and Ben-Haddad returns to Aram.

Meanwhile, a prophet of Hashem approaches a bystander and, in the name of Hashem, commands the person to strike him. The person refuses and, as predicted by the prophet, is killed by a lion shortly thereafter. The prophet makes the same request of another person, who complies. Then, his eyes covered with a headband and his face bloody, he stands before Ahav and requests his ruling on an urgent matter.

The disguised prophet claims that he was a soldier in the war and had been entrusted with guarding a prisoner. He had been told that, if he fulfilled his mission, he would be rewarded; however, if the prisoner escaped, the guard would have to pay with his life. The prisoner disappeared and now the guard has been condemned to die and seeks mercy from the king. Ahav responds that since he accepted this condition upon himself when he took responsibility for guarding the prisoner, he must face the consequences of his negligence.

The prophet then lifts his headband and Ahav immediately recognizes him as one of the prophets. In the name of Hashem, he rebukes Ahav for freeing Ben-Haddad who was worthy of death. Like the “jailer” who allowed his charge to escape, Ahav will pay with his life and the lives of his people for this negligence. Ahav returns to his palace in Samaria deeply troubled by this message.

This chapter seems like an interruption in the narrative about Eliyahu and Elisha that we have followed thus far. Yet despite the absence of these two key figures, the context of Ahav’s court is suddenly very Jewish. The prophets who appear in this story are anonymous figures who speak not in the name of Baal but in the name of Hashem. The prophet declares to Ahav that the he will be victorious in the first conflict so that “you will know that I am Hashem” – a phrase that evokes memories of the story of the Exodus and its plagues that served to persuade Pharaoh to believe in God – implying that Ahav is in the process of developing and deepening his understanding of the Almighty.

Moreover, Ahav requests guidance in his military affairs from the prophet of Hashem, a pleasantly surprising move on his part. Remarkably, the second battle conducted by Ahav is, in some respects, intended to sanctify God’s name, an unlikely mission to be assigned to a king such as Ahav. Finally, we see that Ahav exhibits compassion toward his enemy which, although misguided, is understood as a very “Jewish” response to witnessing pain and suffering. How did Ahav suddenly become so religious?

The Midrashim add yet another layer of meaning to this interlude in the text. The Sages were troubled by the redundancy of the messages exchanged between Ben-Haddad and Ahav at the beginning of the chapter (we resolved this problem by interpreting the second communication from Ben-Haddad as a threat to physically seize property as opposed to the first, which was merely a request for surrender). According to the Rabbis, Ben-Haddad was not satisfied with looting the material goods of the kingdom – he wanted to take the king’s Torah Scroll. Ahav was willing to send Ben-Haddad anything he required as a tribute; however, when Ben-Haddad demanded the Sefer Torah, Ahav refused.

I believe that this Midrashic interpretation may have developed out of a sensitivity to the unusual features of the narrative we noted above – namely, that Ahav is portrayed in this chapter as a bona fide “King of Israel” who in his receptiveness to prophetic instruction and personal conduct reflects Jewish values.

The implications of this chapter are remarkable. Apparently, Eliyahu’s hasty conclusion that his message had fallen on deaf ears was at least partially unfounded. Ahav has, to some extent, begun to embrace his Jewish identity, to acknowledge Hashem’s existence, and even to seek the counsel of God and try to conduct himself in accordance with the Divine will. With each new experience, his religious education progresses – his victories on the battlefield further reinforce his newfound faith in the Almighty, the One God of Israel. Unfortunately, Eliyahu left the scene too early to witness this.

Recognizing the startling theme inscribed between the lines of this narrative, the Rabbis go so far as to recast Ahav into a champion of Judaism who is intent on preventing Aram from robbing Israel of its greatest treasure, the Torah. And it is noteworthy that throughout all of this, Izevel and her pernicious influence are nowhere to be found, allowing Ahav to give expression to the “hirhurei teshuva”, the faint thoughts of repentance, that are occupying his mind.

Despite the positive light cast on Ahav in this chapter, he is still found wanting at the end of the story. The war with Ben-Haddad, a battle to sanctify the name of God, should not have concluded with Ahav’s agreement to a political and economic treaty with the sworn enemy of Israel, someone who intended to destroy the Jewish people and all it represented. With his magnanimous gesture, Ahav intended to win the affection and friendship of Ben-Haddad, to be accepted by Ben-Haddad as a “brother” and to become an honored member of the society of kings. From a religious perspective, however, this should have been anathema to Ahav. As a Jewish king, he should want no part of the corrupt and idolatrous “fellowship” of royalty; he succumbed to his desire for recognition and placed it above his concern for his people and his God.

In this error of Ahav, we see further evidence of his essential character flaw; namely, his lack of the inner strength necessary to remain faithful to his principles and his resultant desire for validation from the international community or “powers that be”. His marriage to Izevel – daughter of the prestigious King of Tzidon – and his vulnerability to her influence, not to mention his tremendous enthusiasm for Baal worship – the religion of Tzidon – can all be traced to the same motive, a desperate need to be accepted by the rich, famous and powerful. Unfortunately, this conflict between standing up for what we believe to be true and right versus placating the nations of the world to win their favor and approval is a struggle that continues to plague the Jewish people even in our times.

The miraculous success of the small Jewish army, complemented by the collapse of the wall of Afeq and decimation of the survivors of Aram, was reminiscent of the Battle of Yeriho that included a similar Divine intervention. Like the victory at Yeriho, destroyed as a demonstration that Hashem was the true Conqueror and King of the land, no spoils, political advantages or material benefits should have been derived by Ahav from this achievement. The totality of the accomplishment was meant to be attributed to and consecrated to Hashem.

Since Ahav failed to see the hand of God in the battle and to sanctify Hashem’s name for its own sake, he has lost a golden opportunity to live up to the calling of a true king of Israel. Nonetheless, even in his moment of defeat, he responds nobly, sadly accepting the Divine judgment upon himself and taking its painful message to heart. He knows that he has empowered an enemy of his people and that the consequences of his error will eventually return to haunt him.

One last interesting feature of this story is the seven thousand troops of Ahav. In the previous chapter, Hashem had informed Eliyahu that he would keep alive the seven thousand citizens of Israel who had not bowed to or kissed the Baal. The commentaries generally interpret the number as metaphoric; surely more than seven thousand men survived from the generation of Ahav!

However, it is intriguing to wonder if perhaps the “seven thousand” men described to Eliyahu are a reference to the men who fought for Ahav in these “holy wars”. As we have learned in previous stories in Nakh, battles fought to sanctify Hashem’s name should be carried out by those with a clear understanding and devotion to Him. Perhaps the repetition of the number here is no accident – it is intended to hint to us that the troops of Ahav were not ordinary Israelites but were servants of Hashem who were spiritually superior to most of their contemporaries and were therefore worthy of conducting this war.

Melakhim Alef Chapter 18

The Audio Summary

Melakhim Alef Chapter 18

Hashem instructs Eliyahu to appear before Ahav and tell the king that He will soon bring rain to Israel to end the three-year drought. In the meantime, Ahav and Ovadiah, the manager of his household, are foraging through Shomron in search of any remaining pasture that might save the surviving horses and mules who have been starving. Ovadiah is a deeply God-fearing man. Although Izevel, wife of Ahav, conducted fierce persecution and massacre of the prophets of Hashem (possibly in retaliation for Eliyahu’s decree of a drought), Ovadiah took the initiative to hide and support one hundred of them in two caves, where he secretly provided them bread and water.

Eliyahu encounters Ovadiah and tells him to inform his master, Ahav, that the prophet is present. Ovadiah is hesitant to comply with Eliyahu’s command. Ahav has been searching across the world for Eliyahu for three years and if Ovadiah claims to have found him and then Eliyahu “disappears”, Ovadiah fears being punished severely for the false alarm. Eliyahu swears in the name of Hashem that he will indeed meet Ahav, reassuring Ovadiah.

Ahav arrives to see Eliyahu and derisively calls him “troubler of Israel”. Eliyahu responds that it is in fact Ahav and his household, with their abandonment of Hashem and embrace of idolatry, who have brought suffering upon the nation. Eliyahu proposes a showdown with the prophets of the Baal. He tells Ahav to call upon the prophets of Baal and Ashera and to have them gather at Mount Carmel. Ahav complies with Eliyahu’s request and the prophets are assembled together.

Eliyahu acknowledges that he is the one remaining prophet of Hashem facing four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal. He confronts the people on their hypocrisy – if they believe in Hashem, they should reject the Baal, and if they believe in the Baal, they should quit pretending to serve Hashem.

Eliyahu outlines a contest to determine which deity is the true God. Each side of the dispute will select a bullock and prepare an offering. They should then call upon their respective gods; whichever one responds with a miraculous fire to consume the sacrifice will be worshiped as God. The Baal prophets agree, and Eliyahu allows them to go first, since they are the larger group.

The prophets of Baal arrange their bull-offering on an altar and begin calling out to Baal, dancing upon the altar. By the afternoon, there has still been no response, and Eliyahu mocks the prophets of the Baal, suggesting that perhaps their god is distracted, traveling, sleeping or otherwise indisposed. The prophets of the Baal become desperate and engage in ritual self-mutilation, cutting themselves until blood gushes forth. There is no answer, and eventually, the prophets of the Baal give up.

Eliyahu then summons the assembled audience to draw close to him. He proceeds to construct an altar to Hashem made of twelve stones, corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel. He digs a trench around the altar and fills it with water. Eliyahu then lays wood and the butchered meat of his offering on top of the altar. He tells the people to douse his offering with water; they pour four pitchers of water on it three times, again for a total of twelve.

Eliyahu beseeches Hashem to answer his prayer and demonstrate that He is the true God and that Eliyahu is his faithful servant. A miraculous fire descends from heaven to consume the sacrifice, burn the wood and evaporate the water in the trenches, and the people are inspired to proclaim that Hashem is the only true God. Eliyahu takes advantage of the enthusiasm of the moment and directs the Jews to seize all of the prophets of the Baal, who now have been revealed as charlatans. Eliyahu kills all of the false prophets by the Brook of Kishon.

Eliyahu tells Ahav to go eat and drink because a rainstorm is imminent. Eliyahu ascends to Mount Carmel and waits with his face between his knees. He asks his servant to look out on the horizon to see if he spots any rain clouds; the seventh time, he sees a tiny cloud arising from the sea. Eliyahu instructs his servant to urge Ahav to rush home to his palace before the heavy rainfall arrives to deter him. Soon after, the sky blackens with cloud cover and an intense rainstorm follows. Eliyahu himself runs before the chariot of Ahav in agesture of respect for the newly repentant king.

There are a couple of interesting ideas to reflect upon in this chapter. First, although Hashem informs Eliyahu that He plans to finally put an end to the lengthy drought and famine in Israel, Eliyahu still proceeds under the assumption that some change must occur in the nation to justify this. Apparently, he interprets Hashem’s instruction that he engage with Ahav not just as a command to inform the king what is about to happen but as a command to teach or inspire the king in some way and make him thereby worthy of receiving the blessing of rainfall. Change in our fate does not happen because of a shift in Hashem’s perspective but because of a shift in our own attitudes, values and behavior.

The fact that Eliyahu encounters and speaks with Ovadiah before meeting with Ahav is fascinating and their dialogue is quite instructive. While Ovadiah refers to Eliyahu as his master and draws attention to his own piety and fear of God, Eliyahu subtly “rebukes” Ovadiah by calling Ahav his master instead. In some ways, Ovadiah represents the nation of Israel, torn between the spiritual authority of the true prophets on one hand and the temporal power of the corrupt monarchy on the other.

Ovadiah claims allegiance to Eliyahu and belief in his message, and he has indeed protected the prophets of Hashem, yet he is employed by Ahav and subservient to him. The conflict experienced by Ovadiah no doubt afflicted many of the Jews who wanted to maintain a level of connection to Judaism and Torah while benefiting from the stability and security provided for them by the regime of Ahav, which was unfortunately steeped in idolatry.

Eliyahu identifies this somewhat hypocritical stance in Ovadiah but is even more strident when he confronts the Jews who have gathered to witness the spectacle at Mount Carmel. He castigates the assembled Israelites for their self-contradiction and inconsistency in worshiping both Hashem and the Baal. In a statement that sounds almost blasphemous, Eliyahu suggests that if they truly believe Baal is god, they should abandon the service of Hashem altogether and follow the Baal exclusively! Why does Eliyahu endorse such an extreme and exclusive position? Isn’t it better to worship both Hashem and the Baal than not to worship Hashem at all?

