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Tisha B'Av and the Messiah: What Mourning Says About Our Destiny.
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But the truth is, that little summary barely scratches the surface of Chizkiah’s breathtaking achievements. To really appreciate the significance of Chizkiah’s actions, you have to see the epic arc of what he’s doing. You have to see the patterns in his actions.
The tale of Chizkiah and his rule begins with a solitary choice; a choice that he makes without anyone else’s involvement, as it were. This first choice says everything about the the relationship he will carve out with the legacy of his father. Achaz had closed the doors of the Temple. And Chizkiah? Not only does he re-open those doors, but he adorns them with an overlay of gold, those doors that his father once sealed shut.
From there, Chizkiah moves on. He doesn’t just re-open the Holy Temple, he also sets about restoring it, purifying it from the state of degradation that it was in. For this, though, he will need others to buy into his vision. As recorded in Chronicles, he gathers together the Kohanim and Leviim; he tells them how earlier generations had turned their back on God’s House, had caused the lights of the Menorah to go out, the incense offerings to stop - and that this was a betrayal of God. The political and military troubles that had befallen the Kingdom, he continues, all of them are traceable, somehow, to that betrayal. He tells them that it is his intention to recommit to a covenant with the God of Israel, and he asks them, the Kohanim and the Leviim, to join him in that.
And, they do. The Kohanim renovate the Temple, they purify it, and they fix the Temple’s broken and neglected vessels.
Having accomplished this, Chizkiah goes further. He gathers a wider circle of people to his side. He gathers the heads of the city of Jerusalem, the noblemen, as it were, and they offer communal sin offerings. They do this to express the collective remorse of the Kingdom for having abandoned God. And, after the chatat, after the sin offerings, Chizkiah and the city’s leaders brought olah offerings. Olot are offerings that are not really designed to express penitence, per se, but to express devotion to the Almighty. There’s a shift going on here; a shift from remorse and alienation from God, to closeness with the Divine instead.
As the olot began to be offered, we hear this in the Biblical text. Ubeet hechel haolah hechel shir-Hashem, and as the olah offerings began to be offered, Chizkiah and his cohort, they began to sing songs to God as well. Vehashir meshorer vehachatzotzrot machtzrim hakol ad lichlot haolah, and the songs were all sung along with the trumpets, all until the olot were finished.
And there it is, by the way: Songs of praise sung by Chizkiah and his cohort. Chizkiah did sing. The way Chronicles tells it, you know, Chizkiah really seems to be an amazing king; it’s hard to see how he could be faulted for not singing songs, he sang them right there. But let’s keep reading.
After those olot were offered, and after those songs were sung, Chizkiah widens his circle still further. He asks all the people this time to gather together and to bring todah offerings -- thanksgiving offerings -- to express their appreciation to God for being part of this incredible moment. And the people do it. Pay attention, by the way, to the trajectory of offerings here – chatat, olah, todah – they reflect a trajectory of emotion, too: Remorse, closeness, followed by thanks and joy.
Chronicles records that the people brought thousands of todah offerings, so many that it overwhelmed the Kohanims’ abilities to facilitate it all. So the Leviim, out of necessity, needed to help out. And finally, the text tells us, vayismach yechizkiyahu vechol-haam, Chikziah and the people rejoiced together.
So look at the concentric circles here. First, Chizkiah does something unilaterally: He opens the doors to the Temple. Then, he brings in the Leviim and the Kohanim; he persuades them to buy into his vision, and together they work assiduously and passionately to renovate a long-neglected Temple. And then, he extends the sense of joy and passion he has kindled with this group – he extends it to a larger circle, the elders of the city. And then a fourth and even larger circle, the entire people of the Kingdom. As each circle gets brought in, not only does the scope of the people who are involved increase, but the quality of what they are doing deepens, too. The sense of joy and energy increases, becomes more ecstatic, more heartfelt. The sense of renaissance grows. It becomes wider, more real.
So, at this point you’d think we’ve reached the end of the line though, right? I mean, Chizkiah’s brought in the whole Kingdom of Judah. The circles can’t go any larger than that, right? But they do.
Here’s the very next thing Chronicles says. Vayishlach Yechizkiyahu al-kol-Yisrael viYehudah, and Chizkiah sent letters to all of Israel and Yehudah, vegam-igrot katav al-Efrayim uMenasheh, and he also sent letters to Ephraim and Menasheh, lavo leveit-Hashem, to come to the House of God, biYerushalayim, in Jerusalem, laasot Pesach laHashem Elokei Yisrael, to offer the Pesach offering to God, the Lord of Israel.
Now, who exactly were those people that he was sending to and inviting into the Kingdom of Yehudah, for this Passover feast?
