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Tisha B'Av and the Messiah: What Mourning Says About Our Destiny.
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In this series of videos, I want to make a counterintuitive argument to you: That the mournful song that we know of as Eicha has its roots in a silenced song of joy. I know that sounds kind of mysterious, but in that mystery I want to show you lies great power.
The story I have to tell you begins with a fascinating little pattern, easy to miss, nestled into one of the introductory lines of the Book of Eicha. Let me show it to you.
Galtah Yehudah meoni umerov avodai, Yehuda has been exiled. By the way, the word Yehuda here is going to refer to the Kingdom of Judah, or Judea. Anyway, Yehuda has been exiled, it has suffered oppression and great servitude. Hi yashvah vagoyim, she dwells among the nations. Lo matzah manoach, finding no place at all to rest. Kol-rodfeyah hisiguah bein hametzarim, all her pursuers caught up to her, between the narrow straits.
Think about the first image in that verse: Galtah Yehudah, a nation far from home, living in a foreign land. There, they suffer oni, oppression, and rov avodah, great servitude. What do those three elements remind you of? Was there another time in history when we found ourselves in a foreign land, suffering oppression, servitude?
There surely was. It was, of course, the very first moments of our national history, when we found ourselves enslaved in the Land of Egypt.
So now let’s go back to that verse in Eicha. That nation in exile; what exactly did the verse say it was going through? Lo matzah manoach, it has no place to rest, this nation. As it turns out, those words are actually a quote; Jeremiah is taking them from the Book of Genesis, where they appear in the story of the Great Flood. When Noach was aboard that ark, he sent out a dove to see if the waters had receded – but the dove flew and flew, and lo matzah manoach – it couldn’t find anywhere to set its foot down. The waters were everywhere. Now, in Eicha, Jeremiah uses those same words to describe the current exile, Judah’s exile in the Land of Babylon. But those words are reminiscent of Egypt, too, actually, when there was a water world, a world in which there was no terra firma on which you could even put your foot down.
There was a moment like that. It was at the Splitting of the Sea. The Israelites stood with their backs to the water. Egypt was advancing on them. There was nowhere to run. To retreat was to enter a world of water, utterly inhospitable to life.
And now look at the next words in Eicha: Kol-rodfeyah hisiguah, all her pursuers caught up with her. Do these words continue to remind us, not just of Judah’s exile into Babylon, but of the Israelite experience back in Egypt? As it turns out, they actually do. Those two words in Eicha - rodfeyah and hisiguah – are the exact same words used by the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, to characterize Egypt pursuing the Israelites and then finally catching up to them at the shores of the Sea. Vayirdefu Mitzrayim achareihem vayasigu otam chonim al-hayam, Egypt pursued them, and then caught up with them, as they were encamped by the Sea.
Hmm, so now, let’s go back to Eicha. Look at the next and final words of that verse. According to Jeremiah, where exactly did her pursuers catch her? Kol-rodfeyah hisiguah bein hametzarim – they caught up with her between the narrow straits. But that word for straits: How do you spell it, metzarim? Mem, tzadik, resh, yud, mem – it's the same letters, in order, as the Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim.
The echoes really do seem unmistakeable. Jeremiah seems, quite clearly, to be casting the cataclysm of Jerusalem’s destruction in terms that evoke the Exodus from Egypt. In choosing to use those same exact terms, Jeremiah seems to be characterizing the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem almost as a kind of failed Exodus experience.
You know, perhaps Jeremiah is playing “what if” with us, asking us to imagine an alternate ending to the Exodus - a tragic ending. Yeah, the real Exodus from Egypt, that ended triumphantly with Israel marching through the Sea of Reeds. But what if things had transpired just a little bit differently? For example, what if the Sea hadn’t split? The Egyptian armies would had successfully pursued and attacked the Israelites as they encamped on the shores of the Sea. Like the dove during the Flood, there really would have been nowhere to put your feet down. If the Israelites tried to escape by retreating towards the Sea, the mass of water at their backs would have spelled death for everybody. Or, what if the water had split, but the Egyptian armies caught up with them before the Israelites could safely come out the other side? They would have been attacked bein hametzarim, in narrow straits, with walls of water hemming them in. The triumphant miracle of the Splitting of the Sea as it actually occurred would have become calamitous instead in these scenarios. According to Jeremiah, that calamity, that failed Exodus, is actually kind of what happens in the destruction of Jerusalem.