Upon reflection, we can appreciate Eliyahu’s point, and it fits perfectly with his generally uncompromising worldview. An individual who takes a definite position on an issue can be argued with and proven wrong. He or she is engaged in the search for truth, seeks explanations that make sense, and will discard those that are irreconcilable with the facts.

On the other hand, a person who is comfortable living in a state of self-contradiction and inconsistency is much more difficult to debate or to educate. Since they haven’t subscribed to a single, clear opinion on the issue at hand, anything goes – and since their position is constantly shifting back and forth (in the words of Eliyahu, “hopping between two sides”) they are immune to disproof. Like slick politicians who resist the temptation to commit to any one principle, they can easily avoid the pain of losing an argument by changing their views as needed.

The whole point of Eliyahu’s demonstration at Mount Carmel is his demand that the Jewish people stop equivocating and agree to abide by one absolute truth. This way, the proof he provides of Hashem’s existence will automatically necessitate the rejection of all other objects of worship.


Melakhim Alef Chapter 17

The Reading

The Summary

Melakhim Alef Chapter 17

Eliyahu the Prophet confronts King Ahav and swears in the name of God that “there will be no more dew or rain these years except according to my word.” A drought ensues and Hashem commands Eliyahu to hide near the Jordan River beside a brook called Kerit. While there, he is miraculously sustained by ravens who bring him meat and bread morning and evening, and he drinks from the brook until it finally dries up.

Hashem then tells Eliyahu to travel to Tzarefat in Tzidon, where He has appointed a widow to support the prophet. Eliyahu finds the woman and requests something to eat or drink. The widow responds that she is searching for twigs for a fire so that she and her son can cook and consume the very last bit of flour and oil they have, after which they expect to die of starvation. Eliyahu assures her that a miracle will occur and her flour and oil will never be exhausted; the only condition is that she prepare him a small cake from the provisions before baking for herself and her son. She follows the prophet’s instructions and her flour and oil continue to miraculously replenish themselves as long as Eliyahu resides there – until the end of the drought.

One day, the widow’s son falls ill and dies. She protests to Eliyahu that he has brought evil upon her house with his presence. Eliyahu takes the lifeless body of the boy to his room, lays the boy on his bed and cries out to God over the injustice of having caused this tragedy to his host, a poor widow. He stretches his body over the boy’s three times, and prays to Hashem to revive him until the child’s life is indeed restored. Eliyahu returns the boy to his mother who declares that she now knows that Eliyahu is a man of God and that his words are true.

There are two fundamental issues in this chapter that require explanation. The first is the role of Eliyahu in the decree that there should be no rain. How is a mere mortal capable of making such a decision? We see here something remarkable about the role of the prophet in the Divine plan. In addition to being granted insight into Hashem’s wisdom and designs for the future, the prophet is expected to participate actively in the realization of the objectives that are revealed to him. This requires the prophet to develop his own strategy for achieving the goals with which Hashem has tasked him.

In order to equip the prophet for his mission, Hashem empowers him to perform whatever miracles he deems necessary for the process. Eliyahu has been sent by Hashem to rebuke and correct the behavior of Ahav, and he opts to put pressure on Ahav by decreeing a drought. Eliyahu has been invested with the authority to make such a determination based upon his own judgment of what must be done to attain the objective of his mission.

The second aspect of this chapter that is puzzling is the conduct of Eliyahu after the drought is initiated. What is the reason why he is sustained first miraculously by ravens and then miraculously by the widow in Tzidon? What purpose is served by the violations of natural law involved in these intriguing stories?

In order to understand the answer to these questions, we must clarify the setting in which Eliyahu operates and the character and attitudes of Eliyahu himself. As mentioned in our comments on the previous chapter, Ahav ruled during an unprecedented period of peace, tranquility and stability in Israel, DESPITE his wickedness and idolatry. While this time of relative calm could have afforded him the opportunity to reflect and repent, it seems to have had the opposite effect of reinforcing and rewarding his sinful activity.

In this context, Eliyahu’s approach is to impose “middat Hadin”, the strict principle of justice expressed in the Torah, and to withhold rain from the recalcitrant Jews. By establishing himself as the arbiter of the rainfall, he throws down the proverbial gauntlet before Ahav who will have to engage with and learn from him in order to “earn” the cessation of the drought. Throughout his entire career, Eliyahu’s signature characteristic is his staunch and uncompromising sense of justice and accountability and his unwillingness to consider more flexible or gradual solutions to the problem of Jewish defection from the Torah.

The series of experiences he is subjected to in this chapter can be thought of as an educational progression for Eliyahu, a lesson in the balance between justice and mercy that is necessary to allow growth to occur over time. First, he is fed amply but miraculously (an example of Divine compassion) by the cruel raven (a subtle hint to his own disregard for the suffering he has caused to others with the drought) but eventually the brook dries up, a manifestation of the strict justice that he himself has insisted upon.

Moving in with the widow provides Eliyahu with a firsthand opportunity to see the poverty and pain that has resulted from the severe famine. Here again, he is sustained miraculously, as befits him as a prophet of God. His interactions with the widow and her son, we must assume, involved much teaching, learning and inspiration; then, suddenly, the boy is ripped away from his mother by death. This seemingly senseless and destructive act troubles Eliyahu, who had expected to have more time to live with, educate and mentor this young man and his mother.

We, the readers, don’t know why Hashem determined that the youth’s life should be taken. Apparently, in His system of absolute justice, this was the correct outcome. Nevertheless, Hashem does not insist on the unbending rule of law – He allows the “reversal” of His decision and resuscitates the boy.

The lesson for Eliyahu is that the Almighty Himself is willing to compromise, setting aside the dictates of pure justice when there is a constructive and beneficial reason to do so. Focusing too much on the letter of discipline without room for human limitations, foibles, error and resistance is a recipe for disaster. A qualified teacher, whether he is a prophet or not, must be willing to accept his students or audience as the flawed creatures they are and to slowly and patiently work with them, forgiving their mistakes and setbacks along the way.

Interestingly, the Talmud tells us that the meat and bread delivered by the ravens came from the kitchen of none other than Ahav himself – representing to Eliyahu the importance of seeing the benefit of Ahav’s regime to his subjects, the fact that despite its profound flaws, Ahav did provide for the citizens of his kingdom. Government institutions and monarchies, like individual human beings, are complex entities. They tend to resist change, to backslide, and to err, yet they must be accepted as they are and must be allowed “room” for gradual and sometimes frustratingly slow development.

Eliyahu opted for the confrontational, high-handed, dramatic and idealistic approach rather than the more grounded, human, and realistic pedagogical methods of other prophets. Like Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai many generations later, Eliyahu was unable to tolerate the hypocrisy and equivocation of the people of his time and insisted on total and immediate fealty to the covenant. This led him into direct conflict with the establishment – instead of working with it he stands against it – and, ultimately, will lead to his removal and replacement with a less “extreme” prophetic personality.

Melakhim Alef Chapter 16

The Reading

The Summary

Melakhim Alef Chapter 16
The prophet Yehu ben Hanani is sent by Hashem to warn Baasha, King of Israel, that his house will meet the same fate of destruction and annihilation that befell the House of Yarovam. This decree was passed against the royal line of Baasha because he spurned the path of Torah and because he massacred the family of Yarovam. Since he continued the evil practices of the House of Yarovam anyway, he lost any moral “high ground” that would have justified his killing them and taking their place.

Baasha dies and his son, Elah, reigns in his stead. One day, while Elah is drunk, Zimri, the captain of half of his chariots, rises up against him and kills him. Zimri occupies the throne of Elah for seven days. In the meantime, Omri, the general of the army of Israel, plots an overthrow of Zimri; when Zimri realizes he has no chance of escape, he commits suicide by lighting the royal palace on fire. Israel is split into two factions – one that supports Omri and one that supports Tivni ben Ginat for the position. The majority are on the side of Omri so, by popular consensus, he is selected as the new king, and Tivni either died or was executed.

Omri, though known as a powerful and accomplished monarch from sources outside the Bible, is portrayed as nothing more than a wicked king in our chapter. He follows the path of Yarovam and does evil in Hashem’s sight. One noteworthy action he takes is relocating the capital of Israel from Tirtzah to a mountain he purchases in Shomron, which will become the flagship city of the Kingdom of Israel frequently referenced in the words of the prophets. Omri dies and is succeeded on the throne by his son, the notorious Ahav.

Ahav advances the evil of the kingdom of Israel to the next level, far beyond the precedents established by Yarovam. He marries Izevel, the daughter of Etbaal, King of Tzidon, and, apparently under her influence, not only embraces worship of the Baal and its female counterpart Ashera but actually constructs a Baal Temple and Ashera shrine in Shomron. This is the first time we find state-sponsored idolatry in Israel; although the population dabbled in idol worship and the occult, it was never officially sanctioned by the government. And, as you will recall, Yarovam’s calves were never intended to be seen as substitutes for God – they were ill-advised attempts to concretize and “channel” the presence of the true God of Israel.

The chapter concludes with a brief mention of Hiel of Bet El, who decides to rebuild Yeriho, transgressing the prohibition instituted by Yehoshua when the Jewish people entered the land of Israel. Yehoshua had pronounced a curse upon anyone who would restore the city – his first born would die at the laying of the foundation and his youngest son when the gates were set up (many commentaries interpret this to mean that all of his children will die, from the oldest to the youngest). This curse is fulfilled in Hiel whose children indeed die as a result of his project to reconstitute Yeriho.

The instability of the kingdom of Israel had previously prevented any real dynasty from becoming established. With the rise of the ambitious and effective Omri, this undergoes a dramatic shift. He constructs a new capital, as if to usher in a new era of leadership and strength. And, unlike any other king of Israel thus far, his son is able to occupy his throne without being opposed or assassinated. Finally, a royal household has emerged in the Northern Kingdom.

With that newfound stability and security, however, come new problems. The tenuous and precarious nature of previous regimes was the result of Hashem’s intervention, which undermined the corrupt kings before they had the opportunity to perpetuate and further ingrain their wickedness by passing it on to the next generation. Ahav, however, is the exception to this principle. No prophet threatens Omri as Yarovam and Baasha were threatened. No political upheaval or military intrigue unseats Ahav, as Nadav, Elah and Zimri were unseated.

Hashem has allowed the House of Omri to plant deep roots in Israel; the days of the “one hit wonder” kings have given way to a stable and lasting monarchy. Yet, neither Omri nor Ahav is faithful to Hashem or the covenantal mission of the Jewish people. Why does Hashem allow such an aberration to occur? Why didn’t he cast Ahav out like the wayward kings before him? None of our commentaries offer an explanation for this anomaly.

I would like to suggest that Ahav was in a unique position to take the Jewish people in a positive direction. As much as instability and turmoil were helpful in preventing wicked regimes from establishing too secure of a foothold in Israel, they were also impediments to growth and progress. The political and economic landscape was too chaotic and unpredictable to allow for the “yishuv hadaat”, the presence of mind, necessary for any leader to reflect upon the errant direction of the kingdom and change it.

Ahav was the beneficiary of an unprecedented period of calm, tranquility and success in Israel, and could have used this as an opportunity to break with the entrenched traditions of Yarovam, relics of the tumultuous past, and to return the nation to its religious roots. Indeed, we find that part of Ahav is quite receptive to the prophetic messages he receives and shows great promise, even though his epiphanies are always short lived and ultimately disappointing.

Ahav actually does capitalize on the stability of his kingdom to implement changes. However, these changes, rather than bringing the Jewish people back to Torah, drive them even further away from it. Moreover, Ahav does, in fact, discard the “outdated” traditions of Yarovam; however, rather than returning the population to authentic Judaism, he decides to embrace pure, “authentic” idolatry in place of the poor, watered-down substitute offered by Yarovam.

The sense of security enjoyed by Ahav explains why he was willing to make such bold counter-cultural moves. He had a “mandate” to be innovative; the fact that he was the “Shelomo” of the Northern Kingdom, heir to his father’s throne, invested him with substantial authority and clout. By refashioning the religion of Israel in a manner that was more compatible with the cults of their neighbors, he successfully paved the way for further expansion of his empire and the creation of stronger international alliances.

