Category Archives: Torah Study

Melakhim Bet Chapter 25 – CONCLUSION!

The Reading

The Summary

Melakhim Bet Chapter 25

In the eleventh year of Tzidqiyahu’s reign, Nebukhadnezzar initiates his final, ultimately devastating siege of Jerusalem. The city is taken and King Tzidqiyahu flees, only to be captured and brought in chains before the King of Babylonia. Tzidqiyahu’s sons are slaughtered in front of him and he is then blinded and cast into prison in Babylonia.

In the meantime, Nevuzaradan, the captain of Nebukhadnezzar’s army, oversees the absolute destruction of Jerusalem. The Temple and all of the prominent houses are burnt to the ground. The text describes in great detail how the ornate vessels and expensive decorative components of the Temple, originally designed and fashioned in Shelomo’s time, are smashed, and their shattered material carried off to Babylonia. The troops capture a small group of elite individuals who had remained behind to administer the city; they are dragged before the King of Babylonia and executed.

Nebukhadnezzar appoints a governor, Gedaliah ben Ahiqam, to lead the remaining population of Yehuda. Gedalyah’s policy was to respect and cooperate with the Babylonian authorities, not to flee from them or challenge them. At first it appears that he wins the support and endorsement of the community. However, a small band of rebels, led by Yishmael ben Netanya (a descendant of the Davidic royal line), assassinate Gedalyah and all those who were with him. This upheaval attracts the ire of the Babylonian government, and leads to the escape of the rest of the Jews to Egypt for refuge.

Thirty-seven years after the first wave of exile, the perspective of the King of Babylonia (now Nebukhadnezzar’s son and successor, Evil-Merodakh) changes, and he adopts a more compassionate and considerate attitude toward the deposed and imprisoned Yehoyakhin. The King of Babylonia frees Yehoyakhin from prison and elevates his throne above those of the other kings whom he had conquered or subdued. For the rest of his life, Yehoyakhin eats at the table of the king of Babylonia, his dignity (and the dignity of Yehuda) restored.

The Book of Melakhim concludes with the same essential themes that have characterized it throughout – Jewish earthly sovereignty as represented by the monarchy, Jewish religious dedication as represented by the Bet Hamiqdash, and the relationship between them. As the Davidic kingdom is dismantled and stripped of its riches, so is the Temple. As the palace is emptied of its attendants and officers, so is the Temple. And as the glorious houses of the king and of the nobles are set aflame and burned to the ground, so is the Temple.

The parallelism between the destruction of both edifices is a symbolic representation of the parallels in their function and their interconnectedness, a subject that really occupies the entire Book of Melakhim from start to finish. The rise of the monarchy and its stabilization is initially presented as a precursor to the establishment of the presence of the True King of Israel – Hashem – in the midst of the nation through the construction of the Temple.

The Jewish people knew that strong and competent human governance was necessary on a societal level to prevent a descent into chaos and, on a religious level, to provide the kind of environment that would allow for spiritual growth and sanctification of God’s name. When preserving the monarchy became an end in itself, however, the sovereignty of Israel stood in the way of the holy mission of the Jewish people rather than facilitating it.

When the material and political aspirations of the regime trumped its sense of transcendent purpose and covenantal responsibility, when the struggle for power and domination replaced the search for knowledge of and closeness to the Almighty – simply stated, when the Bet Hamiqdash was no longer the focus of the Bet Hamelekh (House of the King) – then the entire infrastructure was condemned to collapse. Only through losing the political independence that was now a liability and experiencing exile once again would the nation be able to repent, refocus and return to autonomous existence in the Holy Land.

Tzidiyahu is treated particularly harshly by Nebukhadnezzar, who “takes him to task” and deliberately tortures him both psychologically and physically. The accounts in Sefer Melakhim and Sefer Divre HaYamim agree that Tzidqiyahu violated his oath of loyalty to Nebukhadnezzar by rebelling against him, thereby incurring the Babylonian King’s wrath. Sefer Divre HaYamim emphasizes that Tziqiyahu was, in fact, punished by Hashem for swearing falsely to Nebukhadnezzar and desecrating His name.

The Talmud recounts a fascinating anecdote in which Tzidqiyahu witnesses Nebukhadnezzar engaging in a grotesque act, consuming a live rabbit. Nebukhadnezzar makes Tzidqiyahu swear in the name of Hashem never to divulge his secret, which he fears might lead to his disgrace in the eyes of others. Years later, at a juncture when Babylonia seems more vulnerable, Tzidqiyahu seeks release from his vow from the Sanhedrin and is therefore able to spread gossip about Nebukhadnezzar, apparently hoping it will weaken his reputation and inspire others to side with him in his rebellion against the depraved emperor.

Nebukhadnezzar confronts Tzidqiyahu on his treachery and eventually approaches the Sanhedrin, who defend their right to absolve petitioners of their vows. Nebukhadnezzar replies that while they may have the right to cancel vows that are purely between man and God, they have no right to cancel a vow made to another person behind that person’s back. The elders of the Sanhedrin are speechless and sit on the ground in mourning, and the final phase of the destruction of Jerusalem ensues.

