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.