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Tisha B'Av and the Messiah: What Mourning Says About Our Destiny.
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It’s strange. If you look at the actual story of Chizkiah in the Biblical text, it really seems to be a kind of humdrum moment. You read it and you think, that’s it?
Here’s how the Book of Kings relates it to us:
Towards the end of Sancherev’s siege, Chizkiah had taken ill, and messengers from the king of Babylon came in a delegation to visit him just after he was healed. We don’t really hear anything about the conversation that ensued during that visit. The only thing we hear in the biblical text itself is that Chizkiah showed them around his palace. According to the text – and I’m quoting now – “...he showed them what was in his treasury, the silver, the gold, the spices, the precious oil, his armory, all that was found in his treasures; there was nothing in his house or dominion that Hezekiah didn’t show them.”
Now after this, Isaiah the prophet comes to Chizkiah, and asks him who the visitors were, and what they said to him.
Chizkiah replies, “They’re men that came from a land far away; they came from Babylon.”
Isaiah prods a bit more. He asks, “What did they see in your palace?”
Chizkiah responds, “They saw everything. There was nothing I didn’t show them.”
To that, Isaiah responds with these chilling words: Shma devar-Hashem, hear the word of God. Hineh yamim baim, behold the days are coming. Venisa kol-asher beveytecha, when all that is in your house, and all that’s in your father’s house, everything they’ve stored up until this day, bavelah, shall be carried off to Babylon. Nothing shall be left, lo-yivater davar amar Hashem. Umibaneicha asher yetzu mimcha, and of your sons that will descend from you, yikachu, they too will be taken away. Vehayu sarisim beheichal melech bavel, they’ll be servants in the palace of the King of Babylon.
So this is it, the first whispers of chorban, of destruction, in the Book of Kings. I don’t know about you, but when I read these words, I feel like just doing a double-take. I mean, here’s Chizkiah, arguably God’s favorite king among all the Kings of Judah, with the exception of maybe King David himself. He got rid of idolatry, he purified the Temple, he recommits the nation to God, he trusts in God fearlessly. And now, what was he doing, showing some people around the palace and this is the treatment he gets? I mean, it seems like a relatively trivial misdeed, doesn’t it? Why should this trigger “the worst of times”? How should we understand this?
Now, a similar problem can actually be raised about “the best of times,” so to speak. About the statement of the rabbis I mentioned to you before, that Chizkiah could have become Mashiach, the Messiah, had he only sang shira, songs of Thanksgiving to God, after the downfall of Sancherev. There too, you know, in the scope of things, doesn’t that seem like a fairly trivial reason not to become the Messiah? Especially since – if I could just, you know, stick out my neck here for Chizkiah, for a little bit – I’d say this in his defense: You know, he actually was pretty good at praising God, on the whole. He did so at other times during his reign. In the Book of Isaiah, chapter 38, there is a record of his prayer of thanks after being healed from his sickness. And, you know, if it is praise through song that you are looking for, he actually does that, too. The biblical text is pretty clear about that, as we will see in a few minutes. It's just seems that maybe he didn’t do it, you know, precisely at the moment the Sages reference, after the defeat of Sancherev. So this whole condemnation of Chizkiah, if we can call it that, because he didn’t sing – it starts to sound just a little bit nitpicky. You know? I mean, he sang shira, but what, just not at the right time? That’s the whole problem? The Messianic Era gets delayed because of that?
And anyway, is it really true that singing shira, songs of thanksgiving to God, after a military victory is somehow the magic ticket to ushering in a Messianic Age? If so, what about Deborah and Barak? They miraculously defeated enemies of Israel – and Deborah did, in fact, sing songs of thanksgiving to God about it – and neither she nor Barak became the Messiah. Why not? And what about other great warriors of Israel – people like Joshua, people like Gidon – how come the Sages don’t intimate that they, too, could have been the Messiah if only they had sang songs of thanksgiving to God?
So basically, here’s our issue: You know, it's the best of times, it's the worst of times. It's the knife-edge. But the balance seems to get shifted here by relatively trivial things. A missed song here. A poorly executed state visit there. It doesn’t seem like these “misses,” so to speak, warrant the kind of epic, momentous consequences that they seem to give rise to.
We’re missing perspective, the larger picture. What I’d like to do with you from here on in, is to look at this knife edge moment – the fall of Sancherev, the coming of the messengers from Babylon – in its larger context. We are going to pull back the zoom lens, and go back in time to explore Chizkiah’s story, more or less from the beginning. Who was this perplexing king, this “almost-Messiah”? What did he accomplish? What were his challenges? What situation did he inherit? How did he deal with it? We’re going to try to find out.
To tell Chizkiah’s story, by the way, we are going to have to do a little bit of detective work. The Biblical account of his reign, as I mentioned to you, is given in three different Books: Melachim Bet, Second Kings, Yeshayahu, Isaiah, and Divrei HaYamim Bet, Second Chronicles. And because each book relates a part of the story, with different details and a different general emphasis, we’re going to have to use our judgement to weave together all that information to build those various strands into a single, flowing narrative. Let’s dive right in.
Long before Chizkiah, the nation of Israel had splintered into two separate kingdoms. The tribes of Judah and Benjamin comprised the Southern Kingdom, also called the Kingdom of Judah, or Judea. And the other ten tribes were known as the Northern Kingdom, the Kingdom of Israel, or sometimes just called “Ephraim.”
So, relations between these two kingdoms were rarely wonderful, but by the time Chizkiah’s father Achaz came onto the scene, a new low was reached: Civil War. As Chronicles, the Book of Kings, and the Book of Isaiah all relate, King Achaz faced a ruinous invasion from the Kingdom of Israel. Worse yet, the Israelite King, a fellow by the name of Pekach, had allied himself with a foreign power, the Kingdom of Aram. How to react to the attack from the Northern Kingdom would actually become the defining question of Achaz’s reign.