The message of the story is profound and poignant. Because Tzidqiyahu had sworn allegiance to Nebukhadnezzar in the name of Hashem, his subsequent disregard for that oath was nothing less than a desecration of Hashem’s name. Sure, Tzidqiyahu could rationalize his change of heart and try to justify his decision to violate his word – whether that meant, as in the text, declaring independence from Babylonia, or, per the Midrash, revealing hidden truths about Nebukhadnezzar to the public. And he may have been able to win over the rabbis and scholars and persuade them to endorse his choice. However, the legality of his strategy notwithstanding, the result is a hillul Hashem, a negative reflection upon the Almighty.

In the eyes of Nebukhadnezzar, Tzidqiyahu has openly demonstrated that invoking the name of his God was a mere political ruse that meant nothing to him in reality. This undoubtedly constitutes a desecration of the name of the Almighty. Moreover, in utilizing technical loopholes to free himself from his promise behind Nevukhadnezzar’s back, Tzidqiyahu shows little or no respect for the Babylonian King who is the victim of his treachery and who is probably now even more resentful toward the people, religion and God of Israel. This adds another dimension to the Hillul Hashem involved.

This failure of Tzidqiyahu was not an isolated act; it reflected a lack of concern with the ultimate mission of the Jewish people and the ultimate goal of the Miqdash – sanctification of Hashem’s name across the globe, before the eyes of both Jews and gentiles, and even before the eyes of the tyrannical Nevukhadnezzar. Tzidqiyahu’s indifference to this sacred cause revealed that he considered the political objectives he hoped to achieve with his rebellious behavior more desirable and important than the mandate to faithfully represent Hashem’s truth, wisdom and compassion in the world.

In this sense, Tzidqiyahu’s behavior was not the manifestation of a personal defect as much as it was a clear exemplification of the fundamental failure of the monarchies of Israel and Yehuda as a whole – namely, their abandonment of the Divine purpose for which they had been created in favor of the pursuit of military conquest, independent sovereignty and material success for their own sake.

For us, the lesson to be derived from Tzidqiyahu is, first and foremost, the importance of exhibiting reverence for Hashem’s name and behaving in ways that reflect positively on Him and on His Torah. This means conducting ourselves honestly and truthfully in our dealings with all of God’s creatures and not allowing ourselves to rationalize or justify immoral or unethical activity, no matter how compelling the pretext may seem.

Of course, the book concludes with a clear signal that the story of Jewish nationhood is far from over. A representative of the Davidic dynasty, Yehoyakhin, still lives in Babylonia, favor has shone upon him and his dignity has been restored. Even at the darkest moments in our history, a sliver of hope remains, and we are reminded that the light of our glorious destiny has not yet been extinguished – with Hashem’s help, against all odds, we will rise again.

Melakhim Bet Chapter 24

The Reading

The Summary

Melakhim Bet Chapter 24

The pendulum of power in the region shifts drastically once again, and Babylonia becomes the dominant force in the region. Egypt is isolated and no longer influential. For three years, Yehoyaqim submits to the authority of Nebukhadnezzar, king of Babylonia. However, he eventually rebels, generating much turmoil for the Kingdom of Yehuda.

These difficulties are exacerbated by constant raids and incursions into Jewish territory by neighboring peoples, including Chaldeans, Arameans, Moabites, etc., mainly orchestrated or encouraged by Babylonia. Of course, all of this was ultimately part of Hashem’s plan, finalized in the wake of the wicked reign of Menashe, that the nation of Israel would be exiled from their land. After a rocky period of leadership, Yehoyaqim dies, and his son, Yehoyakhin, rules in his stead.

Three months into his tenure, the young King Yehoyakhin is besieged by Nebuchadnezzar and, seemingly, surrenders to his forces. The Babylonians leave with all of the treasures of the Bet Hamiqdash and the palace, and the royal family is exiled, together with all of the officers, skilled workers, craftsmen, and soldiers in Jerusalem. Only the “working class” Jews remain in the land, under the governance of Yehoyakhin’s uncle, Matanya, who is renamed Tzidqiyahu. Although placed upon the throne as a regent of Babylonia, Tzidqiyahu eventually rebels against them as well.

In the wake of Yoshiyahu’s untimely death, we are witness to a path of apparently irreversible national disintegration. Two foreign powers – first Egypt, then Babylonia – arise in the region and exert overwhelming influence upon Israel. Twice, we find a King of Yehuda deposed after only three months of rule because of his presumably antiestablishment leanings, only to be replaced by a king selected by the “superpower” (first Egypt, then Babylonia) who reigns for eleven years before deciding to rebel. The monarchs of Israel continually seek to exploit the vulnerabilities of their adversaries and to take advantage of the instability and shifting balances of power, but their efforts are tragically unsuccessful and consistently counterproductive.

There is an element of irony, of course, in the slow downfall of the Kingdom of Yehuda at the hands of Egypt and Babylonia. Avraham began his fateful journey to the Promised Land and inaugurated his monotheistic movement when Hashem commanded him to depart from Ur Kasdim – Babylonia – and all that it represented. Generations later, his descendants, the Jewish people, became an independent nation with its own unique destiny when Hashem delivered them from Egyptian bondage.