Tragically, Ahav is the first king of Israel who goes so far as to remove Hashem – or try to remove Hashem – from the picture entirely. As we will see, this is reflected not only in the promotion of idolatry and priests of Baal in the kingdom, but also the persecution of the prophets of Hashem. Again, for the first time in history, the prophet of God will be neither mentor nor guide to the king of Israel – instead, he will be declared an enemy of the state by virtue of his call for a rejection of idolatry and a return to Torah.

The final episode of the chapter appears, at first glance, out of place; what does the rebuilding of Yeriho have to do with Ahav’s idolatry? However, when we contemplate it more deeply, the connection is obvious. Yeriho was left in a state of desolation for hundreds of years, preserved as a reminder of the miraculous capture of the city and, more generally, as a testimony to the idea that Hashem, and not the military prowess of the Jewish invaders or the power of the Jewish kings, was responsible for their possession of the Land of Israel.

Even the wicked kings of Israel opted to keep this “national monument”,  which paid tribute to the Divine hand in their history, protected and untouched. However, the sudden attempt to rebuild Yeriho was fully consistent with the innovative, programmatic effort of Ahav to eliminate Judaism from the Kingdom of Israel and to shape it into a “normal”, conventional country like its neighbors. It signified erasing the past, wiping away the memory of Hashem and His intervention, and thereby denying that the Kingdom had anything to do with Hashem or owed any allegiance to Him.

The death of children as a result of the transgression can be understood as measure for measure. The one who rebuilds Yeriho intervenes to stop the preservation of its memory, its legacy and its impact for future generations. By losing his children, the builder’s own memory, legacy and capacity to influence future generations are likewise erased forever.

Put differently, if one is tampering with the tradition memorialized at Yeriho and interfering with its perpetuation to the next generation, one is suggesting that a different narrative or vision of the world – one that excludes Hashem and His providence – should be passed on instead. The death of Hiel’s children ensured that his distorted values and corrupt viewpoints would not have a future in Israel.

Melakhim Alef Chapter 15

The Reading

The Summary

Melakhim Alef Chapter 15

Aviyam, son of Rehavam, maintains the status quo set during the reign of his father, allowing idolatry and immorality to proliferate in Israel. Nevertheless, Hashem allows him to retain the kingship in order to fulfill His promise to perpetuate the dynasty of David. Aviyam dies and is succeeded by his son Asa, who substantially improves the nation’s spiritual state.

Asa removes the idols and idolatrous shrines from the country, banishes the practitioners of immorality and invests wealth in the upkeep and renovation of the Bet HaMiqdash. He deposes his own grandmother, Maakha, who had formerly occupied the position of “Queen Mother” in the empire, because of her participation in idol worship. Overall, Asa wholeheartedly serves Hashem throughout his life. He is criticized only for his failure to eliminate the private altars to Hashem in the land of Israel; these, although not idolatrous, represented “competition” to the Holy Temple and maintaining them was in violation of the Torah.

Meanwhile, in the Kingdom of Israel, Nadav succeeds his father, Yarovam, as monarch. Baasha of the tribe of Yissakhar contrives a plot against Nadav and assassinates him, claiming the throne for himself. Once established, he proceeds to have all remaining members of the family of Yarovam killed, which was the fulfillment of the prophecy of Ahiyah Hashiloni regarding the House of Yarovam.

There is continual friction between the kingdoms of Yehudah and Israel. At one point, Baasha builds some kind of blockade at Rama, the border between Yehuda and Israel, in order to restrict the passage of people and goods into his territory. Asa sends a handsome bribe to Ben-Hadad, King of Aram, who had alliances with both kingdoms, and asks him to nullify his agreement with the Kingdom of Israel and lay siege to them. Ben-Hadad complies, and as a result of this diversion, Baasha abandons the project at Rama.

Asa drafts all of the eligible men of his kingdom into his workforce and commands them to seize the construction materials that had been left behind by Baasha and to use them to build up Geva of Binyamin and Mitzpah. Asa contracts some kind of disease that affects his legs in his later years, which our Rabbis interpret as a sign of Hashem’s disapproval of his bribery of Ben-Hadad.

Inviting foreign powers to get involved and take sides in Jewish “civil wars” is a dangerous idea and sets a bad precedent; he should have stood up on his own “feet” and defended his people against Baasha without reaching out to Aram for support. This criticism was metaphorically conveyed to Asa through the loss of use of his legs in the latter part of his reign. However, Asa otherwise enjoys a prosperous and successful career as king. He dies and his son, Yehoshaphat, rules in his stead.

There are a couple of points to highlight here. The first is the contrast, even on a purely political level, between the kingdoms of Yehuda and Israel, respectively. The kingdom of Yehuda is relatively stable. Kings are succeeded on the throne by their sons and there is little sign of rebellion, revolt or upset. By contrast, the kingdom of Israel is beset by much turmoil, bloodshed, military takeovers and assassinations.

Despite the limitations of the Kingdom of Yehuda, the advantage of stability made it a much more desirable place to live and contributed to its prosperity. Indeed, the book of Divrei Hayamim tells us that many citizens of Israel migrated south to the Kingdom of Yehuda during this period, which may well explain why Baasha wanted to control the borders and restrict passage from the territory of one kingdom to the other.

The prophetic message here is that the absence of Torah and Divine presence in the kingdom of Israel leaves a void that is immediately filled by aggression, hunger for power and rampant injustice. On the other hand, the Kingdom of Yehuda, even at its low points, still identifies with Judaism, the Bet Hamiqdash, and the Torah. The level of commitment to these values varies, and can sometimes be rather tenuous, but the fact that there is a sense of connection to these ideals provides a framework of sanctity that yields relative harmony and stability in the region.

The issue of the personal altars, or Bamot, will be a dominant one throughout the Book of Melakhim. The Torah allowed such altars only in the absence of a national sanctuary for the people. Once the Temple was built and consecrated, however, Bamot were no longer permitted. Bamot obviously detract from the centrality and exclusivity of the Bet Hamiqdash by providing a local alternative. Having a single Temple is, first of all, symbolic of the Unity of Hashem. It also represents the idea that our quest to draw close to Hashem and know Him is a lifelong communal endeavor that progresses through educational stages, overseen and guided by the Kohanim and Levites.

The magnificence of the Bet Hamiqdash instilled in the Jews a sense of the glory of worshiping Hashem but also humbled them with its reflection of the overwhelming transcendence of Hashem. One who visited the Temple understood that approaching the Creator was no simple matter and that standing before Him demanded serious preparation.

Personal altars, by contrast, created the illusion of closeness to Hashem was a “given”, something that came to people easily, could be conjured up magically and could be totally taken for granted. They dilute the sense of awe, reverence and humility that should be associated with the service of Hashem, allowing people a “quick fix”; and, once the ideal of a national center of worship is available, such locations are no longer supposed to be operating.

The failure of most of the kings to eliminate these “unauthorized” sites was an indication that they neglected their obligation to coordinate and direct the spiritual and educational growth of the Jewish people. Permitting the exclusivity of the Temple and its activities to be compromised by the existence of Bamot meant that the kings did not accept the responsibility for the spiritual state of their subjects, they did not use their power to guide the nation along the path of Torah. It was the equivalent of allowing unlicensed quacks to practice medicine throughout a city or, in modern terms, allowing unlicensed and unsupervised online schools to provide education to the public. Such a policy would demonstrate a flagrant disregard for the communal welfare.

Melakhim Alef Chapter 14

The Summary

Melakhim Alef Chapter 14

Yarovam’s son, Aviyah, falls seriously ill. Yarovam sends his wife in disguise and bearing gifts to approach the prophet Ahiya HaShiloni and inquire as to the child’s future. Hashem has informed Ahiya in advance that he will be receiving a visit from the wife of Yarovam, so when he hears her footsteps (he is blind) he addresses her immediately and questions her choice to come in disguise.

Ahiya foretells not only the imminent death of Aviyah but the downfall and annihilation of the House of Yarovam because of his abandonment of Hashem who appointed him as king. Aviyah will be the only member of the house of Yarovam who merits a proper burial and mourning rites. Not only will the royal line of Yarovam be extinguished, the nation under his control will be punished severely because of the sins into which he has led them.

As soon as the wife of Yarovam arrives home, the child dies, precisely as predicted by Ahiyah, and is mourned by the entire nation. Yarovam dies after reigning in Israel for a total of twenty-two years, and his son, Nadav, rules in his stead.

Meanwhile, in the kingdom of Yehudah, the people in Rehavam’s jurisdiction have strayed from the path of the Torah, engaging in rampant idolatry and immorality. Shishaq, the King of Egypt, rises up against Israel and captures all of the treasures in the House of God and in the king’s palace, including the golden shields that had adorned the royal residence. Rehavam replaces them with brass shields that are carried to protect him when he travels to the Bet Hamiqdash and are then kept by the guards who defend his house. They apparently no longer serve a purely decorative function. Constant tensions between the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Yehudah mar the rest of Rehavam’s career. He dies and is succeeded by his son, Aviyam.

The episode with Yarovam is undoubtedly reminiscent of the actions of Shaul, who twice went out in search of the prophet Shemuel – once, before his anointment, bearing gifts and a second time, illicitly, when he disguised himself as a commoner, consulted the medium in En Dor and sought, to raise the prophet from the dead. Yarovam, like Shaul, allowed his desire for power and recognition to eclipse his devotion to God and, like Shaul, Yarovam had been out of communication with his prophetic mentor ever since he departed from the path of Torah.

Circumstances forced both of these wayward monarchs to finally confront their dependence on the word of Hashem and the authority and authenticity of the prophet whose messages they had disregarded and dismissed for quite a long time. Shaul and Yarovam exemplify the dangers of the monarchy that were initially predicted by Shemuel – the potential for political power and the craving for honor and glory to interfere with the king’s sense of his divinely appointed mission. The separation of powers into “religious” and “secular” or “prophet” and “king” had disastrous results in both cases, since the kings became too preoccupied with their own achievements, exploits and popularity to remain grounded and focused on Hashem’s kingship and their responsibility to sanctify His name.

On the positive side, though, we do see that, deep down, Shaul and Yarovam recognize Hashem and the legitimacy of his messengers. They may have struggled to deny the implications of Divine communications conveyed to them because of their inner character flaws, but in the end they were still Jews with some level of belief in God, Torah and prophecy; like many unaffiliated Jews today, they sought comfort from the religious institutions of their youth in times of crisis.

The description of the unraveling of Rehavam’s regime, presented in far greater detail in Divrei Hayamim, emphasizes that he ruled in Jerusalem, the city chosen by Hashem as home for His presence. Unlike Yarovam, whose motive for his “reforms” of Judaism derived from the fact that the Temple was not located in his territory, Rehavam had no such “excuse”. He permitted the slow infiltration of idolatrous cults, local sites of worship (Bamot), and immoral practices (either prostitution or cultic rituals involving immoral behavior) into the land, creating a distance between Hashem and the Jewish people.

This led to the domination of Israel by its former friend, Egypt, who stripped Rehavam of the wealth that had characterized the opulent and extravagant years of his father, Shelomo. Rehavam continues to leave his palace in order to visit the Bet Hamiqdash, but neither his palace, nor the Bet Hamiqdash, nor the entourage that accompanies him is nearly as illustrious or as impressive as it once had been. This diminished material wealth and political independence is, of course, the fulfillment of the Torah’s prediction that such blessings would be granted only as long as the nation was totally committed to the laws of the Torah. The deviation from Torah that continued to grow unabated on Rehavam’s watch was the cause of the faltering of his kingdom.

Hashem only granted material strength and political influence to the king of Israel as a means to the end of sanctifying His name in the world. When that objective was no longer the primary focus of the king’s activities, the means provided to him for achieving it would slowly be withdrawn. This gradual process allowed the monarch the opportunity to repent and reverse his fortune before it was too late.

The receding of the Divine Presence from Israel affected even the Bet Hamiqdash itself. The value of the Temple is dependent upon its context, how it is viewed and understood by the community in which it is situated. When it serves as a reminder of the relationship between the Creator and the Jewish people and as a testimony to the dedication of the Jewish people to their mission of sanctifying His name in the world, it is a magnificent spectacle indeed.

But as the nation loses sight of the real meaning of the Miqdash and its purpose, it becomes just another beautiful building in Jerusalem. Even worse, the Temple can become a spiritual liability that stands in the way of repentance and growth. The continued existence of the Miqdash in Israel implies that the bond between Israel and Hashem is robust and that the Divine Presence dwells among them. When this is not true, the Temple may provide a false sense of security that everything is alright rather than inspiring the nation to correct what is wrong.

