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Tisha B'Av and the Messiah: What Mourning Says About Our Destiny.
Video 6 of 7
I talked about this in an Aleph Beta series we put out around Pesach time; if you get a chance, go back and take a look. In that series, I argued that there’s evidence that the Exodus, as it actually came to pass, was actually a Plan B or a Plan C version of what could have been. In the Exodus as it actually took place, Egypt, the adversary of the Hebrews, was destroyed. But that wasn’t Plan A for the Exodus. The original hope was that Egypt would become convinced – either through the beginnings of the plagues, or somehow else – of the reality of God, of a Father in Heaven that they and the Hebrews share. In Plan A – the Exodus that “could have been” – Egypt agrees to let the slaves go because they come to understand this as the right thing to do. In Plan A, as it were, Egypt isn’t destroyed; rather, these adversaries of the Hebrews, they actually change their stripes to become full partners of their former servants.
So, would Plan A have looked like, had it actually been realized?
Well, in Plan A, Israel still crosses the Sea of Reeds with the water splitting to allow them through. And in Plan A, archers, horsemen, and chariots of Egypt, they’re still right there alongside the Hebrews. But instead of pursuing the Hebrews with intent to destroy them, those archers, horsemen, and chariots, they’re an honor guard, they’re there to celebrate, not to impede, the journey of the Israelites. The Egyptians are there to join with their former slaves and escort them on the beginnings of a journey to the Promised Land. In this more idealized version of the Exodus, the Song of the Sea still happens, but Egypt actually accompanies Israel in that song.
Alas, in the Exodus as it actually came to pass, this didn’t happen. The chariots and horsemen opposed Israel, rather than joining in celebration with them. Which means, really, that the procession that departed Egypt, with all its miracles, was really just a shadow of what might have been. What might have been – another nation, a possible foe, joining hands with Israel as a partner, proclaiming together the oneness of a Father they both share – that vision would have to wait for another day to be realized.
This, was that other day.
In Chizkiah’s time, two nations, two great actors on the world stage – Judea and Babylon – had come achingly close to reliving the original potential of the Exodus. This was the last concentric circle. This was the chance to go all the way back in time, to the dawn of the nation, to redeem the potential of a song that had been sung at the very first moments of Israel’s history – a song that should have, that could have, included the beautiful harmony of a duet, a chorus. This was the opportunity to bring the world-at-large into the Song at the Sea. When the Sages speak of Chizkiah being a near Messianic figure, I think this is what they were talking about.
The potential of that moment almost gets realized; but not quite.
The text in Isaiah states that when Chizkiah sees these messengers from Babylon coming, vayismach aleihem Chizkiyahu, Chizkiah rejoices at them.
Something subtle is happening here. Chizkiah, the one whose entire tenure as King is marked by simchah, by joy – he is the one who rejoices with his people at purifying the Temple, he is the one who rejoices with Ephraim and Menashe in the great communal Pesach offerings – so, here Chizkiah is, after the defeat of Sancherev, he’s greeting these messengers, and he feels simcha, joy, once again. But there is something problematic this time with that joy.
If you look closely at the text, you’ll find that he doesn’t really rejoice “with” the messangers; it doesn’t say vayismach imahem Chizkiah. Instead, the word is aleihem; he rejoices “upon” the messangers, as strange as that sounds, or “at” them, or “about” them. Grammatically, in the sentence the messengers are objects of joy rather than co-subjects, co-celebrants along with Chizkiah. It seems that somehow he misses the chance to share the moment with these messengers. He shows them around his palace, all his gold, all his silver. And Isaiah castigates him for this.
What had Chizkiah been thinking? Why had he been rejoicing “at” the appearance of these messengers?
It seems that he was courting them in some kind of way. If you’re Judea, you don’t normally merit a state visit from a power like Babylon. It’s an unexpected and welcome honor. The Book of Chronicles calls Chizkiah’s failure here a failure of pride. There was something to be proud of in the appearance of these messengers. It’s a sign that your kingdom has come of age.
And, you know, if you’re the King of Judea, it’s not a bad thing at all to have Babylon impressed with you. An ally to the southeast could be useful. Perhaps it’s God’s will, you reason to yourself, that neighboring kingdoms should now be impressed with you, in the aftermath of all these miracles. Maybe it’s God’s way of taking care of your kingdom, you might say. And so, Chizkiah shows them around his palace, giving them a tour of the kingdom’s treasures. He’s searching, apparently, for an ally.
Isaiah, though, sees this as a disaster. He tells Chizkiah that it’s only going to be a matter of time now until Babylon is back. And when they return, they will not return as friends. They will haul away those riches you’ve shown them, and they’ll take your descendants as servants as well.