Sadly, the clock has moved in reverse, first back to Egyptian domination and then to total destruction under the weight of Babylonian tyranny. The process of growth and development that began with Avraham, proceeded through Egypt and achieved its culmination in the establishment of the monarchy and Bet Hamiqdash in the land of Israel had been dealt an epic blow, crushing it back to its very foundation.

Melakhim Bet Chapter 23

The Reading

The Summary

Melakhim Bet Chapter 23

Yoshiyahu summons the elders and all the inhabitants of Yehuda to a gathering in the Bet Hamiqdash, where they officially commit to honoring their covenant with Hashem and observing the Torah. Then, under Yoshiyahu’s direction and supervision, a thorough “purge” of idolatry is conducted throughout the kingdom. The chapter is particularly detailed in its account of the variety of idols, locations and objects targeted by this project.

All altars, vessels, statues and other accessories associated with foreign worship are removed from the Temple. Illicit sanctuaries, whether devoted to Hashem or to other gods, are dismantled and defiled, and their officiating priests are either removed from office or slain. The houses of immorality, which were closely linked to some of the idolatrous cults, and the location where children were burned for the god Molekh were destroyed. Many of the idols, altars and other items dedicated to pagan worship, including those erected and established by Kings Shelomo, Ahaz and Menashe, were contaminated, defaced and demolished.

Yoshiyahu travels to the altar in Bet El, originally consecrated by Yarovam, and burns human bones upon it, permanently desecrating it, and then burns and pulverizes it. He discovers the tomb of the prophet who had confronted Yarovam and had long ago predicted Yoshiyahu’s destruction of the sanctuary; the king orders that his grave, and that of the prophet from Shomron buried beside him, should not be disturbed. Yoshiyahu returns to Jerusalem and orders that the entire nation observe Passover as stipulated in the Torah; this is the first time since the era of the Judges that the festival has been celebrated in this manner.

In addition to extirpating all forms of idolatry and eliminating them from Israel, Yoshiyahu also removes all practitioners of the occult, soothsayers, diviners, etc., who had been functioning without disturbance in the kingdom for some time now. The text tells us that never in history was there a king who repented and was as wholeheartedly devoted to Hashem as Yoshiyahu, but that the decree to destroy the Temple and exile the Jews had already been sealed during the reign of Menashe and would not be reversed.

Pharaoh Nekho of Egypt declares war against Assyria and wishes to advance against them; he expresses his intention to lead his troops through Israel to the battlefield. Yoshiyahu refuses to allow the Pharaoh passage, and musters his own army to intercede. Tragically, Yoshiyahu is unsuccessful and is killed by the archers of Egypt. His men carry his body back to Jerusalem and he is buried. Yoshiyahu’s son, Yehoahaz, is chosen by influential members of the nation to lead the kingdom, but does not follow the admirable religious path of his father; instead, he reverts to the wicked ways of earlier generations.

Pharaoh Nekho is unhappy with the appointment of Yehoahaz, who is not seen as a pro-Egypt monarch. Therefore, the Pharaoh imprisons Yehoahaz and places another son of Yoshiyahu, Elyaqim, upon the throne of Yehuda. Pharaoh demands an enormous tribute from the kingdom and changes Elyaqim’s name to Yehoyaqim; both of these actions are symbolic demonstrations of the dominance of Egypt and the fact that Egypt is really directing the “puppet government” of Yehuda. Yehoyaqim taxes the people heavily in order to meet his obligations to Pharaoh. He continues in the wicked path of most of his predecessors.

The renaissance orchestrated by Yoshiyahu begins with a gathering in the Bet Hamiqdash and a rededication to Torah. This is symbolic of a recognition – really, the theme of the entire book of Melakhim – that the primary focus of the Jewish Kingdom must be its relationship with and service of Hashem. The institution of the monarchy is meant to be instrumental to the worship of Hashem and observance of Torah and to convey the message that the success of the regime hinges on its adherence to the will of the Almighty, not its ability to provide a false sense of security to the population by projecting an impressive image of majesty.

Yoshiyahu’s purge of idolatry from the kingdom is clearly more sweeping and dramatic than the similar efforts of his great grandfather, Hizqiyahu. Why didn’t Hizqiyahu, who was also sincere and zealous about the observance of Torah, conduct as thorough of a campaign against pagan worship in his time? One possibility is that Hizqiyahu did, in fact, demolish many of the offensive altars and idols later targeted by Yoshiyahu; however, Menashe, his wicked son, may have restored them to function as part of his initiative to promote idolatry throughout the Kingdom.

Another possibility is that differences in the political landscapes that confronted the respective kings exerted an influence on their activities. Although Hizqiyahu attempted to reunify Israel through outreach to the Northern Kingdom (detailed in Sefer Divre Hayamim), his overtures were tentative. He did not view himself as possessing the authority necessary to impose his will on the citizens of the former Kingdom of Israel. These limitations in power were exacerbated by the constant international conflict that besieged and isolated Hizqiyahu and his regime, especially the repeated incursions and threats from Ashur.