One last observation worth making is the role of Egypt in this narrative. Throughout the description of the construction of the Bet Hamiqdash and at its dedication ceremony, there were many references to the Exodus from Egypt and its culmination in the establishment of the House for the Divine Presence in the Holy Land. However, at the same time, there were several mentions of Shelomo’s intermarriage with the daughter of the Pharaoh of Egypt and of his purchase of horses and chariots from Egypt.

When Yarovam first becomes rebellious and is forced to flee from Shelomo, he finds refuge with Shishaq, King of Egypt, which is especially ironic, since Shelomo himself is married into the royal family of Egypt. It is similar to the way in which David, branded a rebel against the regime of Shaul, was warmly welcomed by Akhish, the Phillistine King who would eventually defeat Shaul in his final battle. In our chapter, the same Shishaq who granted asylum to the renegade Yarovam ultimately lays siege to Rehavam and confiscates much of the wealth of his kingdom.

One wonders if the alliance between Shelomo and the Pharaoh was a long-term ruse on the part of the Egyptian King who was simply waiting for the balance of power to shift so that he could take advantage of his influence and conquer some or all of Israel. In fact, the Midrash states that from the day it was installed, the King of Egypt had coveted the ivory throne of Shelomo, desiring it for himself; with this, the Sages mean to suggest that his jealousy of Israel and nefarious intentions toward them were longstanding. However, when Shelomo was alive and the kingdom was aligned with the will of Hashem, the Jewish people were so prosperous and powerful as to be untouchable. With the faltering of the kingdom in the days of Rehavam – a direct result, of course, of their faltering in their relationship with Hashem – they were now exposed to the Egyptian attack that had been so many years in the making.

When the Jewish people were devoted to the service of Hashem, even the alliances they made with other nations were instrumental to that end and gained for them a superior position. However, when they descended to the level of ordinary politics and pursued the conventional goals of dominance and material wealth, those alliances fell apart and gave the upper hand to their adversaries. Egypt, the nation from which we were redeemed and from which we departed with wealth and a dream of constructing a Sanctuary for God had returned to us with a vengeance, put us in our place and robbed us of our possessions. This metaphoric “undoing” and reversal of the Exodus could have been avoided had we remained on the Torah’s track for success and not lost sight of our true mission as a holy people.

Of course, even on the level of practical wisdom there is a lesson to be learned here – alliances and treaties, like human beings, are in a constant state of flux and should always be taken with a grain of salt. With shifting circumstances come shifting alliances, and overnight one’s friend can become one’s foe. But the Book of Melakhim aims to derive the theological and moral lessons from the events of history and is not meant to serve as a textbook on political science.

Shelomo surely erred in welcoming the Pharaoh’s family into his confidence and inner circle, and this reflected poorly on his political and religious judgment. From the very beginning, as the Midrashim observe, Shelomo’s involvement with and intermarriage with Egypt showed that his personal redemption from the values and culture of Egypt was incomplete and thus set the stage for the eventual destruction of the Temple and Exile to Babylonia.

Melakhim Alef Chapter 13

The Recording

The Summary (Please Note – one or two minor points were added to written summary and aren’t included in the recording)

Melakhim Alef Chapter 13

A prophet from the Kingdom of Yehuda is sent by Hashem to the altar in Bet El, where he finds Yarovam standing by the altar as officiant. The prophet proclaims his message, addressing himself to the altar directly. He states that priests will one day be killed and human bones burned upon the altar when a descendant of the house of David, named Yoshiyahu, comes to power. He also predicts that the altar will break in half and its ashes will spill to the ground.

Yarovam stretches out his hand to order his guards to arrest the prophet, but a miracle occurs and his arm becomes frozen in place. The altar splits apart as predicted, confirming the authenticity of the prophet’s words. Yarovam asks the prophet to pray to Hashem so that the strength of his arm is restored; the prophet complies, and Yarovam is healed. Yarovam invites the prophet to dine with him and offers to reward him but the prophet declines, citing God’s command that he not eat bread or water in Bet El, and that he return to the territory of Yehuda by a different path than he arrived.

An elderly prophet living in Bet El is informed of the events at the altar by his sons. He leaves in search of the prophet from Yehuda and finds him resting underneath a tree. The elderly prophet invites the visiting prophet to his home to eat, and the visiting prophet again declines because of the command of God. The elderly prophet lies and claims that Hashem told him to invite the prophet of Yehuda to his house so that he may eat and drink; the visitor, trusting the older prophet, agrees and joins him.

At the meal, the elderly prophet suddenly receives a prophecy that he is bidden to convey to the prophet of Yehuda – because the latter transgressed the word of God that he received, he would pay with his life, and his remains would not reach the burial grounds of his ancestors. Shortly after he departs, the prophet of Yehuda is mauled by a lion. The lion does not consume the carcass, nor does it harm the donkey upon which he had been riding; it merely stands nearby, disinterested, testifying to the supernatural motive of the attack.

When the prophet of Bet El hears word of the bizarre occurrence, he immediately infers that it must have involved the prophet with whom he had dined; he retrieves the body of the prophet, brings it back to his city, eulogizes him, and buries him. He instructs his sons that, after his death, he should be buried alongside the prophet, whose words regarding the altar of Yarovam will surely come true.

The chapter concludes by noting that this encounter with the prophet did not deter Yarovam. On the contrary, he continued in his evil ways, recruiting “priests” to serve at various local altars throughout his kingdom. This policy of Yarovam would ultimately bring divine punishment upon his family and lead to its destruction by the hand of God.

Although the confrontation between the prophet and Yarovam is certainly a powerful and significant moment, it is almost eclipsed by the bizarre epilogue – the story of the two prophets and their interactions. The narrative raises numerous questions. Is the elderly man a genuine prophet? If so, why does he lie to his younger colleague? Why is the younger prophet punished so harshly while the older one, who was responsible for misleading him, emerges unscathed? And finally, most importantly for our purposes, what is the connection between this “side story” and the unfolding events in the Kingdoms of Yehuda and Israel, which are the primary subject of the prophetic message of the Book of Kings?

Our Sages, followed by most of the traditional commentaries, assume that the elderly prophet is, in fact, a false one. This is how they explain his willingness to speak falsehood in the name of Hashem. From this perspective, we can understand his motives easily. No matter what their field of work, people with dubious credentials and shady backgrounds benefit from rubbing shoulders with respectable, established professionals. They love to take pictures with luminaries and celebrities and hang them on the wall to prove that they are accepted by the mainstream and have some clout.

So too, the false prophet wishes to bolster his reputation by publicly associating himself with a genuine prophet who has intrigued the locals with his miraculous deeds. This accounts for not only his hospitality and warmth toward the young prophet but also for his sudden desire to be buried next to him, even though he just met him a few hours ago!

The younger prophet understood clearly that he had to refuse the dinner invitation of Yarovam, who wanted to gain some positive “public relations” points from breaking bread with the messenger (after all, the most sensitive issue at hand in Yarovam’s kingdom was whether it was favored/accepted by the Almighty or not, and dining with a prophet would look good for the king). However, the visiting prophet failed to recognize the same motive at play in the actions of the false prophet and therefore naively accepted the claim that Hashem had rescinded His initial prohibition.

The prophet from Yehuda was supposed to reject any social overtures from any member of Yarovam’s community in order to demonstrate that Hashem had withdrawn his presence from them entirely. Unwittingly, he undermined his own mission by eating with and thereby lending credence to a “religious leader” of Yarovam’s kingdom who was not, in fact, a true representative of Hashem. The false prophet was not of sufficient stature to warrant any miraculous punishment from Hashem, but the younger, true prophet was held to a higher standard and therefore deserved a severe consequence for his misjudgment. His death and burial with the false prophet was a poetic testimony to his betrayal of the task with which Hashem had entrusted him.

The key difficulty with the interpretation of our Sages is that the older man in fact receives a prophecy from Hashem while he is sitting at the dinner table. While it is possible to take this as a fluke or a miraculous intervention by Hashem, it doesn’t seem to be presented in that light. A straightforward reading would indicate that the elderly man is, indeed, a real prophet of Hashem. This is how the Abarbanel, for example, explains the story.

There are several hints in the text that support the theory that the older man was a true prophet. The first is the fact that he did not attend the service at Bet El, only hearing about it from his sons. One would have expected a false prophet to be in the pocket of Yarovam and therefore be present on such a momentous occasion. Second, his fascination with the reported actions of the visiting prophet appear to be genuine and not driven by ulterior motives. Third, his experience of prophecy, delivery of a message, and reaction to its fulfillment all seem consistent with the profile of a true prophet. The question remains, then – why did he lie to the visiting prophet to begin with?

We may be able to infer something about the subtext of these events from a few subtle allusions in the narrative. The older prophet is described as having his donkey saddled twice, a seemingly superfluous piece of information for us to be told. The younger prophet is found sitting beneath a terebinth (a kind of tree) when the elder prophet approaches him – again, the reason for this detail is inexplicable on the surface.

I would like to suggest that these aspects of the narrative serve to conjure up memories of other, very important incidents in the Hebrew Bible. Avraham our Patriarch was famous for saddling his donkey to head out to the Aqedah, the Binding of Isaac. Interestingly, the older prophet has his donkey saddled twice, once to invite someone to his home for dinner and once to bury the dead – the two signature acts of kindness associated with Avraham Avinu, who was famous for welcoming guests and went to great lengths to secure a proper burial place for his wife, Sarah!

The younger prophet sitting beneath a terebinth might also be a reference to Avraham, who was sitting beneath the same kind of tree when he beheld the three angelic visitors to whom he rushed out to invite to his tent for a meal. In the Book of Shofetim, we find Gideon – also an Avraham-like personality who must shatter his father’s idols and break away from the existing social order to qualify for leadership – working beneath a terebinth tree when he is first contacted by the angel who appoints him.

(There may also be a hint here to the story of Bilaam, who likewise saddles his donkey to join the elders of Moav on a mission to curse Israel. Bilaam knew what Hashem’s true intent was but kept it hidden from the Moabites so that he could do his best to win honor and riches from King Balaq. Here, too, the elder prophet knows that he has not received any word of God permitting the younger prophet to dine with him, and he, like Bilaam, should have abandoned his course of action, but he suppresses the truth in order to gain the benefit he seeks from his visitor).

These literary allusions highlight a fascinating aspect of the story that might otherwise go unnoticed. The prophets in this story, like Avraham and Gideon (and even Bilaam to some extent), are lonely, solitary individuals. They are, for all intents and purposes, isolated from the people and institutions around them. While the population rallies around Yarovam and places him on a pedestal, these prophets are ignored, neglected or even despised. What a relief it must have been for the prophet of Bet El to hear that a courageous messenger from Yehuda had spoken truth to power to Yarovam! How excited he must have been to form a bond of friendship and camaraderie with a like-minded spiritual leader who stood apart from and rose above the corruption of the kingdom like he himself did. He rationalized that the little white lie he told was justified because he assumed that the initial restriction of eating and drinking in Bet El excluded dining with fellow prophets.

Yarovam was a populist whose success or failure hinged on the communal support for and endorsement of his activities. In fact, after the embarrassing showdown with the prophet which may have tarnished his credibility, Yarovam expanded his “democratization” program even further, establishing more altars and appointing everyone who was interested to serve as “priests” in them. He responded to the prophetic challenge by “hitting the pavement” and campaigning for more votes, offering even more opportunities and benefits to his citizens. The Rabbis, bewildered by the intelligent and capable Yarovam’s stubbornness, explain that even though he was offered the chance to be the founder of an eternal dynasty in Israel, he could not accept being “second” to the Davidic dynasty and therefore spurned the word of God.

The prophets in the story were meant to serve as a contrast to this orientation and to stand aloof from public opinion. They were expected to be courageous, principled and not swayed by the need for social acceptance – even from one another – as long as they lived by the wisdom of Hashem. To underscore this idea, the prophet was supposed to leave the area immediately after delivering his message to Yarovam, not stick around to make friends, receive feedback or build a following. However, apparently, even the prophet found being alone and alienated difficult to handle. When he was approached by another Abrahamic figure in an evidently Abrahamic setting, he assumed that it was a Divine signal that there was an exception to his original prophecy, and he was relieved to have the opportunity to form a social connection with someone who appreciated what he had to say.

