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.