By contrast, in Yoshiyahu’s era circumstances had changed, there was no looming world power vying for control of Yehuda and its environs, and therefore Yoshiyahu was able to enter the Northern Territories and destroy their illegal sites of worship without compunction. In this sense, Yoshiyahu was in a better position to pull off a “reunification” of Israel than Hizqiyahu had been. Sensing the potential for truly “messianic” achievements here, Yoshiyahu may have been emboldened and inspired with a degree of passion that eclipsed even that of the pious Hizqiyahu.

Nevertheless, Yoshiyahu ultimately fails. The cause of his downfall is twofold. Personally, he errs in involving himself in the conflict between Egypt and Ashur, a war in which he had no place participating. Unlike a proper King of Yehuda, he is not described as consulting with a prophet before entering the battle; indeed, according to the Book of Yirmiyahu, he was warned against doing so and chose to ignore the prophetic message altogether.

Apparently, Yoshiyahu was confident in the success of his reforms and truly believed that he had ushered in an era in which the blessings promised by the Torah would once again be fulfilled, including the blessing that “a sword will not pass through your land”. In his eyes, the idea that the King of Egypt might lead his army through Israel on his way to war would tarnish the idyllic image he had of his nation as a people living in accordance with the Torah and under the protective wings of the Divine Presence. As with a few of his predecessors, Yoshiyahu’s Messianic fervor impaired his judgment and derailed his political career.

One last important point to comment on in our chapter is the role that the “sins of Menashe” play in the eventual destruction of the Temple and exile of the Jews from their homeland. Why, despite the reforms implemented by Yoshiyahu, do the sins of Menashe still condemn the Jews to such a horrible fate? Why does Hashem see fit to visit the sins of the wicked king upon future generations? Is the future really predetermined by the actions of evil leaders of the past?

We must keep in mind that the door to repentance is never closed. However, the text of Sefer Melakhim was written after the events that it describes, and it presents an “inevitable” trend toward the dissolution and collapse of the Jewish Kingdoms. It would have been possible for the generation of Yoshiyahu to repent fully and to have earned an absolute reprieve for the wicked deeds of King Menashe. The fact that they are nonetheless held accountable for those actions is a sign that the effect of those policies and behaviors on the population was never quite uprooted from their minds and hearts.

The lengthy reign of Menashe had left an indelible imprint on the society that allowed him to rule and direct it for fifty-five years, and even the heroic and historic campaign of Yoshiyahu was not sufficient to purify the Jewish people from the corruption with which it had infected them. Indeed, the Midrashim comment that Yoshiyahu vastly overestimated the success of his efforts; although outwardly, idolatry and immorality had ceased, the common people continued to serve idols and engage in pagan practices secretly. Yoshiyahu only changed the public face of Israel, he did not transform the hearts of its citizens.

In one memorable image, the Rabbis comment that the King’s inspectors would go from house to house searching for any trace of idolatry. The offending parties had built their objects of worship into their doors, so that when the doors were open to greet the inspectors, no idols would be evident; however, once the inspectors had left and the doors were closed, the idol would be automatically “reconstituted”. In this way, the Sages convey to us the idea that the changes that occurred during the period of Yoshiyahu were not as fundamental and systemic as he had hoped and dreamed; they were important reforms, but they only scratched the surface of what needed to be done for the Jewish people to break free of the pernicious influence of the legacy of Menashe and rightfully reestablish itself as the holy nation of Hashem.

Melakhim Bet Chapter 22

The Reading

The Summary

Melakhim Bet Chapter 22
At the tender age of eight years, Yoshiyahu becomes the king of Yehuda. He initiates a project to make an accounting of the revenues of the Temple and, using the available funds, he commissions the renovation of the Bet Hamiqdash. During the construction, Hilqiyahu the Kohen discovers a Sefer Torah somewhere inside the building (many commentaries indicate that this was the original Torah Scroll written by the hand of Moshe Rabbenu, which had been hidden inside the Temple) and delivers it to Shafan the scribe.

Shafan approaches the king to update him on the progress of the building project, informing him that the funds have been disbursed as had been commanded. He then shares with him the discovery of Hilqiyahu, and reads to the king from the Torah text. Upon hearing the words of the Torah, Yoshiyahu tears his garment in mourning. He realizes that the Jewish people have failed to uphold their covenant with Hashem and are therefore condemned to destruction.

Yoshiyahu sends a delegation to meet with Hulda the Prophetess and inquire as to the future of their nation. Hulda tells the visitors that Hashem has indeed decreed destruction upon the Kingdom of Yehuda, and that it would be destroyed, and its population exiled, in the near future. However, since Yoshiyahu humbled himself and sincerely repented upon hearing the words of Torah, showing genuine remorse for the failure of the nation and their ancestors to adhere to the laws of Hashem, the king will not have to witness the terrible devastation that is to come. Yoshiyahu will die in peace before calamity is visited upon Yehuda. The delegation returns to Yoshiyahu and conveys Hulda’s message to him.