The prophet from Yehuda failed to realize that there was more to the concept of dissociating himself from Bet El than simply not lending his endorsement to the corrupt power players. It was also imperative that he show his independence of spirit and his total disinterest in whether his ideas were popular or not. By succumbing to the desire to commiserate with someone who “approved his message” he accidentally watered it down, showing that he – like Yarovam – was also dependent, to some degree, on the support and encouragement of others when it came to his religious initiatives. He did not see himself as responsible and accountable to God alone, regardless of the views of other human beings. Fascinatingly, his punishment is to be killed by an animal that takes no interest in personal gain from his deed – the lion acts totally in service of the Divine Will and seeks nothing in return for its trouble.
(In fact, even according to the view that the elder prophet was a false one, it is possible that this flaw – the desire for validation and endorsement from others – was the reason the younger prophet so quickly and naively accepted the claim that Hashem had issued a “retraction” or “correction” of His original message. He wanted to believe it was true and to feel that his noble actions had won the appreciation of someone who seemed respectable.)

Melakhim Alef Chapter 12

The Reading

The Summary

Melakhim Alef Chapter 12
The nation of Israel gathers in Shekhem for the official coronation of Rehavam, Shelomo’s son and successor. Yarovam, no longer needing to fear Shelomo, is returned to Israel from Egypt to represent the population and bring their grievances before the new king. Specifically, they request an alleviation of the severe tax burden that had been placed upon them by Shelomo and which, now that the major public works projects had been completed, was no longer necessary.

Rehavam requests three days to consider the matter and consult with his advisers. The elder statesmen who had formerly advised Shelomo recommend that Rehavam acquiesce to the petition of the people. If he treats his subjects in a kind and compassionate manner now, they reason, he will win their allegiance and loyalty and will be able to demand more of them in the future. Rehavam’s young friends, however, advise him to deal harshly with the nation and to inform them that his regime will be even more exacting than that of his father.

Rehavam abandons the counsel of the elders and adopts the “no nonsense” policy endorsed by his childhood companions. Unsurprisingly, the high handed and threatening tone of Rehavam is not well received, the populace rejects his authority, and a rebellion begins to take shape. When Rehavam sends his officer Adoram to collect taxes, the people pelt him with stones, killing him; Rehavam himself escapes harm and finds refuge in Jerusalem.

Yarovam is chosen as King by all of the tribes except for Yehuda. Rehavam gathers a military force of one hundred eighty thousand men, comprised of members of the tribes of Yehuda and Binyamin, and prepares to put down the rebellion and reunify the kingdom. However, Hashem sends a prophetic message to Rehavam, informing the king that these developments were divinely ordained and ordering him not to go to war against his fellow Jews. Remarkably, and to his tremendous credit, Rehavam heeds the word of Hashem and calls off the attack.

Yarovam builds up Shekhem and Penuel, establishing them as key cities in his new regime. However, he immediately becomes concerned with a serious problem that he fears will threaten his sovereignty. Yarovam realizes that the nation is accustomed to traveling to the majestic and glorious Temple in Jerusalem for the festivals. He is worried that visiting the Bet Hamiqdash, which is so intimately connected to King David and his dynasty, will awaken feelings of nostalgia in the Jews and will draw them back to Rehavam and the House of David.

Therefore, Yarovam establishes two sanctuaries for his kingdom, one in Bet El and one in Dan. At each, he places a golden calf, and declares that there is no more need to go to Jerusalem; quoting the statement made by the Jews at the time of the original golden calf, he says, “these are your gods, oh Israel, who took you up from the Land of Egypt”.
In addition to changing the venue of worship, Yarovam alters the calendar, moving the holiday normally celebrated in Tishrei (Sukkot) to the following month, Marheshvan. Lastly, instead of Kohanim and Levites officiating the worship of God, Yarovam selects citizens from all the tribes to perform this function. All of these changes effected a clear break between the religious practices of the Kingdom of Yehuda and those of the King of Israel.

There is a great deal to explore and consider in this chapter. Let us begin with the coronation of Rehavam and his poor choices of behavior. It is surprising that the ceremony took place in Shekhem, located in the tribal territory of Yosef, and not in the capital city of Jerusalem that was historically linked to the House of David. Apparently, Rehavam was aware of the heighten tensions and resentment toward him in Israel on account of some of the actions of his father that had alienated them. There was a particularly anti-Shelomo feeling within the families of Yosef – the historic rivals of Yehuda – of which Yarovam was a member. Holding this event in Shekhem may have been a conciliatory gesture on the part of Rehavam, motivated by a desire to calm these tensions and to set a tone of unity and collaboration among the tribes.

At the same time, Rehavam’s decision to follow the advice of his younger contemporaries is puzzling. What inspired them to offer such ill-considered counsel, and what persuaded Rehavam to adopt it? As a new king, Rehavam confronted a serious dilemma. On one hand, he understood the importance of winning the support and endorsement of his subjects. On the other hand, he feared coming across as overly weak in the eyes of the people, inviting their disdain, or being labeled a “pushover”. He needed to establish his authority and power as king and not to seem wishy-washy from day one. So while he saw that agreeing to the request to lower taxes would increase his popularity in the short term, he worried that it would cause the people to question his strength as king.

The elders correctly concluded that the essential consideration for Rehavam at this point should not have been the temporary, superficial appearance of strength. His primary priority should have been earning the endorsement and loyalty of his subjects. True power is found in strategic leadership, not brute force or threats. A humble and conciliatory approach might have seemed like weakness to Rehavam on the surface but, in fact, would have ultimately secured his position as monarch.

His friends who had grown up with him were, like him, wealthy, privileged and not fully in touch with the mindset of the commoners. They overestimated Rehavam’s ability to “flex political muscle” at this stage of his career and underestimated the potential for revolt among the citizens of Israel. Lacking clarity as to the real significance of the moment, they preferred the macho, confrontational and heavy handed approach that appealed to the insecure ego of Rehavam over the measured and patient response advocated by the elders.

They encouraged Rehavam to behave in an authoritarian way and to put the people in their place, so to speak. And since, in the short term, this indeed made Rehavam feel stronger and more in control, he was swayed in the direction of their misguided advice. Of course, this decision fed the flames of resentment that were already burning in Israel against Shelomo’s regime, further reinforcing the perception that the royal family was elitist, self-serving and dismissive of the concerns of ordinary people. Rebellion under these circumstances is hardly an unexpected response.

Dissecting the anatomy of Yarovam’s revolt is a fascinating exercise. He establishes the political focus of his kingdom in two cities that are historically associated with the Patriarchs, Shekhem – which plays a significant role in the Books of Yehoshua and Shofetim, as well as in the Book of Beresheet with the stories of Yaaqov and his sons – and Penuel, which featured prominently in the story of Gideon in the Book of Shofetim, and was the first place Yaaqov arrived when he returned to Israel from his sojourn with Lavan.

Yarovam places his altars in locations with great historical significance as well – Bet El, consecrated by Yaaqov Avinu as a place of worship, and Dan, where the “graven image of Mikha” had been worshiped from the beginning of the period of the Judges until the rise of the Prophet Shemuel. There is a sense here of “going back to basics” and “returning to our roots”, which we can almost imagine was the slogan of Yarovam’s movement. These geographical choices indicate a desire to turn back the clock of history to a simpler time, a time that predated any monarchy, a time when all citizens of Israel were truly free men.

This is not the only way in which Yarovam proclaims a populist agenda. By putting his sanctuaries at the far North and far South ends of his kingdom, respectively, he sends the message that the entire land from top to bottom, not just these two spots and CERTAINLY not just Jerusalem, is sacred and an appropriate place in which to worship God. In rejecting the special status of the Kohanim and Levites, he makes the prospect of officiating in worship open to everybody, not just to descendants of Levi or of Aharon.

There are two remarkable parallels to Torah stories in the description of Yarovam and his behavior. The first, and most obvious, is to the incident of the Golden Calf. The language used to declare the introduction of the calves at Dan and Bet El is, word for word, the language that was used at the time of the Golden Calf in the wilderness. Yarovam, like Aharon Hakohen, will subsequently offer sacrifices at the altar in Bet El before one of the calves.

Moreover, Yarovam names his children Nadav and Aviya, a rather obvious reference to Aharon’s sons Nadav and Avihu. Ironically, those sons of Aharon died when they brought an unauthorized offering into the sanctuary of Hashem; perhaps Yarovam, in selecting their names for his children, means to “negate” that narrative as the reason for their demise, thereby justifying his own creation of unauthorized modes of divine worship.

The parallel goes deeper than this. Aharon HaKohen was motivated to fashion the Golden Calf because of his fear that the people, panicking over the absence of Moshe, would rebel against him and possibly kill him (according to the Midrash, they did, in fact, kill Miriam’s son, Hur.) Ultimately, the people believed that without Moshe present, Hashem’s providence had departed from them. Aharon compromised and created the Golden Calf to reassure the nation that God was still with them and in order to keep the nation under control, as it were.

Here too, Yarovam is faced with a genuine crisis. The people have good reason to believe that Hashem is with the Kingdom of Yehuda and that the Divine Presence dwells in Jerusalem, as symbolized by the glorious Temple. Yarovam feared that the people, seeing that the “real” relationship with God is mediated through the Bet Hamiqdash and the Kingdom of Yehuda, will be persuaded to return to there and be a part of it. Yarovam’s golden calves were designed to reassure his subjects that Hashem was, indeed, with them. In fact, rather than being limited to the Temple precincts like in the Kingdom of Yehuda, God’s presence permeated the entire Kingdom of Israel and could be found anywhere in between the sanctuaries that were established at the northern and southern borders.

In essence, Yarovam’s two golden calves were his answer to the two golden Keruvim in the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem, and an “improvement” on them. The Divine Presence was conceived as residing in between the Keruvim in the Holy Temple, the place fashioned to serve as the “footstool” of the Shekhina and from which Hashem would communicate with Moshe. In Israel, the Divine Presence was not nearly as limited – it rested in between the golden calves in Dan and Bet El, which included the entire country!

It is important to mention that the golden calves of Yarovam, like the one made by Aharon, were not intended to be objects of worship or idols; they were, like the various golden objects in the Bet Hamiqdash, meant to represent Hashem’s presence in a concrete way. We can see from his conduct and statements throughout the next couple of chapters that Yarovam never wavered in his belief in God; he never “converted” to actual idolatry or adopted religious practices or imagery from pagan cults. He merely used a “Jewish” symbol of the Divine presence, drawn from the Torah’s story of the Golden Calf, to reassure his subjects that despite the distance of the Ark of the Covenant and the Temple, Hashem was still with them.

The similarities between Yarovam and Qorah (Korach) are also intriguing and remarkable. Both abolished or attempted to abolish the class distinctions between Kohanim, Levites and Israelites, and both sought to officiate as Kohen Gadol themselves. Moreover, Yarovam uses a phrase borrowed straight from Qorah when he says “rav lakhem”, it is too much for you to go to Jerusalem, just as Qorah challenged Moshe with the words “rav lakhem”, you have taken too much for yourselves. What is the link between Qorah and Yarovam?

Just like Qorah before him, Yarovam promotes a populist message to facilitate his own rise to power. By demonstrating that he wants to offer the Kohanic privileges to everyone and to allow places of worship to be constructed anywhere, he continues the crusade against the Kingdom of Shelomo, a kingdom that had been branded as politically and religiously elitist. The view that divine service could only be conducted in Jerusalem, and only by Kohanim was, according to Yarovam, as fraudulent and corrupt a claim as the assertion that only a descendant of David could sit on the throne of Israel. As with all popular revolts, any and all kinds of class distinction or privilege become anathema and are seen as part of the oppression sponsored by the state. Yarovam, both politically and religiously, portrays himself (as Qorah did) as the great liberator who frees the common man from the hegemony of the self-appointed elite class.

(Another context where the phrase “rav lakhem” is used is in the Torah when Hashem tells the Jewish people to take leave of Mount Sinai and begin their journey to the Promised Land. There, the language is “rav lakhem sov et ha-har hazeh”, you have spent plenty of time encircling this mountain, and the time has come to move forward to the next stage of your development. Based on this literary allusion, we may infer that Yarovam marketed his new kingdom under the banner of “progress”, as if to say, “enough of this focus on a single mountain in Jerusalem, the time has come for us to move beyond this limiting framework and expand the boundaries of legitimate worship.” In other words, he didn’t merely claim that his vision of Jewish life was ALSO valid – he claimed that it was superior to the form that preceded it.)