They were his Kingdom’s former rivals. Remember, in the days of Achaz, it was Ephraim and Menashe, the Northern Kingdom, that had betrayed and attacked the Kingdom of Yehudah. The Book of Chronicles tells us that the losses from that conflict were just staggering. In Chizkiah’s days, just a few years later, the bitter memories of that war were still very much fresh and raw.
The Northern Kingdom had actually since been devastated; in the intervening years, Sancherev, the Assyrian king, he had conquered the Kingdom of the Ten Tribes, as Isaiah had foretold. (Yeah, that same Sancherev will soon become Chizkiah’s enemy, but we’re not there yet.) In any case, many of that Northern Kingdom, they had been killed, and others had been exiled into Assyria; but some of the defeated multitudes had remained in the Land of Israel. And Chizkiah now reaches out to them, those former rivals, and invites them to come to the Land of Yehudah and to celebrate with him. Even after all the pain and suffering the Northern Kingdom’s war had brought on Yehudah – still, Chizkiah reasoned, they’re our brothers. Wouldn’t it be something if we could all celebrate together?
So Chizkiah sent word throughout the Lands of Ephraim and Menashe, gently inviting them to come. It was not an easy task. The text tells us that many of those from Ephraim and Menashe who encountered Chizkiah’s messengers, they mocked them and laughed at the invitation to join with the Kingdom of Judah. For them, the centuries of division, anger, and resentment that separated the two kingdoms was too great to be surmounted. And, truth to be told, it wasn’t only the people from the Northern Kingdom who felt some reluctance, initially, towards Chizkiah’s initiative. The text tells us that the effort at persuasion needed to work both ways. Chizkiah needed, as well, to persuade his own people – the people of Yehudah – to accept these former rivals, these stragglers from the Ten Tribes, into their land.
But he did. The people of Yehudah opened their doors and their land to their former rivals. And as for the other side? Well, not everyone mocked Chizkiah. Chronicles tells us that many from the tribes of Asher, Menashe, and Zevulun, in fact, did come to Jerusalem. They came to join as one people, celebrating Passover together.
The plan sounds wonderful, but there was also hard, cold reality to be reckoned with: The logistics for a communal celebration of this magnitude would be truly daunting. Jerusalem just wasn’t set up to host the vast multitudes that would be coming last-minute for this grand Passover event that Chizkiah envisioned. The Kohanim, they couldn’t purify themselves in enough numbers to be able to perform the Temple Service for that many people. There was no way for all these throngs of people to even get to Jerusalem in time for Pesach.
So the King and his counsel, they did something that was truly extraordinary. They decided to delay the celebration of Passover by a full thirty days. So you say: That’s astonishing; delay Pesach for the whole nation? Well, you’re in good company; the Talmud actually thinks it’s astonishing, too. The Talmud debates exactly how it was done. Some say Chizkiah proclaimed a leap month at the very last minute; others say that he made innovative use of a precedent established in the Torah itself. The Book of Numbers tells us of individuals who are impure and therefore unable to offer the Pesach offering at its appointed time. Such people are given the chance to celebrate Pesach Sheni – a second Passover – exactly one month later. Here, Chizkiah and his entourage, they seemed to create a kind of Pesach Sheni for the entire people. Whatever the exact mechanism, though, it was clearly a radical step, pushing back Passover by thirty days. Chizkiah did it to facilitate a historic unifying event: The first real communal Pesach since anyone could remember.
Now, as I mentioned to you earlier, to really appreciate what Chizkiah is doing, you need to see his actions against a large, historical canvas; and here is where that really comes into play, with this Pesach celebration that he’s organizing. It’s not just a whim, like: Wouldn’t this be a nice thing to do – get everybody together for a holiday? No. There was actually a very deep resonance here, reaching way back into history. Because ask yourself this: When else in Biblical history, did an entire kingdom celebrate one of the Torah’s three great festivals – Passover, Shavuot, or Sukkot – exactly thirty days late?
It had happened once before. It had happened two hundred years earlier.
It was the moment Ephraim and Menashe and the rest of the Ten Tribes first seceded from the union. Yes, 200 years before this, there was a new King of the Ten Tribes, a man by the name of Yeravam, worried that the religious unity of Israel might soon spell doom for his new hold on power. He feared that if his people, the men, women, and children of the Ten Tribes, if they would spend their holidays worshipping alongside their brothers from Yehudah in the Temple in Jerusalem, it would eventually lead the two kingdoms to reunite, and to reconcile; and he, Yeravam, would be deposed.
So Yeravam took steps to make his people “religiously independent,” so to speak. He proclaimed a “new” holiday – a holiday modeled after Sukkot, but celebrated exactly one month after the Torah’s Sukkot. If his people didn’t celebrate at the same time as the people of Yehudah, Yeravam reasoned, they wouldn’t desire to journey to Jerusalem’s Temple to celebrate together with Yehudah.