It is interesting to wonder what prompted Yoshiyahu to renovate the Temple at this juncture in history. After all, from what we can gather, he had no real idea what Judaism was or what it meant. Most likely, he assumed that the pagan practices and idolatry that were rampant in Israel were “Jewish” in one way or another. We may speculate that Yoshiyahu’s initial interest in repairing the Temple was nationalistically motivated; he may have seen its restoration as a source of pride for the people since it was their national place of worship and was a glorious monument to the history of the country and of the monarchy.

From the outset, this focus on revisiting and promoting the “heritage” of the people and generating some nationalistic pride differentiated Yoshiyahu from his grandfather Menashe, who was more interested in reshaping the kingdom in the mold of its neighbors. Again, this is only speculation, but he may have interpreted the assassination of his father, Amon, as a plea for change, and felt that he needed to bolster the credibility and Divine endorsement of his position by recalling the “glorious era” of King Solomon and his Temple; alternatively, he may have seen a general reticence, complacency or dissatisfaction among the people, and sought an exciting project that could unite and energize them, lifting them out of stagnation.

A careful reading of the words of Hulda the Prophetess is instructive. She provides two messages to the delegation from Yoshiyahu – one a confirmation of impending doom for the community as whole, and the other a more positive and optimistic reassurance for Yoshiyahu personally. Hulda prefaces her initial, negative message with the phrase “say this to the man who sent you to me.” However, when she shifts her tone to send the message of promise, she opens with these words “and to the King of Yehuda who sent you to me to seek Hashem, so shall you say to him.” Calling the king “the man who sent you to me” seems unnecessarily caustic, especially in view of the fact that Yoshiyahu was a good man. What is the purpose of these two introductory phrases?

I would like to offer two possible explanations: one based on the text itself, and one based on a comment of our Sages. On a purely textual level, we may suggest that Hulda is addressing Yoshiyahu in two frameworks. On one hand, he is the descendant of the wicked kings Menashe and Amon; as the heir to their corrupt legacy and representative of their royal lineage, he is dismissively referred to as “the man who sent you” and is apprised of the terrible destruction that will soon visit his people.

On the other hand, judged purely as an individual, Yoshiyahu is righteous and sincere, seeking Hashem wholeheartedly; from this point of view, taken out of the context of his father and grandfather, he can be granted the title “King of Yehuda”, praised for his desire to connect to the Almighty, and promised a charitable outcome for himself and his immediate family.

Another possible interpretation of the “dual introduction” of Hulda is based on an observation of some of our Sages. They point out that Yoshiyahu lived during the period of Yeshayahu, the greatest prophet of that generation, and really should have consulted with him. One explanation offered by our Rabbis for the choice of Hulda is that, since she was a woman, the king hoped she would have a kinder and more compassionate response to his query than the male Yeshayahu.

With this in mind, I would suggest that perhaps this is why, in delivering her harshest words, she calls Yoshiyahu “the MAN who sent you to ME” – in other words, he sent you to me because I am a woman, expecting me to provide a sweeter, more palatable message because of my gender, but he is sorely mistaken! As a prophetess, Hulda conveys only the words that Hashem authorizes her to communicate; her femininity or lack thereof has no effect on the content of her predictions.

According to this interpretation, Hulda offers Yoshiyahu a subtle rebuke for his pagan-style assumption that a prophet’s personality or character influences his or her transmission of the word of God, and that somehow consulting with a more amenable prophet would lead to a more pleasant outcome. On the contrary, prophecy is delivered in a pure, unadulterated form, and represents Truth that Hashem’s messenger is commanded to proclaim but has no authority or ability to tamper with.

Melakhim Bet Chapter 21

The Reading

The Summary

Melakhim Bet Chapter 21
Menashe ascends to the throne of Yehuda following the death of his father, Hizqiyahu. Menashe is, undoubtedly, the most evil and corrupt monarch that Yehuda has ever seen. He reestablishes all of the private altars that had been eliminated by Hizqiyahu, and actively promotes idolatry throughout his realm, constructing altars for the worship of the Baal and the host of heaven.

Menashe even goes so far as to place idolatrous shrines and an Ashera tree in the Holy Temple itself, desecrating it and disconnecting it from its sacred purpose of proclaiming God’s Unity. He enthusiastically participates in every popular form of occult ritual that was commonplace at the time, including passing his son through the fire of Molekh, and sponsors the practices of soothsaying and divination as well. A true despot, Menashe is responsible for the spilling of an unprecedented amount of innocent blood in the kingdom. In light of Menashe’s wickedness, Hashem decrees that the kingdom of Yehuda will be destroyed and that the population will be exiled from their land in a dramatic and horrific manner.

The text reiterates the divinely orchestrated process of development of the Jewish people from the Exodus until the present, emphasizing that Jewish possession of the land of Israel was conditional on their faithfulness to the covenant and their observance of Torah and mitzvot. Their repeated failure to adhere to the dictates of Torah had disqualified them from any further “chances” and their fate was now sealed.

Menashe dies and is succeeded by his son, Amon, who continues in the wicked and idolatrous path of his father. Two years later, officers of Amon conspire against him and kill him, and his son Yoshiyahu reigns in his stead.