So what does Jeremiah mean to do by characterizing the destruction of Jerusalem as a kind of “failed Exodus” experience? You know, look, on the one hand you might just say the Book of Eicha is poetry, so you know, maybe this is just a poetic flourish. Could just be something that sounds kind of, you know, nice and poignant. So Jeremiah put it in Eicha, a book that’s meant to be poignant. But it’s also possible that, with that poignancy, Jeremiah was giving us insight – insight into the meaning of Jerusalem’s fall. What might Jeremiah want the perceptive reader to understand here?
I’d like to explore that with you over the coming videos. But let me say this at the outset: At the very least, if Jeremiah is really characterizing the destruction of Jerusalem as a kind of “failed Exodus” experience, he seems to be saying that things could have happened differently, these events that we call the destruction of Jerusalem.
So this is kind of remarkable, I think, because if Jeremiah’s really characterizing the destruction of Jerusalem as a kind of “failed Exodus” experience, he seems to be saying that it could have happened differently, these events of the destruction of Jerusalem. It all could have been not just different, but maybe even wonderful. I mean, he seems to be thinking of the events that led to the destruction of Jerusalem as having been a kind of knife-edged moment in history. Kind of like “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” to borrow a phrase from Dickens. I mean, he seems to be saying that this moment here, it was like an Exodus from Egypt moment, it was laden with potential; it could have gone either way. I mean, it did go horribly wrong; it became a “failed Exodus” moment. But it didn’t have to. It could have been a real Exodus moment, a moment of great salvation, instead.
But how could that even be? How could Jeremiah possibly suggest that a moment as awful, as tragic as the destruction of Jerusalem could have ended up so differently, could have ended up triumphant, like the Splitting of the Sea?
What I’d like to suggest to you in these videos, is that Jeremiah might have actually been referencing an earlier moment in history. A moment deeply connected to the destruction of Jerusalem, but not the moment of destruction itself. I think Jeremiah was alluding to a critical moment earlier in time, when the dark prophecy of destruction first came to the Kingdom of Judah. That moment really did have that knife-edged quality to it, I want to suggest. It really was a kind of tipping point. It happened during the reign of King Chizkiah.
Chizkiah, or Hezekiah, in English, he lived a couple of generations before Jeremiah. Both his father, Achaz, and his son, Menashe, are described by the Bible as being very wicked kings. But Chizkiah himself is described as having been truly wonderful.
Here’s the verse that introduces him: Vayaas hayashar be’einei Hashem kechol asher-asah David aviv. Chezkiah did that which was right in the eyes God, according to all that David, his ancestor, had done. BaHashem Elokei-Yisrael batach, he trusted in God. Veacharav lo-hayah chamohu, after him there was none like him, bechol malchei Yehudah, among all the kings of Judah, vaasher hayu lefanav, nor among any that were before him. Vayidbak baHashem, he held fast to God, lo-sar meacharav, and did not turn away from Him. Vayishmor mitzvotav asher-tzivah Hashem et-Moshe, he kept God’s commandments. Vehayah Hashem imo, and God was with him.
So that’s the verse, that’s the Bible’s own introduction to Chizkiah. But, you know, so great was Chizkiah that the Sages of the Talmud, much later, they actually assert that Chizkiah could have been, should have been, the Messiah himself. Now what this means is something we’re going to explore in this course, but for the meantime, I think it’s safe to say this: The Sages seem to be suggesting that this really could have been “the best of times.”
In Chizkiah’s day, he and Jerusalem faced war against a hardened and superior army – the forces of Sancherev, King of Assyria. At the last moment, Jerusalem was saved; a Divine plague attacked the enemy force, causing Sancherev to retreat back to Assyria and to his capital city, to Nineveh. It’s with respect to that moment that the Talmud says had Chizkiah sang songs of praises to God at that moment, he would have been the Messiah. So whatever that means, they do seem to be saying it was like “the best of times,” but it was also kind of “the worst of times.”
Because, astounding as it may seem,it was an action of Chizkiah, this almost-Messiah, that brought the very first whisper of chorban, the very first prophetic forecast of the destruction of Judah. How could both of those things somehow live together at the same time?
What I want to do with you in the videos that follow is look with you at the life of Chizkiah, focusing in on this one fateful moment at the end of his reign, that tipping point moment. The Book of Kings, the Book of Chronicles, and the Book of Isaiah, all three of these Biblical books, they all recount that moment. And what they tell us about it is astonishing indeed. If we can understand that moment, we’ll understand much about the Destruction of Jerusalem. And, perhaps, much about its opposite, the Messianic era itself. Come with me, and let’s take a look.
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