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The Painful Path to Destruction - The Jewish Press 7.30.2014

The period that preceded the destruction of the first Jerusalem Temple was of the most tumultuous in our nation’s history. It was a time of quick, decisive change, as the nation shifted from a period of morass and idol worship under the wicked Menashe to an era of widespread repentance inspired by his grandson Josiah. However, even the great prophet Jeremiah could not keep the people and their leaders on the proper path. Just a few years after Josiah’s untimely death, the embattled prophet would watch helplessly as the magnificent Temple burned at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian forces.

Of the six rulers who reigned following Menashe’s death, the greatest was his grandson Josiah, son of Amoz. Like his great grandfather Hezekiah, Josiah made tremendous strides in uprooting pagan behavior in Judah, almost managing to undo the destructive inroads of his grandfather Menashe.

Towards the end of Josiah’s reign, the Babylonians emerged as the world’s next power. For centuries, an ongoing struggle had raged in the Fertile Crescent between the Assyrians, who dwelled in the north, and the Babylonians in the south. The latter finally gained the upper hand, with some assistance from the Medes. Two years later, the Medes sacked and looted the once powerful Assyrian city of Nineveh.

At the same time, we find of a rising force to the south of Judah, the Twenty-sixth Egyptian Dynasty. Earlier, the Assyrians had formed an alliance with Egypt in the hope of strengthening their position against invading Babylonian and Mede armies. In the year 445 BCE, Pharaoh Necho II marched a large Egyptian force through Israel in an attempt to reach Assyria and assist his ally in battle. Josiah tried to stop him but was killed.

The Egyptians arrived at Carchemish in northwest Syria where the Assyrians joined them. The Babylonian Chronicle informs us that the two armies marched on the Babylonian city Harran. Nebuchadnezzar, son of king Nabopolassar, led the Babylonians, and achieved a decisive Babylonian victory. As the Egyptian army returned home, Necho marched his armies back through Judah, setting up a puppet king Jehoakim, who had displayed loyalty to Egypt. Necho then imposed a heavy tax on Judah, which the Jewish vassal king passed on to the people.

In 442 BCE Nebuchadnezzar, now entitled Babylonian king, campaigned throughout most of Philistia and Judah, destroying every city in his path. Despite the Babylonian triumph at Carchemish, Jehoakim continued to remain in alliance with Egypt. That proved to be a costly error. Despite several pleas for help, the Egyptians never responded. Jehoakim surrendered to Babylon in 441 BCE, sparing Jerusalem for the time being.

This submission would prove short lived. Two years later, Nebuchadnezzar attacked Egypt proper. During this campaign both sides incurred heavy losses. Nebuchadnezzar retreated empty handed. Encouraged by this defeat, Jehoakim rebelled, again joining with the Egyptians.

The Exile of Jehoachin

In response to Jehoakim’s defiance, Nevudachdnezzar marched on Jerusalem in Jehoakim’s fourth year.

“(He took with him) some of the vessels of the house of God … (and) certain of the children of Israel, and of the royal seed, and of the nobles, youths in whom was no blemish, but fair to look on, and skilful in all wisdom, and skilful in knowledge, and discerning in thought, and such as had ability to stand in the king's palace; and that he should teach them the learning and the tongue of the Chaldeans” (Daniel 1:1–4)

These youths would later become some of the most prominent advisors to Babylonian kings and to leaders of Babylonian Jewry. The best known include Daniel, Chananiah, Mishael, and Azariah.

Seven years later, the Babylonians returned to the area and again marched on Jerusalem. Shortly thereafter, Jehoakim died. His eighteen-year-old son Jehoachin was raised to the throne in his place. Three months later Jehoachin wisely surrendered to Nebuchadnezzar, thus temporarily saving Judah from destruction. He was exiled together with members of the royal family, other heads of state, the Judean military, and many artisans. In all, out of an estimated total population of over one million, approximately 10,000 people, exclusive of artisans, were exiled. (II Kings 24:14) This event is known as Galus Jehoachin, or the Exile of Jehoachin. The Babylonians left the farmers and poorer classes behind to tend to the fields and maintain a local population in Judah.