Many readers are troubled by the shockingly stark contrast between the exemplary conduct of Hizqiyahu who passionately served Hashem and implemented His laws in Israel and the absolute rejection of the Torah and embrace of idolatry and paganism by his son and grandson. How could this happen? In order to develop a cogent answer to this question, we must dig a bit deeper and grapple with an even more incisive problem: how could the Jewish people, led to Torah and educated by Hizqiyahu so thoroughly, possibly have succumbed to the influence of an evil personality like Menashe? Why didn’t they protest, object, rebel or resist?

I would like to suggest what I believe is an inescapable conclusion from this radical reversal – the Jewish people had never bought into Hizqiyahu’s program to the extent that he believed they had. As we saw in the previous chapter, Hizqiyahu was sincerely religious, but his implementation of reforms in the land had much to do with his own feeling of responsibility and need to demonstrate his righteousness, and had less to do with genuine concern for the long term future of the Jewish people. Consciously or not, Hizqiyahu may have overestimated just how devoted and committed his subjects were to Torah, and he may have underestimated how much of the veneer of Torah living was a product of his own imposition of will over the population.

If we follow this approach, then the events unfolding in this chapter make more sense. The nation, as a whole, still harbored a connection to the popular and attractive trappings of paganism popularized by King Ahaz and perhaps also a hankering for the individual altars that had been tolerated in the kingdom for generations. With the death of Hizqiyahu, a zealous champion for Judaism, these feelings of disenfranchisement and nostalgia may have reemerged and Menashe, seeking to build up his base of popular support, capitalized on them.

Like his father, Hizqiyahu, Menashe placed a high premium on his standing on the international scene as well as his image as a powerful and effective leader. Unlike his father, however, he opted to seek the recognition and position of influence that he desired through conventional, idolatrous means. Like King Ahaz before him, Menashe promoted forms of worship that were popular and “mainstream” in the Ancient Near East, bringing the Kingdom of Yehuda into step with other communities in the region for whom the pure monotheism of the Torah may have been off-putting. In a manner reminiscent of the period of Izevel, Menashe had no compunction about shedding blood and stifled political and ideological opposition aggressively and violently.

With this in mind, we can understand why the reign of Menashe was the last straw from Hashem’s perspective. Previous monarchs had failed to live up to God’s expectations in various ways, but none managed to totally uproot the Jewish character of Yehuda and to replace it with a non-Jewish political, cultural and religious identity. Even King Ahaz, whose actions may be seen as a precursor to those of Menashe, still intended for his “modernized” Jewish kingdom to retain its Jewishness on some level; after all, even his Assyrian altar was the site of the worship of God, not another deity.

Menashe, on the other hand, succeeded in refashioning the entire kingdom of Yehuda into a conventional, tyrannical and pagan regime, in which even the signature institution of Israel – the Bet Hamiqdash that was designed to represent the One God’s presence in the world and to inspire the Jewish people to sanctify His name – was hijacked and transformed into a house of idolatry.

Of course, we cannot absolve the people of responsibility for the corrupt initiatives of their king; tragically, the nation allowed him to implement his radical policies and then let them remain the status quo for fifty five years. The last vestiges of Torah and Judaism fully erased from the landscape of Israel, the kingdom of Yehuda was now totally disconnected from the whole purpose of its existence and had lost any right to claim possession of the Holy Land or entitlement to the Holy Temple.

According to Sefer Divre Hayamim, Menashe repented at the end of his life and reversed many of his evil policies, but it was “too little, too late” – the damage had already been done. The objective of Sefer Melakhim is to chart the downfall of the Kingdom and explain, from the prophetic standpoint, why the Temple was destroyed. Therefore, it does not address Menashe’s personal life and later transformation, since this change had no discernible effect on the decree of destruction that had already been passed against the Kingdom of Yehuda.

Melakhim Bet Chapter 20

The Reading

The Summary

Melakhim Bet Chapter 20

Hizqiyahu is ill and is visited by Yeshayahu the Prophet, who informs him that he should put his affairs in order because he will soon die. Once the prophet has left, Hizqiyahu prays to Hashem, asking that in the merit of all of his righteous deeds he should be spared. Before Yeshayahu has exited the city, he receives a message from Hashem ordering him to return to Hizqiyahu and inform the king that his prayer has been answered.

In three days, Hizqiyahu will be well enough to visit the Temple of Hashem and he will enjoy another fifteen years of life. During this time, Hashem pledges to continue to protect the Jewish people from the threat of Assyria. Yeshayahu instructs the king’s attendants to bring him a cake of figs, which is placed on the rash of Hizqiyahu, healing it, apparently to demonstrate that he will recover soon.

Hizqiyahu requests a sign from the prophet to validate his message. Yeshayahu offers the king two options: either the shadow on the sundial can move forward by ten degrees or it can recede ten degrees. Hizqiyahu chooses the latter, and witnesses a miraculous confirmation of the prophet’s words.

The King of Babylonia has heard of the illness and subsequent recovery of Hizqiyahu and sends a delegation to visit him and bring him gifts. Hizqiyahu welcomes the Babylonian representatives and provides them with a grand tour, displaying to them his treasuries, precious metals, spices, weaponry and other evidence of his success and accomplishment.