Yarovam’s agenda clearly contradicted the Torah and was inconsistent with the high expectations Hashem had of him. Nevertheless, one cannot but marvel at the depth of his insight into the political, social and religious factors he had to negotiate in order to achieve his goals and the brilliance with which he orchestrated his plans. Study of the structure of his rebellion provides us with a better understanding of why and how movements like Yarovam’s and Qorah’s gain adherents and how we might be able to stop them from doing so.

Melakhim Alef Chapter 11

The Reading

The Summary

Melakhim Alef Chapter 11
Shelomo begins the final and most tragic stage of his descent in this chapter. In clear violation of the Torah, he marries many women, for a total of seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines. This far exceeds the number of wives permitted to a king by Jewish law. Moreover, a number of these women hail from nations with which the Torah explicitly forbids us to intermarry, even following a proper conversion.

Like Shimshon before him, Shelomo allows his passion for women to blur his judgment and loses sight of his mission as king of Israel. Under their influence, he authorizes the construction of altars dedicated to various idols, seemingly so that his wives can continue their countries’ religious traditions even though they have relocated to Israel.

Hashem decrees that, as a result of this unfaithful behavior, He will take the kingdom away from Shelomo’s descendants; however, this will occur only after the death of Shelomo himself. Moreover, one tribe – Yehuda – will remain under the rule of Shelomo’s dynasty so as to honor the promise that Hashem made to King David. The rest of the tribes will follow another king.

The chapter proceeds to describe three sources of opposition and stress that confronted Shelomo as punishment for his sin. Hadad the Edomite and Rezon ben Elyada were both survivors of military campaigns conducted under David’s direction in Edom and Aram, respectively. Through a complex series of seemingly random events and changes in each of their lives, by now they had risen to positions of prominence and leadership and used their power to create much trouble for Shelomo’s kingdom toward the end of his life.

The third source of resistance comes from within the ranks of the Jewish people. Yarovam ben Nevat, who possesses significant managerial and leadership skill, has been appointed as one of the top officers and tax collectors in Shelomo’s government. However, Yarovam expresses harsh criticism of Shelomo’s rebuilding of the breaches in the wall of the City of David and his investment in the fortification or improvement of the Millo. As we mentioned previously, whatever exactly the Millo is, the implication of the text is that this project set up a barrier between the residential area of Jerusalem on one side and the royal residential complex and Temple on the other.

This was naturally perceived as misguided, elitist, and an inappropriate use of communal funds for the personal aggrandizement of Shelomo and, even worse, for the aggrandizement of his most controversial wife, the daughter of Pharaoh. Closing off the breaches in the wall of the city sounds like a noble effort but, in fact, this limited access to the Temple and to the king’s palace, something unheard of in the times of David who was supremely accessible to the nation and ensured that the main place of worship was, as well. These grievances, fueled by the public perception of an increasingly imperial, extravagant, and self-involved Shelomo, emboldened Yarovam to confront his boss in an open and perhaps overly forward manner.

The prophet Ahiyah HaShiloni approaches Yarovam, who is wearing a brand new cloak, and tears the cloak into twelve pieces, handing ten of them to Yarovam. He informs Yarovam that Hashem plans to tear the kingdom away from the son of Shelomo and to transfer ten of the tribes of Israel to him instead. One tribe will remain faithful to the Davidic dynasty in order to uphold the Divine promise made to them and in order to maintain Jerusalem as the center of Jewish worship selected by God. If Yarovam adheres to the Torah and commandments of Hashem, he is promised a bright future as a co-monarch of Israel, including his very own royal dynasty. If he fails, however, then he, too, will lose the privilege of governing Hashem’s people.

Yarovam’s aspirations for the kingship become known and he must flee to Egypt, where he finds refuge with the King, Shishaq. Shelomo passes away after forty years of reign over Israel, passing the throne to his son, Rehavam.

It is important to note that it is not necessary, nor is it reasonable, to assume that Shelomo himself participated in the pagan worship that he permitted to take place in the land of Israel. It is more likely, and strongly supported by the language of the verses that emphasize his wives’ service to their gods, that he merely sponsored the building of the shrines, either for political reasons (to honor the families of his wives, many of which were probably royal families with whom he had contracted treaties) or for emotional reasons (to placate his wives who were likely sentimental about their religious heritage and conflicted about giving it up). However, the fact that the king of Israel endorses the establishment of state-sponsored idolatrous altars in the Holy Land is equivalent to having actually served idols.

The whole purpose of the selection of the nation of Israel and of their settlement of the land, not to mention the whole objective of the elaborate and long-awaited construction of the Temple, was to proclaim the existence of One God to all of humanity. The erection of idolatrous shrines under the auspices of Shelomo’s government, with the “royal seal” emblazoned upon them, so to speak, amounts to undermining the Divine purpose that was so close to being achieved. Visitors to Jerusalem who have arrived in search of knowledge of the unique and transcendent God of Israel will be totally confused by the multitude of idols and alternative places of worship that now dot the landscape. The message has officially been diluted and contaminated.

The language of Ahiyah HaShiloni indicates that Yarovam indeed had potential to be a great Jewish king, faithful to the Torah of Israel. Hashem articulates the same lofty expectations of Yarovam that he expressed to the kings of the House of David. This supports the Rabbinic tradition that Yarovam was, in fact, a pious and learned Jew who was quite capable of establishing a dynasty in his own right. Notwithstanding the very negative reputation Yarovam acquires later on, he clearly had tremendous potential, enough to qualify as the Almighty’s choice for the position of monarch. Had Yarovam been satisfied with the mission assigned to him and willing to work alongside (rather than in competition with) the Kingdom of Yehudah, he may have gone down in the books as one of the great kings of our history.

One question we can pose about this chapter is why Hashem insists on preserving a remnant of the Davidic dynasty in spite of the sins of his children. What is the benefit of perpetuating the legacy of David once it has been tarnished? Of course, Hashem swore to David that his descendants would never be totally rejected by Him, but why?

We may conjecture that there is an analogy between the covenant Hashem made with the Patriarchs and the covenant made with King David. In fact, in several places in the Tanakh, these promises are compared to one another, either explicitly or implicitly. In recognition of the outstanding wisdom and noble behavior of Avraham, Yitzchaq and Yaaqov, they were promised that their descendants would never perish from the face of the earth and would one day become a holy nation that deserved to inherit the land of Israel.

Although those children will surely falter and sin along the way, they will ultimately return to the path of Hashem and fulfill their divine purpose in the world. The fact that the Jewish people identify with the Patriarchs and view them as parental figures and role models to be emulated ensures that the nation, no matter how far removed it may be from the ideals of Torah at any given time, maintains some level of connection to the values of their ancestors. This, in turn, means that the Patriarchs are guaranteed that their life’s work will not have been in vain – their legacy, even if sometimes neglected, will never be forgotten or rendered obsolete.

The same is true of King David. The merit of his devotion to Hashem and Torah-true leadership made him worthy of becoming the example of genuine Jewish kingship for all time. The reward he is promised in Hashem’s covenant with him is that, like the Patriarchs before him, he can rest assured that the effect of his deeds will never be erased. His descendants will always look back to their roots and their heritage and, identifying with their great ancestor David, will have his legacy as an ideal to inspire and guide them.

To allow the dynasty of King David to be eliminated would neutralize the eternal impact he was meant and promised to have on generations of leaders after him. It would diminish the place that David had earned the right to occupy in the history and the destiny of Israel. The perpetuation of David’s monarchy in some form through his children holds out the hope that they will eventually awaken to the esteemed legacy they represent, embrace it, return to it, and restore the kingdom of David to its former glory.

Yarovam’s challenge to Shelomo’s leadership centers on the building projects the king undertook that were for no clear public purpose but for his own personal benefit. He capitalizes on the growing dissatisfaction with Shelomo that is fomenting in Israel. In this way, Shelomo’s punishment is “measure for measure” – he reaps exactly what he has sown. In isolating and elevating himself above the nation, he has provoked a level of resentment against the throne that will quickly propel Yarovam to power. This is yet another illustration of the Biblical principle of reward and punishment that we have observed many times in our study of Tanakh. There is no need for supernatural intervention here; the natural consequences of sinful or foolish behavior are a more than sufficient punishment for the perpetrator.

Melakhim Alef Chapter 10

The Reading

The Summary

Melakhim Alef Chapter 10

The Queen of Sheba has heard of the reputation of Shelomo and his kingdom and arrives with a delegation of officers to investigate. She challenges Shelomo with riddles and questions and he is able to answer all of them. She is furthermore impressed by the wealth of the king, the beauty of the Temple and the palace, the extravagance the king’s court and servants, the abundant meals served on his table, and the worship of God he performs in the Bet Hamiqdash.

The Queen of Sheba’s breath is taken away by what she observes, which is far beyond what she had expected to witness based on the reports she had received. She praises the officers and attendants of Shelomo who are so fortunate to have the opportunity to hear his wisdom on a regular basis, and she blesses Hashem, God of Israel, for having chosen such a wise and just monarch to rule over his people. The Queen bestows lavish gifts of gold and spices upon Shelomo. The king returns this favor by providing her with any knowledge she seeks as well as sharing with her from his royal bounty; the Queen then departs for home.

The boats of Hiram not only bring gold back to Shelomo from Ophir; they also carry exquisite wood and precious gems back from their journeys. King Shelomo uses the wood to fashion pillars for the Bet Hamiqdash and for his palace, as well as to make instruments for the musical accompaniment of the Temple service. Shelomo amasses a tremendous amount of gold on an annual basis, both from the taxes he levies on the population and from the exploits of his navy. Shelomo uses this excess gold to design heavy, solid gold, decorative shields and targets that adorn the House of the Forest of Lebanon.

Shelomo overlays his ivory throne with gold and constructs six steps leading up to it; on either side of each step is an ivory lion covered in gold, for a total of twelve lions. No other king in the world could boast of such an exceptional throne. All of the vessels used in the palace and in the House of the Forest of Lebanon were made of gold. In addition to precious metals and stones, Shelomo’s navy would arrive every three years with rare animals like peacocks and monkeys as well. There was such an abundance of gold and fine goods in Israel at this time that items like silver and cedar wood became commonplace.

Shelomo surpassed all of the kings in the land in both material wealth and wisdom. People would come from all over the world to hear his wisdom, bringing gifts of gold, silver, garments, armor, and animals to the king as a tribute. Shelomo accumulated many chariots and horses, purchasing them from Egypt at a hefty price.

In this chapter we see both sides of the tension in Shelomo exemplified, exacerbated and interwoven with one another. The account of the visit of the Queen of Sheba is historic because it describes the fulfillment of the whole purpose of the Torah. The objective of all of the commandments is that the nation of Israel sanctify the name of God in the world, inspiring the gentiles to inquire about and acknowledge His existence. Our patriarch Avraham dedicated his life to this cause and we are obligated to perpetuate his legacy. When the Prophets speak of the Messianic era, they portray the nations of the world streaming to Jerusalem to learn of the ways of God from the Jewish people.

During the times of Yehoshua, the Giveonim pretended to be emissaries from a faraway land who had learned of the great deeds of Hashem and wished to accept His kingship and join the Jewish people. In reality, they were local Canaanites who feared for their lives. However, we see how excited Yehoshua and the elders were by the mere thought that they had accomplished their mission of spreading awareness of Hashem across the globe. In their state of elation they hastily accepted the false story of the Giveonim and welcomed them into the fold of Israel. Sadly, it was later revealed to be a hoax.

The case of the Queen of Sheba, however, is the “real deal” and is very exciting; motivated by sincere curiosity and interest, she has come to learn more about the God of Israel and His wisdom. In this sense, she is a latter-day “Yitro”; like the Midianite father-in-law of Moshe, she left the comfort of her homeland to investigate the reports she had “heard” about the wisdom of Hashem and His Providence. Like Yitro, she has an even further “epiphany” once she witnesses the greatness of the Torah and the people of God with her own eyes and is even more impressed than she had expected to be. She praises not only the wisdom of Shelomo but the One God of Israel, and recognizes that Shelomo has been chosen to implement “tzedaqa umishpat”, charity and justice.

The use of these words is critical because they refer us back to at least two fundamental Biblical characters. King David was described, at the height of his career, as doing justice and charity for his people. As the founder of the monarchy, his example establishes the ideal to be emulated by all future kings. More essentially, “tzedaqa umishpat” are the terms Hashem uses to describe the ethics of the household of Avraham and the principles he taught his children; they define the core values of Judaism.