Last Days

Though the cream of the Jewish crop had already been exiled from Judah, the majority of Jews remained in their homeland following Jehoachin’s surrender. Most of these Jews, known as the am ha’aretz, were uneducated and inexperienced in political affairs. They lacked the leadership skills necessary to guide the Jewish people through this next delicate phase in their history.

The last king of the Jewish people before the final exile was Zedekiah. He began his puppet reign as a Babylonian vassal when he was only 21 years old. Zedekiah was a weak king with limited experience and poor advisors. Zealous princes in Judah together with other national leaders persuaded him to join forces in rebellion against Nebuchadnezzar. They used two arguments to support their recommendation. First, they claimed that the Babylonians would not bother with their small uprising. In addition, they argued that even if the Babylonians did march on Judah, the powerful Egyptians would intercede on the Jews’ behalf in order keep the former out of their immediate region. By acquiescing to their arguments, Zedekiah acted in open opposition to the prophet Jeremiah’s advice. He even went so far as to persecute the prophet for having spoken against his agenda.

Zedekiah’s decision proved catastrophic. Nebuchadnezzar arrived shortly thereafter and laid siege to Jerusalem yet again. For a while it appeared that his gamble would pay off, as the Egyptian army came to the city’s defense and put a temporary end to the barricade. However, once the Egyptian army left, the Babylonians returned to resume their siege of Jerusalem. It lasted for two years, until all supplies were exhausted in the city. On the 9th day of Tammuz, 423 BCE, the city walls were breached. A month later, on 9 Av, the destruction of the Temple began.

For breaking his oath of allegiance, Zedekiah was forced to witness the death of his sons before he himself was blinded and exiled to Babylon. Other leading officials were likewise put to death. All but the poorest were sent into exile. The kingdom of Judah was thereby terminated.

Jeremiah

The story of Jeremiah is one of intense personal and national pain. He never married, having been instructed by God not to build a family of his own, in light of the impending destruction. His energies were rather focused on persuading the Jewish people to repent, an exercise in which he was painfully unsuccessful.

Jeremiah first began to prophesize in the years following the reign of Menashe and his idolatrous inroads. He continued to do so for the rest of his life, cajoling the people to seek atonement. His later years coincided with the rise of Babylonia as a world power and its extended exile of the Jewish people. His messages are clearly marked with a conviction that Judah was under God’s judgment and that Babylon was His appointed messenger to exile the Jews.

His message stressed spiritual and moral improvement, not military prowess or political savvy. Jeremiah said that only repentance could save the people from destruction. When his message went left unheeded, he realized that destruction was inevitable. He thus counseled submission to Babylon, opposing any talk of revolt.

Such talk, of course did little to enhance Jeremiah’s popularity amongst the Jewish people. Both the populace and the monarchs opposed him. He was later forbidden entrance to the Temple, and was even imprisoned. Throughout, Jeremiah displayed remarkable resilience and fortitude in his heavenly mission.

The people of his time grossly misunderstood his motives. He was perceived as a prophet of doom, who took pleasure in predicting pain and destruction. Of course, the exact opposite was true. Jeremiah wanted desperately for the Jews to heed his cry and to change their sinful ways. When his foreboding predictions did come to pass, he refused to indulge in personal vindication. Rather, he voluntarily escorted his exiled brethren as far as the Euphrates, and mourned their loss. Jeremiah is the author of Lamentations, which is read on the night of 9 Av.

A great historical irony is embodied in Jeremiah. His enemies met their terrible fate and have vanished from the scope of history. Jeremiah, as persecuted and denounced as he was during his lifetime, lives on in the hearts and prayers of the Jewish people.

Why Didn’t They Listen?

It is very difficult for readers with the benefit of hindsight to understand the people’s stubborn refusal to listen to the prophets. We, who continuously crave for clarity and certainty in our daily lives, would rush at the opportunity to hear the word of God directly from the prophet! So why didn’t they? Below is a partial list of explanations that have been have been offered to address this question.