Shortly after, Yeshayahu again visits Hizqiyahu and inquires about the origin of the delegation and its purpose. Hizqiyahu explains that the men came from Babylonia and that he showed them his house and all he possessed. Yeshayahu informs Hizqiyahu that Hashem has decreed that, in the future, the Babylonians will conquer Jerusalem and carry all the wealth that they have seen back to their homeland. Hizqiyahu accepts and affirms the word of God and consoles himself with the knowledge that these developments will not occur in his lifetime. Hizqiyahu dies and is succeeded by his son, Menashe.

In sharp contrast with the bright and hopeful tone of the early years of his reign, the career of Hizqiyahu ends on a relatively negative note. Interestingly, the Sages comment that he was stricken with illness because he never expressed gratitude to the Almighty for the miraculous salvation his people were granted from Assyria. This suggests that the Rabbis perceived in Hizqiyahu a specific character flaw – a sense of pride and entitlement he developed on account of his religious reforms and devotion to Hashem.

We can catch subtle hints of this attitude even in the text of the otherwise sincere and heartfelt prayer of Hizqiyahu. He asks Hashem to heal him and allow him to live in the merit of his own righteousness and religiosity. However, when Hashem promises Hizqiyahu an extension of fifteen years of life as well as protection from the threat of Ashur, He declares that these blessings will be granted for the sake of His name and for the sake of King David, NOT because Hizqiyahu deserves them.

One detects a slight rebuke in this message – Hashem is telling Hizqiyahu not to bank so much on his own merits, not to romanticize what he has achieved and assume that God is compelled to reward him for it. Indeed, our Rabbis also point out that when Moshe Rabbenu prayed to Hashem, he never invoked his own merit – he always made requests based upon the merit of the Patriarchs. Hizqiyahu, on the other hand, took the unprecedented and inappropriate step of asking for God’s grace by virtue of his own righteousness.

Hizqiyahu’s self-aggrandizement is reflected in the manner in which he greets and interacts with the delegation from Babylonia. In an apparent attempt to impress them, he flaunts his great wealth and power, not once mentioning Hashem nor taking them on a visit to the Bet Hamiqdash. We can and should contrast this behavior with that of Shelomo Hamelekh, who used the visit of the Queen of Sheba as an opportunity to glorify the name of Hashem, emphasizing the role of the Temple and the wisdom of Torah in the success and prosperity of Israel. The Queen of Sheba and her attendants recognized the opulence and power of Shelomo’s kingdom as a function of Hashem’s providence and not as a manifestation of human majesty or might.

After his recovery from illness and his recognition (as expressed in his prayer) that his accomplishments were gifts from the Almighty, Hizqiyahu should have learned his lesson and seen the visit of the Babylonian delegation as a golden opportunity to sanctify Hashem’s name – to share his insight, inspire them, and teach them about the Torah and the service of Hashem. Recall that, in predicting Hizqiyahu’s recovery, Yeshayahu makes explicit reference to the king’s upcoming VISIT TO THE TEMPLE in three days, reminding him of the whole purpose for which he is granted a new lease on life – to serve Hashem and glorify His name in the world! Yet instead of rising to the occasion, Hizqiyahu fell back into his self-centered perspective, basking in the glory and honor that Babylonia bestowed upon him, and wishing to meet or exceed their expectations by showing off his wealth and power (even his response to Yeshayahu, when asked about the delegation, sounds like bravado of a sort).

This failure was Hiziqiyahu’s last and most decisive mistake. Had he played his cards right and responded to this situation properly, he would have set a direction and a tone for the monarchy that could have been learned and perpetuated by his successor. In this way, as our Sages comment, he could have ushered in the Messianic Era.

However, Hizqiyahu tragically traded the idyllic vision of the monarchy serving as a vehicle of the sanctification of God’s name for the fleeting, momentary enjoyment of being honored as an important leader of the region. His choice would have a domino effect on the future trajectory of the kingdom, ultimately eventuating in its destruction. Unfortunately, true to form, Hizqiyahu is unconcerned with the long term prognosis of the nation, preferring to focus on the fact that he will be able to reach the end of his own career peacefully and respectably.


Melakhim Bet Chapter 19

The Recording

The Summary

Melakhim Bet Chapter 19
Upon hearing the news of the blasphemous threats of Ravshaqeh, Hizqiyahu tears his clothes, dons sackcloth and enters the Bet Hamiqdash to pray. He sends his officers to consult with the prophet Yeshayahu regarding the crisis with Ashur. Yeshayahu directs them to tell Hizqiyahu not to worry – the forces of Assyria would soon withdraw, and no harm would come to Jerusalem. This prediction is confirmed, as the King of Ashur becomes embroiled in another regional conflict and must send his troops there.

Nevertheless, this is only a temporary reprieve, because Ravshaqeh soon follows up with written messages to Hizqiyahu. Ravshaqeh cautions Hizqiyahu against trusting in the promises of His God and declares that Assyria will conquer Jerusalem and defeat its God just as it has vanquished the kings and gods of all the other nations with which it has battled.