Shelomo’s kingdom functioned in such a wise, judicious, equitable and charitable manner, that the Queen of Sheba was able to perceive exactly what Judaism and the God of Israel are all about. In this way, too, she is similar to Yitro, who recognized Hashem because of the justice of His actions in punishing the Egyptian oppressors and saving the persecuted Jews.

At the same time, we find Shelomo accumulating excessive wealth contrary to the laws of the Torah, indulging in luxury and extravagance beyond measure, and transgressing the prohibition of acquiring many horses. The Torah explicitly forbids the king to have a multitude of horses so he will not go to Egypt to acquire them; this, in fact, is exactly what our chapter says that Shelomo does, in contravention of the word of Hashem. Although Shelomo shares his vast wealth with the Temple, dedicating many of the fine items he receives to the improvement or beautification of the sanctuary, the majority of it seems to be invested in his palace, his throne and his treasuries.

Fascinatingly, when the palace of the king, Hall of Judgment and the House of the Forest of Lebanon were initially constructed, we noted that there was no “gold” associated with them. We interpreted this absence of gold as a symbolic demonstration of the idea that the Bet Hamiqdash, with its plethora of gold, was of greater stature and significance than Shelomo’s residential complex. The king serves to maintain a just and equitable society so that its citizens can serve Hashem properly; he is, ultimately, a servant of Hashem.
The fact that we now see that there are innumerable gold vessels, fixtures, and decorations in the palace, on the throne of the king and in the House of the Forest of Lebanon is shocking – why wasn’t this mentioned earlier?

It is possible that these adornments were added at a later time, when Shelomo’s wealth increased. Alternatively, it is possible that they were present from the outset, but the text specifically neglected to mention them in order to convey a message. Regardless of the historical timeline, the concept is the same – although Shelomo’s intentions in constructing the royal complex were sincere and God-centered in the beginning, the purity of his motives declined over time. He began to fall prey to the allure of his own riches, power and fame.

When Shelomo started out, he saw these extravagances as a necessary evil “justified” by the need to present a spectacle of majesty and power to the nations of the world. Eventually, however, building the empire became an end in itself. We see the decline elegantly chronicled in this chapter, which moves from the “pinnacle” of spiritual success (the visit of the Queen of Sheba), to grey areas in which the spiritual and self-aggrandizing impulses overlapped (the use of precious wood to adorn both the House of Hashem and the king’s residence), to the low of pure, unadulterated materialism described in the final verses of the passage (accumulation of gold, acquisition of rare items, and pursuit of lavish decoration for their own sake.)

Melakhim Alef Chapter 9

The Reading

The Summary

Melakhim Alef Chapter 9

Shelomo has completed the two primary objectives he yearned to attain – the construction of the Temple and of his royal residential complex. Hashem appears to Shelomo in a dream for a second time and tells him that He has indeed sanctified and chosen the site of the Bet Hamiqdash as the place in which His presence will dwell for eternity. However, he reminds Shelomo that his career and legacy as king will only be secure if he continues to walk in the ways of his father, David, remaining true to the Torah and its statutes.

If Shelomo or his descendants turn away from Hashem, the Jewish people will be rejected by the Almighty and exiled from their homeland. The Temple, which now stands as a magnificent tribute to the closeness between the Jews and God, will be destroyed. Its ruins will then become a reminder to the nations of the world of the tragic downfall of the Children of Israel who betrayed their sacred covenant with Hashem.

The chapter proceeds to detail further “exploits” of Shelomo, including building projects he undertook that were unrelated to the Temple or his residence. Shelomo continues his relationship with Hiram, King of Tzor, and receives an abundance of fine lumber and gold from him. Shelomo gifts twenty cities to Hiram as a gesture of friendship, but Hiram is disappointed in the quality of the land that he is given.

Shelomo levies taxes on the community to fund the restoration or development of several cities in Israel, including Gezer, which was conquered by Pharaoh as a present for his daughter, the wife of Shelomo. Shelomo also constructs a wall around Jerusalem and fortifies the Millo.

(The precise definition of the Millo is unclear and widely debated; what is important, and will become critical later on in the story, is that this landfill, wall or structure stood in between the city of Jerusalem and the area in which the royal residence and Temple were located, creating some sort of separation between the king’s palace and the Temple on one side and the city on the other).

At this time, the daughter of Pharaoh finally moves to the new home her husband constructed for her. Shelomo builds store houses and cities for his vast array of chariots, horses, officers and other possessions throughout Jerusalem, Lebanon and his entire empire.

Shelomo does not employ Jews to implement his projects; instead, he enslaves the descendants of the Canaanites who still reside in Israel and presses them into hard labor. Jews were chosen to serve as the king’s officers, soldiers, advisers and overseers of the work. Shelomo is not neglectful of the Bet Hamiqdash; he still offers sacrifices there three times a year, on the appointed festivals, and supports and funds the institution as necessary. Shelomo creates a fleet of ships and hired navy men who, accompanied by the men of Hiram, go to Ophir to acquire large quantities of gold.

At first glance, the purpose of all of this detail is unclear. What prophetic message is being communicated to us through these descriptions? I would like to suggest that there is a hint in the text that reveals to us the “function” of this chapter – the use of the word “hesheq Shelomo”, the desire of Shelomo, twice. The first time, the “desire of Shelomo” refers to the building of the Temple and the royal complex. The second time, however, the “desire of Shelomo” refers to additional projects unrelated to the sacred mission of the Jewish people.

This latter “desire” was for the activities that aimed to increase the wealth and prestige of the nation and its rulers for its own sake. Shelomo is apparently struggling with conflicting “desires” – one is to glorify the God of Israel and the other to glorify his own empire. We see Shelomo dabbling in prohibited pursuits as well. For instance, the Torah explicitly forbids the king to amass horses and gold, laws that seem to have been disregarded by Shelomo. King David was quite meticulous about observing these rules and, as a result, remaining humble and grounded in his perspective and leadership.

Shelomo, of course, does not intentionally and flagrantly violate the Torah. He surely rationalizes that elevating the wealth and status of the Jewish people will gain it the respect of the nations of the world and will promote acknowledgment of the God of Israel Whom they represent. This is why, almost as an interruption in the flow of the chapter, the text mentions that Shelomo continued worshipping at the Bet Hamiqdash and supporting its upkeep. He still had a sense of his ultimate divine purpose.Nevertheless, the involvement of Shelomo in conventional politics and development projects, the engagement with Pharaoh and marriage to his daughter, and the sheer opulence and power of Shelomo’s regime will ultimately pose serious problems for him in the future.

The brief incident with Hiram is very unusual. Why must the text tell us about the gift Shelomo conferred upon Hiram, and about the recipient’s disappointment in it? This seems, at best, like an inconsequential matter. I would suggest that it indicates that Shelomo was either unable or unwilling to provide a nicer present to his good friend, and that this reflects poorly on him.

If he was unable to do so, this may hint to the fact that his “urbanization” of Israel has had a negative effect on its agricultural prospects. Undue focus on construction and trade at the expense of cultivating the land has taken a toll on the country. Perhaps Shelomo’s priorities have become confused; under the influence of other nations and their expectations, he has elevated the glory of human accomplishment and acquisition over the Divine blessing Hashem promised to Israel – a naturally fertile land of abundant fruit, flowing with milk and honey.

If, on the other hand, Shelomo was unwilling to part with finer cities, on the other hand, this implies that he had grown more possessive and stingy than he had been in the past; he was growing more self-involved and less generous as a result of his remarkable success. Either way, the episode provides us with insight into a possible flaw in Shelomo’s character that will become increasingly significant as the story progresses.

Melakhim Alef Chapter 8

The Reading

The Summary

Melakhim Alef Chapter 8

Shelomo assembles the elders and leaders of Israel in Jerusalem and eventually the entire nation gathers there for a ceremony dedicating the new Bet Hamiqdash. The event is held in the month of Tishre just prior to the holiday of Sukkot. The Kohanim and Levites carry the Ark, the Tabernacle and all of its original vessels to Jerusalem and many sacrifices are offered. The Kohanim then bring the Ark of the Covenant into the Holy of Holies and deposit it beneath the wings of the large Keruvim that Shelomo Hamelekh had placed there.

Shelomo had fashioned new staves/poles for the Ark that were especially long and protruded from the Holy of Holies such that they could be seen by someone standing in the Hekhal. Once the Kohanim left the Sanctuary, a cloud, representing the Divine Presence, filled the Bet Hamiqdash, making further entry or service there temporarily impossible. This was the same manner in which the Tabernacle of the wilderness was consecrated in the times of Moshe, and underscored the continuity between that structure and the “new and improved” permanent home of the Shekhina.

Shelomo then delivers two “speeches”. The first is a lengthy but beautiful and moving monologue known as the “Prayer of Shelomo”. As with all Biblical poetry, it needs to be read word for word to be truly appreciated. Shelomo begins by acknowledging Hashem’s fulfillment of His promise to David that he will have a worthy successor on the throne of Israel, and praying that he will continue to merit that honor.

Shelomo identifies the paradox of creating a “house” for God – He is infinite, incorporeal and transcendent and cannot be contained even by the Heavens, much less in a home constructed by human hands. Shelomo therefore beseeches Hashem that He take special note of the prayers offered in the Temple, and catalogues an array of circumstances under which people supplicate to God – for example, when they have sinned and repented, when there is a crisis or famine, when they must head out to battle, or when they have been taken into captivity.

Shelomo specifically requests that Hashem answer the prayers of non-Jews who arrive at the Bet Hamiqdash in search of a relationship with the God of Israel. Over the course of his speech, Shelomo stresses multiple times that while the worship of Hashem will occur on Earth at the Temple, Hashem will hear the supplications in “Heaven”, His true dwelling-place, and respond accordingly.

Finally, Shelomo offers a shorter prayer, addressed to the assembled populace. He thanks Hashem for having fulfilled all of the promises He made to the Jewish people, and asks the Almighty to help the Jews maintain their faithfulness to Torah so they can continue to merit His blessings and to teach the world the truth of monotheism. Shelomo closes by exhorting his fellow Israelites to carefully observe all of the laws of the Torah; the future will depend on their proper exercise of free will.

Tens of thousands more sacrifices were offered that day and the people celebrated the dedication of the Temple for seven days, followed by the seven days of Sukkot. On the eighth day, Shemini Atseret, the king blesses the people and sends them home.

There are a number of ideas worth highlighting in this beautiful chapter. Shelomo uses the words “makhon leshivtekha” (a place for Your dwelling) several times, borrowing the phrase that was used by the Jews when they crossed the Sea of Reeds, “You have made a place for Your dwelling, Hashem.” This is another instance of the theme that the dedication of the Bet HaMiqdash was really the final stage of the Exodus journey. Shelomo’s references throughout his prayer to the Exodus and the establishment of the Jews as God’s people accentuate this theme.

Two critical theological notions are articulated in this chapter. Many people assume that the struggle against anthropomorphism and the belief that God is outside of space and time are modern phenomena, and that the personalities of the Bible had a much less sophisticated concept of Hashem’s relationship with His creation. Shelomo’s prayer demonstrates that, on the contrary, from the very beginning of the consecration of the Bet Miqdash it was NEVER understood to be Hashem’s home in a literal sense.

Hashem transcends all of His creation. While the experience of entering and worshiping in the Bet Hamiqdash is immensely powerful and promotes tremendous concentration and depth of thought, the purpose it serves is a human one. Hashem is not limited to any one location nor does He hear prayer any less when it is offered outside of the Temple. Shelomo merely asks that the Temple be a worthy and effective vehicle of uplifting the prayers of those who visit it and that it testify clearly to the relationship between the Creator and the Jewish people.

The second theological idea Shelomo expresses is the focus on prayer rather than sacrifice in the Temple. Again, one hears very often that our downplaying of sacrifices is the result of modern sensibilities that see such ritual forms as archaic. Many people have a bloody and negative perception of the Bet Hamiqdash as a result, and feel that it is incongruous with today’s world. Yet from Shelomo’s words it is quite evident that he understood the Temple primarily as a national center of prayer, not sacrifice. Nowhere in his lengthy supplication does he mention the offering of sacrifices in the Temple nor does he request that such sacrifices be accepted, even though he himself offers tens of thousands of animals in sacrifice the same day.

As Isaiah famously declares, the house of God is meant to be the quintessential house of prayer. Although sacrifice is a part of the Temple operation and is respected for the function it serves, it is not considered the main path of a person to Hashem. Torah study, charitable acts and prayer are assigned superiority over most other commandments and observances, and certainly over sacrifice.