  • “How could He do this?” – During this entire time period, the world was divided into two theological camps. The overwhelming majority of the world was comprised of pagans. The Jews alone were monotheistic. Everyone knew that the Jews were different. How then, the Jews argued, could God destroy His own house and terminate His sole source of representation in this world?
  • “God needs us!” – This point is similar to the previous one. In the relationship between God and His People, there exists an interesting paradox. On one hand, God is omnipotent, completely in control. He issues positive and negative commandments that we are expected to follow. Reward is given for those who adhere to his laws, punishment for those who do not. Yet, we know that “In the gathering of people is the king’s glory; but in the lack of people is the downfall of the prince.” (Proverbs 14:28) A king cannot function without a nation who is prepared to accept his rule. How then could God exile and seemingly dismiss the Jewish People? Where would that leave Him as King?  
  • “I’ll worry about it then” – As scary and real as the words of the prophets may have seemed, they never specified a particular year or era of actualization. Over 90 years had passed since the first prophetic words predicting the destruction were uttered, and all the while the Temple remained standing. The fact that punishment would arrive at some point was not sufficient to generate significant change.

 9 Av

The 9th of Av is the saddest day in Jewish history. On that day the spies that were sent to scout out the land of Israel came back with their negative reports. That generation was punished with 40 years of wandering in the desert. The Babylonians (423 BCE), and the Romans (70 CE), respectively, destroyed our Temples on that date. The 9th of Av also represents the date by which the Jews of England were expelled (1296). By 9 Av 1492, Spanish Jewry was forced to choose between leaving Spain, convert or die. World War I, the prelude to the Holocaust, began on that date as well (1914).

What Was Lost – The Temple in Jerusalem

The Temple was one of the wonders of the ancient world; people came from all over to behold it. Its builder, King Shlomo, went to great lengths to imbue God’s Resting Place with exceedingly high levels of beauty and grandeur.

The exterior of the edifice was made of the brightest white limestone blocks. Inside, it was filled with overlays of gold covering majestic walls of stone and imported cedar wood, and trimmings made from other rare and precious materials. The crown jewels of the Temple were, of course, the holy vessels that were used by the Priests as part of the service.

Paradoxically, the most important room in the Temple, known as the Holy of Holies, contained almost nothing at all. The only item it held was the ark, with the two tablets of the Ten Commandments inside. Only once a year, on Yom Kippur, would the High Priest enter this room and pray to God on Israel’s behalf. These tablets disappeared when the Babylonians destroyed the Temple. During the Second Temple era, the Holy of Holies was entirely bare.

Of course, the primary attraction of the Temple was not its beauty but rather its unique place as a house of worship, sacrifice, and the Divine Presence. Normative Judaism meant living with the Divine Presence. Miracles occurred there daily and could be witnessed by anyone. God was with the Jewish people.

During the three annual pilgrimages of Passover, Shabuoth, and Succoth, Jews poured into Jerusalem from Israel and throughout the world. At these times they renewed old acquaintances and exchanged recent news. In Jerusalem, with the Temple as their backdrop, they unified as one single people with a common and strengthened spiritual purpose.

The scene in the Temple courtyard on Yom Kippur was something to behold. The High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies on this solemn day and perform the prescribed service, which included the uttering of God’s complete name. The entire nation waited anxiously, all the while imploring God for forgiveness.

Try now to envision the sight on the eve of Passover, with tents covering the mountain slopes, as each group prepares to offer and then roast the Passover sacrifice, in the general company of thousands of their coreligionists.

No less meaningful was the uplifting feeling that one would receive from the collective celebration of Succoth. Everywhere one turned, the festive atmosphere surrounded him. People were carrying the four species by day, and enjoying the acrobatic performances of the Simchas Beis Hasho’aivah at night, all the while surrounded by numerous others sitting in their Succoth.

It was this undeniable sense of spiritual connection, more so than even the beautiful, majestic Temple structure, which was lost. May God hear our prayers at this time of acute mourning and permit us to witness the building of the third and final Temple, speedily in our days.

The Courage to Move Forward - Passaic Local Pages 7.29.2104

Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai was the leading sage at the time of the destruction of the second Jerusalem Temple. As the Jews and Romans were struggling for control of the Holy City, he managed to escape from the capital and engage the Roman commander Vespasian in a conversation which would have lasting effects for the Jewish people.