Hizqiyahu is distressed by these communications. He enters the Temple once again and spreads the letters from Ashur out upon the ground. Hizqiyahu prays to Hashem, acknowledging that Assyria has, indeed, been victorious against its opponents and cast their gods into the flames; however, this is because their gods are mere idols, figments of human imagination. Hizqiyahu asks that Hashem save Jerusalem from Assyria, thereby proving that He is the true Creator and Master of heavens and earth who cannot be challenged by mortal man.

Yeshayahu the Prophet sends Hizqiyahu a message from Hashem: his prayers have been heard and will be answered. The King of Assyria has indeed been successful on the battlefield, subjugating nations and armies that are weaker than his own. However, he fails to realize that his achievements are all the result of a Divine plan and not merely a function of his ambition, military prowess or sheer strength.

Sanheriv’s arrogance has reached the level of delusion and he has dared to challenge Hashem Himself. Therefore, Hashem will exert His absolute domination over the King of Assyria and will disrupt his plans. Sanheriv will be prevented from staging any attack against Jerusalem; he will be sent back home before firing a single arrow and will perish in his own land. Jerusalem will survive and thrive and will be restored to a state of prosperity once again.

That night, a plague strikes the Assyrian camp that had stationed itself around Jerusalem; one hundred and eighty five thousand soldiers suddenly die, and the handful of survivors retreat to Ashur. The chapter concludes by noting that Sanheriv was once prostrating himself at the shrine of one of his gods when two of his sons enter and assassinate him. The murderers flee and Sanheriv is succeeded by his son, Esarhadon.

The period of Hizqiyahu is characterized by a puzzling irony. On one hand, the remnant of the Kingdom of Judah appears weak and militarily inferior to Assyria; as far as Hizqiyahu is concerned, confronting the enemy on the battlefield is not even an option. At the same time, Hizqiyahu has ushered in an era of unprecedented devotion to Hashem, going so far as to rid the land of illegal places of worship as well as idolatry and returning the nation to the path of Torah (even more information about his efforts is provided in Sefer Divre Hayamim).

Because the people of Israel and their king genuinely represent Hashem, their defeat at the hands of Sanheriv would be a desecration of His name and therefore is miraculously prevented. This suggests that the Jews are adhering to the dictates of the Torah at this time. Why, then, have they not received the blessings promised in the Torah – material wealth, independent sovereignty, and political stability and security? If the Jews are living in accordance with the laws and expectations of Hashem, why aren’t they witnessing the fulfillment of the Torah’s predictions that they will be prosperous and successful in their land?

We see from this that Hizqiyahu’s reforms were only the beginning of a long and drawn out process of reestablishing the country on its proper foundations. Rome was not built in a day, and neither was Jerusalem. Hizqiyahu presided over Israel at a time when its resources had already been depleted as a result of its abandonment of the Torah for generations; therefore, he is not yet in a position to recapture the glorious days of his ancestor and role model, Shelomo Hamelekh. In the meantime, the merit of his dedication to Hashem and his striving to perfect the Jewish people earned him the protection and assistance of the Almighty.

In the story of Hizqiyahu we observe one of the fundamental principles of Judaism and of Jewish prayer in particular: Hashem judges and relates to us not only in terms of where we stand at the moment, but in terms of where we yearn to stand. What we have accomplished is significant in His eyes, but so is what we HOPE to accomplish and what we aspire to achieve. This is the meaning of the oft-repeated concept that Hashem saves us “lemaan shemo”, for the sake of His name. Our actual attainments may fall short of His expectations but the fact that we acknowledge the proper values and dedicate ourselves to pursuing them has value in its own right.

We are the people and the nation that we STRIVE to be – our priorities, the role models whom we emulate, and the objectives toward which we direct our energies reflect on us and reveal our true character. The fact that the Jewish people dedicate themselves to sanctifying God’s name and therefore represent Him in the world makes a difference, even if we have been derelict in our duties and failed in myriad ways. Sometimes, this necessitates a compromise. Hashem may grant us leeway and offer us support in key areas while simultaneously ensuring that the “heat” is still on us. Despite earning some respite from our suffering, we may continue to face challenges, obstacles and difficulties that keep us cognizant of our imperfections and aware that we have not yet arrived at our spiritual destination.

The generation of Hizqiyahu had inherited many problems from their ancestors – spiritually, politically and culturally – and they were suffering the consequences of the errors of the generations that preceded them, and had just begun to rehabilitate themselves from the influence of those deeply entrenched mistakes. Their movement back toward Torah and their newfound devotion to the mission of serving Hashem and proclaiming His Oneness made them deserving of the miraculous deliverance from Ashur, a reprieve that provided them with the opportunity to complete the religious revolution that was already underway. They may not have been fully transformed into spiritual superstars just yet; they remained “beginners”, and much work was left to be done.

This explains why the circumstances the Jews of Hizqiyahu’s era experienced were still less than ideal – the tension, strain and struggles served as a reminder that the nation had not quite reached the pinnacle of spiritual development they were summoned to attain. At the same time, the changes they had implemented and the direction they had embraced were sufficient to warrant Hashem’s attention, intervention and support – albeit with some “reservations” – in the meantime.