One last question raised in the commentaries pertains to Yom Kippur. According to the text, the Jewish people celebrated for the seven days prior to Sukkot; this means, by definition, that they partied on Yom Kippur! The Talmud and traditional commentaries accept this conclusion and state that the Jews indeed ate on Yom Kippur that year but they were absolved from any consequences and promised a place in the World to Come. What was the basis for dispensing with Yom Kippur that year?

In order to understand the answer, we must put Yom Kippur itself into perspective. In essence, Yom Kippur is about hitting the “reset” button on our service of Hashem. Over the course of a year we become lazy, sloppy, presumptuous and generally out of focus in our worship of God. Yom Kippur is a day on which we acknowledge our failings and recalibrate our relationship with the Divine Presence.

The commandment of Yom Kippur was given in the aftermath of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, who approached Hashem inappropriately with an unauthorized form of worship on the final day of the Tabernacle’s dedication, and lost their lives as a result. Yom Kippur is meant to remind us that we should not overestimate our closeness to or familiarity with Hashem and thereby lessen our reverence for His service. Fascinatingly, the highlight of Yom Kippur is the entry of the Kohen Gadol into the Holy of Holies and his generating of a “cloud” of incense. This is a kind of simulation of the cloud of the Divine Presence that originally consecrated the Sanctuary. By imitating the Divine consecration of the Tabernacle or Temple, we recognize the need to symbolically “re-consecrate” it through our Yom Kippur service each year.

This explains why Yom Kippur could be set aside the year that the Temple was dedicated, as it would be the year Ezra and Nehemia unveiled the Second Temple. On these occasions, the Jewish people had reached a level of closeness to the Almighty that justified His resting of His presence upon their sanctuary. It was the beginning of the journey, the actual, initial manifestation of the Divine presence, and therefore the focus needed to be on the dedication of the sacred space and not on the unworthiness of the people or their need for continual cleansing. Observing Yom Kippur that year and artificially “creating” the cloud of the Shekhina would have diminished the impact of the actual encounter with Hashem that served to consecrate the Temple.

Melakhim Alef Chapter 7

The Reading

The Summary

Melakhim Alef Chapter 7

Shelomo spent thirteen years building a residential complex for himself, which included multiple buildings. He commissioned the construction of the “House of the Forest of Lebanon”, which was an airy summer residence that either received its name from the wooden planks that comprised its structure or from its location outside of the city of Jerusalem in a wooded area. The house was elevated above ground, resting on cedar pillars, and its roof was made of cedar planks. Windows lined the walls of this house and an antechamber was situated in front of it.

Shelomo also built a “Judgment Hall” that contained the throne where he would sit to hear and rule on the legal cases and disputes that were brought before him. Although the foundation and structure of the building was constructed from the finest smooth stonework, the roof, walls and ceiling of this hall were covered in cedar paneling. King Shelomo’s personal residence and the home he constructed for his wife, the daughter of Pharaoh, were also built from smooth stone but overlaid entirely with cedar paneling.

All three buildings (the palace, the House of the Forest of Lebanon, and the Judgment Hall), were located in a single courtyard that was surrounded by three rows of stone and one row of wood, like the courtyard of the Temple. It seems that the residence of the daughter of Pharaoh was not located within the main complex. However, since the materials used in its construction and its style of architecture were are similar to the other buildings in the complex, it is mentioned here.

Shelomo sent for Hiram of Tyre, an artisan who was a member of the Tribe of Naftali, to assist him in the stone and metalwork necessary for the Temple. This was not the Hiram mentioned earlier, who was the King of Tyre; this Hiram was a commoner of Jewish descent who was known as a skilled craftsman. Shelomo commissioned Hiram to fashion a number of unique structures that would be placed at the entrance to the Temple and that were totally original – they did not correspond to anything that existed in the Tabernacle. For instance, two exquisitely decorated copper pillars were situated on either side of the entry to the complex, named “Yakhin” and “Boaz”. These had intricately designed bulbs on top and almost had the appearance of “scepters”.

The “Sea of Shelomo” was another innovation of Shelomo, positioned to the right of a person approaching the Temple. This was a large copper basin that contained a substantial amount of water (tens of thousands of gallons) and from which water would be drawn to purify the kohanim for their service. It rested on the backs of twelve molten oxen the front of whose bodies protruded from underneath the basin but whose hindquarters faced away from the observer, with three facing in each direction. Hiram fashioned ten copper lavers or washing stands with bases and large decorative chariot wheels. These were installed by the entrance to the Temple, five on each side, and allowed the Kohanim to wash their hands and feet before going inside.

The furnishings inside the Holy Temple were also more extensive than those of the Tabernacle; instead of a single golden menorah and a single golden table for the showbread, the Temple boasted ten of each! This increase, as well as the increase in the number of washing stations from one to ten, may be understood as a reflection of the quantitative growth of the population since the era of Moshe – now, there were more Kohanim who needed to wash, and there were more Jews who needed sustenance, symbolized by the showbread on the ten tables. Alternatively, it may have been another way of highlighting the superiority in scale and grandeur of the new sanctuary – multiplying by ten is a typical technique of exaggeration or emphasis.

All of the implements designed to be used in the actual Temple service were fashioned from pure gold or brass, the quantity of which was so great that Shelomo did not even bother to weigh them. He transferred the items that David, his father, had consecrated to the Temple into its newly built treasure chambers

This chapter leads us to raise a couple of important questions. The first is an organizational difficulty: Why does the text begin by describing the construction of the Bet Hamiqdash, then shift to discussing Shelomo’s own palatial complex, and then return, once again, to complete its account of the Bet Hamiqdash and its accoutrements? It would have been much simpler to include all of the details pertinent to the Temple in one section and only then to change the subject to Shelomo’s personal building projects.

A second question of interest is why Shelomo spent so much more time (13 years) on his own palace, judgment hall and antechambers than he did on the Holy Temple. Our Rabbis generally take the view that this is a praise of King Shelomo – he prioritized and “rushed” the building of the Bet Miqdash, but was much more leisurely about his own residence.

Some modern interpreters have suggested the opposite; namely, that this undue emphasis on Shelomo’s own palace, summer home, etc., is indicative of a level of immodesty on his part, a personality defect that may play a role in his downfall later in the story. In support of their critical view, these thinkers point out that Shelomo used the same materials and architectural style in his own edifices that he employed in the House of God – expensive hewn stone, cedar paneling, etc. – almost unconsciously conveying that he viewed his own majesty as on par with that of the Almighty.

The commentaries, for good reason, spend much time deciphering the simple meaning of the verses in this chapter. Very little explanation of their deeper significance is provided. Even translating the unusual terminology used in these sections of the text is a tremendous challenge. So we have very little help from traditional sources when it comes to distilling the message of these elaborate and detailed descriptions of architecture. We will have to do our best to develop persuasive and original answers to our own queries here.

There are certainly Midrashim that suggest that, even from the beginning of his construction of the Bet Hamiqdash, Shelomo may already have been influenced by ulterior motives, and I hope to explore some of those ideas in later summaries. However, I would argue that, on a simple literary level, this chapter is better understood as idealistic, not negative, in its portrayal of the king.

I believe that the text integrates its presentation of the construction of the Temple and the construction of Shelomo’s residential complex in order to demonstrate that Shelomo saw his reign as a reflection and extension of Hashem’s reign on Earth, not as a substitute for it. Shelomo’s complex is divided into three parts – the Hall of Judgment, the summer home, and the royal palace, all of which are surrounded by a walled courtyard. It is a mirror image of the Temple, which is partitioned into the Devir/Holy of Holies, the Hekhal/Holy, and the courtyard, and which is surrounded by a wall identical in composition to that of Shelomo’s.

It seems to me that the parallels extend even further than this. The Devir/Holy of Holies is, in essence, the “Judgment Hall”, or symbolic throne of Hashem, Who is always portrayed as “sitting above the Keruvim/angels”, that are represented therein. In Divrei HaYamim, the Holy of Holies is, in fact, designated as “Hashem’s footstool”, evoking the imagery of a Divine throne room. The Hekhal/Holy is made of cedar wood, lined with windows and has an antechamber directly in front of it, just like the “House of the Forest Lebanon” or summer home of Shelomo. The royal residence is covered with cedar paneling and surrounded by its own courtyard, possibly in imitation of the third, outer section of the Holy Temple that contained the sacrificial altar.

Despite all of these parallels, which we might be tempted to interpret as “competitive” in nature, one striking difference emerges – gold is ubiquitous in the Holy Temple, covering nearly every surface, but is noticeably absent from the buildings in Shelomo’s complex.
All of this suggests that Shelomo saw his own majesty and position as nothing but an instrument to establish justice on Earth as a representative of the true Judge, Hashem. Because his sense of the importance of his role was inseparable from his understanding of the greatness of the Almighty and the primacy of His service, Shelomo’s royal complex replicated the layout and motifs of the Temple in many respects, and the descriptions of the two building projects are intertwined. Yet, one distinction remains – gold is not used in Shelomo’s residential structures.

This concept of Shelomo is not foreign to our tradition; in fact, we reference it in our prayers on a daily basis. In one of the blessings of the Amidah, we ask God to provide us with great judges and advisers like we had in the days of old. We follow up by stating that to be guided by such leaders would really mean having Hashem Himself as our sovereign. Righteous kings and judges do not push their own agendas; rather, they are proponents of Hashem’s plan and they do their best to implement that plan through their decisions and actions. In this way, Torah leaders serve as the agents or messengers of the Almighty in this world.

Shelomo is granted unprecedented power and authority and is prepared to judge his subjects wisely and fairly, not because he wishes to revel in his newfound influence but because he recognizes this as his sacred responsibility as the anointed one of Hashem. By applying the wisdom of Hashem to worldly affairs he effectively brings those matters not under his own jurisdiction but under the governance of the Almighty. The Bet Hamiqdash represents Hashem’s providence in the world in a symbolic manner, it is a source of clarity, edification and inspiration. Shelomo’s activities as king translate that awareness of Hashem into the language of practical politics.

We know from our Torah and Prophets that it is only when the Jewish people embody the values of charity and justice that they merit to have the Bet Hamiqdash in their midst. Traditionally, the Bet Hamiqdash was the center of religious worship, justice, and education. Shelomo Hamelekh accentuates the connection between these three core values by modeling his own home and courthouse after the House of God.

With this in mind, we can understand why the description of Shelomo’s palace and Judgment Hall is followed by more details related to the vessels and furnishings of the Bet Hamiqdash. The text first presents the Holy Temple as a place in which the Divine Presence will be manifest to and encountered by the Jewish people. This engagement with the Almighty inspires the nation to pursue the imitation of His ways in their conduct of national and personal affairs, represented and enforced by the king and his bureaucracy. However, to stop there would be to imply that the “final destination” of the experience of the Divine was the courtroom of Shelomo; as if, like other kings, Shelomo merely used the supernatural authority of religion to reinforce his own grip on his realm.

Therefore, the text immediately shifts back to a discussion of the vessels of the Temple – the implements utilized not in the passive “appearance before Hashem” but in the active worship of Hashem. Ultimately, our establishment of a just and equitable society, presided over by a righteous monarch, is only a means to an end – it paves the way back to the Holy Temple where we can learn Torah, reflect upon the True King’s infinite wisdom and devote ourselves to His service. This may be compared to the Torah’s account of the Revelation at Sinai, which is followed by the laws of civil society (Mishpatim) and only then by a description of the sanctuary to be constructed in the wilderness.

I’d like to add one last speculative observation for further consideration. The “House of the Forest of Lebanon” may be a reference to the phraseology we find in Psalm 96, “let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it! Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before Hashem, for He comes, for He comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness, and the peoples in His faithfulness.” Similarly, in Psalm 29 we read “the voice of Hashem breaks the cedars of Lebanon” a metaphoric reference to the power brokers and tyrants who seem invincible and unstoppable but are, in reality, unable to stand up against or thwart the will of God.

Metaphorically, the mighty trees of the forest tremble before Hashem’s majesty and judgment. Shelomo Hamelekh, in spite of all of his achievements, still saw himself as a humble and reverent servant in the presence of the Almighty. Calling his home “Forest of Lebanon” may have been an attempt to express that using the language of Tehillim, wherein the trees of the forest represent the mighty leaders who, despite their power, still tremble in God’s presence.