Having found favor in the general’s eyes, Rabban Johanan asked for three things. “Give me Jabneh and its wise men, the family chain of Rabban Gamliel, and physicians to heal Rabbi Tzadok.” (Gittin 56a)

Let us explore each of these appeals a bit further.

  1. Jabneh and its wise men – to preserve the Torah, the academy in Jabneh had to be spared.
  2. The family chain of Rabban Gamliel – the princes offered strong leadership for this tumultuous time, vital for national survival.
  3. Physicians to heal Rabbi Tzadok – who had fasted for years to avert the destruction.

Many of Rabban Johanan’s contemporaries opposed his moving of the Sanhedrin from Jerusalem. Still, Rabban Johanan persisted. He understood that the most important decisions in history can also often be the more difficult and pursued his convictions despite the consequences.

Once at Jabneh, Rabban Johanan passed numerous legislations designed to preserve the legacy of the Temple for subsequent generations, so as to keep the connection alive long into the exile period. These became known as “zecher l’mikdash”. In addition to these legislations, a number of decrees were passed to ensure that the Jewish people would continuously remember the loss of the Temple. These became known as “zecher l’churban.

We can learn much from the actions of Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai:

  • See beyond the moment – He demonstrated that no matter how bleak the present looks, there is always tomorrow. Not only will the sun rise again on a new day, but we must plan for that eventuality to ensure an optimal outcome.
  • Have faith in your convictions – It was easy for Rabban Johanan to stay put in Jerusalem and passively await his fate. Instead, he courageously orchestrated a risky plan to gain an audience with Vespasian. Later, he chose to pursue his minority agenda of relocating to Jabneh despite opposition from his peers.
  • Hold on to the positive – Particularly in times of challenge, it is important to remember and draw inspiration from better days. By connecting to the mikdash, Rabban Johanan sought to keep his nation focused on our days of glory and offer us something to aspire towards.
  • Remember what you are missing – Complacency can easily set in when we are satisfied with the status quo. Abstaining from full expressions of joy help to remind us that things are far from perfect and that we have to work diligently to better our situation.

Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai offered strong, focused leadership at one of the most difficult times in our nation’s history. Hopefully, we can apply many of the lessons that our great leader taught us in order to live more fulfilling, focused and growth-oriented lives.

It's Not What We Think - Matzav.com 7.29.2014

The ongoing conflict that is Operation Protective Shield continues to function on two fronts. The first is in Gaza proper, with IDF forces seeking to subdue its Jihadist adversary and destroy Hamas’ infrastructure and destructive capacity. The second is being waged in the court of public opinion, with politicians, media outlets, bloggers, demonstrators, so-called human rights activists, and others sharing their opinions about the situation and each side’s respective actions. Sadly, the choral response to date has been decidedly anti the Jewish state.

Undoubtedly, this PR struggle is more about preexisting agendas than facts on the ground. Israel’s enemies and critics are far less focused on Hamas’ intent (widespread terror and murder of Jews, cv”s) or approach (incessant rocket fire, use of human shields, planting munitions in communal structures, terror tunnels, etc.) Nor are they particularly impressed with Israel’s cautious, calculated response (countless warnings, targeted, guarded missile strikes, and agreement to multiple ceasefire attempts), or its fundamental right to defend its citizens from wanton attacks and incessant fear. Whether the underlying motive is a gross misunderstanding of Israeli-Palestinian relations, fierce anti-Semitism , or a blind political double standard (or a combination thereof), it is clear that perspective is driving this battle far more than intent or even facts.

We are sadly familiar with the preoccupation that the world places on Israel and Israeli policy. Tens of thousands have been murdered, tortured, violated, kidnapped and maimed the world over in such countries as Syria, Iraq and Nigeria, but the victims are largely ignored and quickly forgotten. How many recent UN resolutions targeted such terror states as Syria and Iran? Yet, Israel, the most democratic, conscientious, considerate and responsible nation in the Middle East and perhaps in the world gets blasted again and again.

The obvious question is why is this so? Sure, we get the fact that anti-Semitism is on the rise, including amongst the non-Arab populations. We recognize that the social taboo that was anti-Semitism in the decades following the Holocaust is beginning to become less of an inhibitor throughout Europe and the rest of the “civilized world.” And amongst the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims, there was never such a deterrent to begin with.