And, Yeravam’s plan worked. The people of the Northern Kingdom, they stayed home and they celebrated in their own territory. And thus began the parting of ways between them and the people of Yehudah. Soon enough, Yeravam even constructed a local Temple-replacement: Two golden calves, ominously reminiscent of the Golden Calf that Israel had worshipped in the desert. Why travel to the Temple, Yeravam exhorted his people, when you have these calves right here, and they can represent the God who took you out of Egypt? Worship here, he told them. Nothing beats convenience.
Now, two centuries later, Chizkiah would try his hardest to undo the damage of Yeravam. He would do it, interestingly enough, by retracing Yeravam’s disastrous actions; but in so doing, he would redeem those actions.
So, Chizkiah, like Yeravam, he would celebrate a holiday thirty days after its time. But whereas Yeravam did this to separate people from their brothers, Chizkiah did it to reunite brothers. Yeravam conjured up a “second Sukkot” with absolutely no precedent in the Torah; Chizkiah worked within the Torah’s framework, following the precedent of Pesach Sheni. Yeravam delayed a holiday by thirty days to steer Ephraim and Menashe away from the Temple and towards some molten calves; Chizkiah delayed a holiday in order to draw Ephraim and Menashe to the Temple, and to steer them away from idolatry.
And steer them away from idolatry he did.
When the night of Passover finally came, it was, in the words of Chronicles, unlike any other Passover in history. Throngs from across the nation streamed to Jerusalem. On the way to the city, many came across idolatrous altars left over from the times of Achaz and they destroyed them. The people, they were becoming one nation again, serving One God.
To be fair, it wasn’t a perfect celebration. For example, many of those in attendance from Ephraim and Menashe, Yissachar and Zevulun – despite the extra thirty days, they hadn’t had the chance to properly purify themselves. These people, Chronicles tells us, they ate from the Pesach offering anyway, going against what appeared to be the strict letter of the law. For his part, Chizkiah didn’t stand in their way. Instead, he turned to God and he prayed for them, expressing the hope that God, in His Goodness, would pardon them.
And so, the people celebrated together, all of them. The verse tells us, vayaasu benei-Yisrael hanimtzeim biYerushalayim et-chag hamatzot shivat yamim, and the people, they celebrated Pesach for seven days, besimchah gedolah, with great joy. Umehalelim laHashem yom beyom haleviim vehakohanim, and they sang to God day by day, the Leviim, the Kohanim, bichlei-oz-laHashem, with instruments to God.
After the Pesach feast was over, the text tells us that something remarkable happened: The people didn’t want to leave. They gathered together, and they decided they would all stay in Jerusalem together and keep the celebratory worship of God going. And so they did for another full seven days. In the words of Chronicles, vatehi simcha-gedolah biYerushalayim, and there was great joy in Jerusalem, ki miyomei shlomoh ben-David melech Yisrael lo chazot biYerushalayim, for since the days of Solomon, David’s son, there was nothing like this in Jerusalem.
So we’ve seen the beginning of a pattern here. Actually, the beginning of two patterns.
One pattern is that of expanding circles, expanding influence. First, Chizkiah acts alone, but then he persuades Leviim and Kohanim to join his cause. Then the noblemen. He then convinces the masses, the people of Judah, to come along, too. And finally, the circle expands even further when Chizkiah calls to people who, by rights, are really not even part of his natural constituency; people from the remnants of the Northern Kingdom. And each time the circle expands, the joy and the song become even greater.
So that’s the first pattern, but there’s a second pattern, too. The farther you go in the Chizkiah story, the farther back in time Chizkiah seems to be reaching. His earlier actions – the opening of the Temple doors, the renovating of a debased Temple, the recommitment of his people to God – these are actions that redeem the immediate past, the sins of his own father, Achaz. But his next actions – when he invites the remnants of the Northern Kingdom to join him and his people in celebrating Pesach, when he pushes the celebration for thirty days, when he stops at nothing to make this celebration happen – these acts recall and redeem a more distant past, the breakup of the Kingdom itself, torn asunder some two hundred years ago. Chizkiah, he’s retracing and redeeming Yeravam’s original poisonous footsteps in the service of reuniting, rather than dividing, this Kingdom; in the service of banishing the dark shadows of Yeravam’s Golden Calves.
Those are the two patterns: Expanding circles of influence, on the one hand; and on the other hand, an expanding reach backwards in time. Chizkiah would marshall a larger and larger cohort of collaborators in the service of binding up the nation’s recent, and ancient, wounds.
The question now is: Have we seen the end of these patterns – or do they extend still further?
We’re going to find, I think, that we‘ve not yet seen the end of either of these two fascinating patterns. They have one last crescendo to reach. A crescendo of Messianic proportions.
Let’s take a look.
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