Militarily, Achaz was no match for the combined might of his adversaries. The Book of Isaiah relates that Achaz consulted the Prophet Isaiah, who reassured him that God was with him, and all he needed to do was wait out the threat. God would see to it, Isaiah prophesied, that Aram would be destroyed by an even larger power - the regional superpower, Assyria, Ashur. Moreover, Isaiah reveals some earth-shattering news to Achaz. God is exceedingly displeased with the Northern Kingdom for having provoked this war between brothers and for the rest of their sins until now. The northern kingdom will meet its end. It, too, will fall into the hands of Assyria.
Isaiah offers Achaz a miraculous sign by which he would understand that God would really be by his side. But Achaz tells Isaiah that he doesn’t need for a sign; he implicitly trusts the word of God. The Almighty Himself, though, gives Achaz that sign anyway. He says there’s going to be a child born, who Isaiah declares should be named Imanu-El, which is Hebrew for “God is with us.” By the time this child Immanuel grows old enough to understand the difference between right and wrong, Isaiah tells him, the foreign armies will have left your land.
So time passes, and the forces of Aram and the Northern Kingdom continue their advance. Achaz remains frightened, and he makes a fateful and calamitous decision. Remember, Assyria was the nation that, according to Isaiah’s prophecy, was going to come and destroy Achaz’s enemy, Aram. But instead of waiting patiently, like Isaiah advised him, Achaz reaches out to the King of Assyria, Tiglat Pileser, and asks for an alliance with him. He’s trying to push things along.
So desperate is Achaz actually to form this alliance, that he resorts to outright bribery to try to make it happen. As the Book of Kings puts it, he takes all the gold and silver that he can find in the Temple and in the royal treasuries, and he sends it off to Assyria’s King. And to top it all off, he sends this obsequious message to Tiglat Pileser.
Avdecha uvincha ani, I am your servant and your son. Aleh vehoshieni mikaf melech-aram, come out and save me from the hand of the King of Aram, umikaf melech Yisrael, and the King of Israel, hakomim alai, who rise up against me in war.
Now, let me play devil’s advocate for a moment here. You know, one might suppose that Achaz was fully within his rights to appeal to Assyria. After all, God Himself told him that Assyria was going to conquer Aram; Assyria was going to save him. So what’s wrong with helping that process along a little bit, with a little gold and silver?
But in actuality, there’s plenty wrong with helping out the process. Go back to the sign; the one that, ironically, Achaz said he didn’t need because he had such unshakeable faith in God. What was that sign? There’s this little baby you’re going to have. Wait for him to grow up. The baby is “Immanuel” – God is with us. In effect, God is saying: As this child grows, so will God’s closeness to you grow. There’s no known way to turn a baby into a mature child overnight. Only the passage of time will do that. So it is with you, Achaz. The only thing you can and should do, Isaiah is telling him, is to wait. Things will be good, even if they’re scary now.
But waiting is a very stressful thing when you’re afraid. Achaz wants to do something, to be active. The prophecy assured him that Assyria will act as his savior, so he’s going to make sure this happens. A little gold, he reasons, can go a long way.
In doing this, though, Achaz fails to abide by the sign, he betrays his lack of trust in God. Isaiah had warned Achaz to stay away from foreign entanglements and to just sit tight. Achaz, though, doesn’t do this, he creates a direct alliance with Assyria, the force he believes that is destined to destroy his foe.
So what happens?
Well, in the end, Assyria does destroy Aram, just as Isaiah had prophesied; the Book of Kings tells us that. But, as the Book of Chronicles adds, this turns out to be a hollow victory, as far as Achaz is concerned. The alliance with Assyria ends up doing Achaz little good. Tiglat Pileser of Assyria eventually turns on Achaz and wages war against him, forcing Achaz into a situation even more desperate, maybe, than before. Evidently, bribes of gold and silver only take you so far.
Confronted with this horrific situation, Achaz shifts his loyalties and begins to worship, of all things, the god of Aram – the god of the foreign power that had originally besieged his kingdom. Maybe that god can help him, he reasons, with a whiff of desperation. Achaz closes the doors to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, and he actually constructs an altar to the god of Aram on the Temple grounds.
All told, Achaz – desperate to control what he can’t really control – he is reduced to shifting from alliance to alliance; some earthly, some heavenly. His alliance with Assyria was his first mistake. His alliance, so to speak, with the God of Aram was his second mistake. By the time it’s all over, Achaz, seeking power, will have become virtually powerless. He will become an abject idolator, selling his soul, as it were, to the highest bidder. His ultimate degradation will be to sacrifice his own children to the pagan god Molech, passing them in fire upon Molech’s altar.
Here’s an interesting question to think about, in kind of summing up Achaz’s reign. The question has interesting symbolic significance, I’d say. If Achaz sacrificed some of his children to Molech, who were those children? We have no way to know for sure. But one of Achaz’s kids was the one who was that sign, the one given to him by God, the child, Immanuel. Was he one of the ones sacrificed on Molech’s altar? If so, Achaz, in his final debasement, would have thrown into the fire the very idea that God would be with his Kingdom.
And now, keep that thought in mind and ponder this, too. Chizkiah, one of Achaz’s surviving children, eventually becomes King. The question that will haunt Chizkiah throughout his reign is, what about Immanuel? After everything Achaz had done, after all that betrayal, would God still be with Chizkiah and his Kingdom? After all the water under the bridge, will the sign of Immanuel still hold sway?
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