But what about those that claim to not be anti-Semites? Are we simply outmanned and outmaneuvered in the PR race, with Muslims continually tapping into the abundant images (real or contrived) of Arab suffering from throughout the Middle East while Israel only gets to counter with pictures of scared citizens fleeing to bomb shelters? Are the military videos that show Israeli care or Gazans running to rooftops to shield their buildings dismissed from the court of public opinion because the Israelis hold all tactical advantages? Will the day never come - absent the arrival of the messiah - when the world will “get it,” and begin to properly distinguish right from wrong, good from evil?

The simple answer is that we are held to a higher standard, even when we already maintain one. It is no secret that Jews and Israel make headlines, regardless of how many others in the world are engaged in similar conduct or worse. Despite the rightful disgust by which we react to UN double talk and moral blindness, as well as that found throughout the media, we must take the outcry as a continued to reminder to be a light unto nations and set an example that is consistent with the lofty mission with which we have been entrusted. And we are doing that each day, with powerful demonstrations of unity and support for each other.

But we must also realize that Jewish favor in the eyes of the gentile population does not rest in the conventional talking points favored by western thinkers and ideologues. For us, it’s never been about which country is more careful, tolerant or democratic. Our sages teach us that the way that we are perceived by other nations is the direct outgrowth of divine favor.

According to the midrash (Esther Rabbah 7:13), the Jews of Persia were threatened with extermination during the days of Mordechai and Esther “because they partook of the feast of Ahashveirosh.” This statement is quite puzzling. After all, it would appear that the Jews of Shushan did the right thing by attending the feast. Not only were there no concerns about the acceptability of the food and drink that was served (see Esther 1:8), but the Jews logically reasoned that their absence from the event would invoke the ire of their Persian ruler. Nevertheless, by participating the Jews ignored Mordechai’s warnings to stay away, based on his concerns over lewdness and the unhealthy sociability that their involvement would engender.

The Jewish people at that time learned the hard way that securing gentile favor has little to do with our willingness to adopt their societal and behavioral norms. On the contrary, goodwill is engendered circuitously by following God’s will and allowing our Maker to intervene on our behalf. “When a man’s ways please the Lord, he makes even his enemies be at peace with him.” (Proverbs 16:7) Yet, when God deems it to be unhealthy for us to enjoy such favor, all of the efforts in the world to the contrary will be of little consequence. “He turned their heart to hate his people, to deal craftily with his servants.” (Psalms 105:25)

Hundreds of years earlier, at the beginning of the Jews’ exile in Egypt, they made the same mistake in their attempt to curry Egyptian favor.

“And a new king arose who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8) - When Joseph died, the Jews abolished the covenant of circumcision… As soon as they had done so, God converted the love with which the Egyptians loved them into hatred. (Exodus Rabbah, 1:8)

According to Bais HaLevi, this midrash is not to be understood literally. Our sages are telling us that following Joseph’s death, the Jews feared for their futures in Egypt and attempted to undo their marked uniqueness. Much to their surprise, this attempt at conciliation backfired and ultimately resulted in vicious hatred and slavery.

Two hundred years later, the Jewish slaves in Egypt experienced a similar paradox, this time in a positive sense. Following the conclusion of the plague of darkness, at a time when one would logically expect for the Jews and their leader to be thoroughly despised for the destruction which their G-d had wrought on their country, the Torah tells us that the exact opposite occurred. “The Lord gave the people favor in the eyes of the Egyptians… Moses was very great in the land of Egypt, in the eyes of Pharaoh’s servants, and in the eyes of the people.” (Exodus 11:3)

This trend has repeated itself far too often in our long history, most notably in recent centuries. Time and again Jews have viewed appeasement and social blending as the best path towards acceptance, discarding key aspects of their faith in favor of the current whims of their host country.

And each time God has had to remind us, sometimes in the harshest of terms, that true acceptance will never emerge from such falsely placed hopes. Only through a longstanding commitment to God and His Torah will we merit to witness the final “period of redemption,” in which we will fully appreciate the unique destiny which God has planned for us.