But here’s a question I think we need to ask: Why was that warranted, really? So Chizkiah courted the messengers; big deal. Was Chizkiah’s failure, if you can even call it that, of such gravity that it deserved such calamitous repercussions?
The answer, I think, is that it’s not really about what’s “deserved” or “undeserved.” This wasn’t even really a punishment. It was, in a way, just a natural flow of consequences.
Look at the geopolitical situation out there in the world. Until now, until this point in history, you had powers – Egypt, Aram, Edom – you had powers, but not empires. Now, though, something new was happening out there in the world. Assyria had become a monster, the greatest imperial power in world history to that point. It gobbled up surrounding states and exiled their inhabitants. Soon, Babylonia would occupy center stage, and then Persia, followed by Greece, and then, finally, Rome would come. Each of these were, or would be, massive powers. Comparatively, the Kingdom of Judah just didn’t rate. It couldn’t play in that sandbox. When Judah was at full strength, these other powers would eclipse it by orders of magnitude, but all the more so now that most Judean fortresses had been conquered, save for Jerusalem.
What I’m getting at is in the natural course of events, Israel has no independent destiny in this emerging Age of Empires. Best case scenario: You become a vassal state, a client of some larger conglomerate. Worst case scenario: You get conquered and your citizens are scattered or sold as slaves.
So, what, then, is the role of Israel in such a world? In an Age of Empires, is the prospect of an independent, thriving Israel doomed to failure?
The answer is: Not necessarily.
To maintain independence, Israel must be clear about its source of strength.
Israel has a destiny. It’s a nation that’s designed to stand for the idea that there is more to the world than can be seen with the eye or touched with one’s hand. Or, in the words of Shakespeare: “There is more in Heaven and Earth than is dreamt in your philosophy, Horatio.” There is a transcendent force that interacts with our world, a force that cares and involves itself in events large and small. This force cares about what happens down here because it’s our Parent in the Sky. This force is our Creator.
The destiny of Israel is to stand for that idea, and to help make it known to others. When Israel stands by this destiny, it is strong; it has a constructive, independent role to play with reference to the empires that surround it. It is strong not just because it can rely on Heavenly aid, although that is true, as well; it’s strong because the nation is trading with a different kind of currency, as it were, than those around it.
In other words, yeah, as a potential ally, Israel may not offer an empire much at all in terms of additional force or might. It doesn’t have much to give in that currency. But it can offer something else, of great value. It can offer understanding. Understanding that there is more in this world than meets the eye. Transcendence is real, too. It can offer a living, breathing example of what it looks like for a nation to be in relationship with the transcendent force that seems to dance at the edges of mankind’s material existence. And when Israel does this, it can successfully live alongside empires. It can be valued by empires. Not because in a dog-eat-dog world it offers another nation a better chance at continuing to live, but because it offers nations a reason to continue to live. It offers meaning.
What happens, then, when a nation comes to Israel lidrosh et hamophet, to understand the meaning of some event that bespeaks a transcendent involvement in Israel’s affairs of state? Who was this king for whom the natural order of the world was getting upended? Inquiring minds wanted to know. So, you know, if you’re Israel’s King in that moment, it’s your job to point heavenward. It’s your job to open one last concentric circle and invite these people in. You talk to them, you tell them something like this: You know, what happened with Sancherev’s spectacular defeat – it’s the work of our Father. And this isn’t just our own, parochial Father; it’s your Father, too. This is a song you also can learn to sing. Join your voices with ours!
But what happens when you don’t do that? What happens when you unwittingly greet a hand extended in spiritual curiosity as if it were a hand extended in mere strategic alliance? When a nation is seeking meaning, and you show them gold and silver instead? When you do that, you’re pointing to a strength that’s not really your strength. You’re betraying your own name, Chizkiah – My Strength is God – and trading it in for something far more prosaic, far more ordinary. You’re unwittingly making yourself into just another nation playing the game of geopolitics and power. And if that’s the game you’re playing, then that’s the game the empire will play with you, too. It’s like: Look, you know, we came to check out this inexplicable plague. We thought that something mysterious was going on. But, you know, if you’re playing the regular game of alliance and strategy – well, I guess we’ll just follow your lead. Those Judeans? Yeah, they defeated Sancherev’s army at the gates of Jerusalem. Strange, right? Some weird plague. Just goes to show you, you can never be too careful with hygiene.
Well, you know, if that’s the message, Isaiah says, if your strength is in gold and silver – well, empires, they take gold and silver and they run. All you are is a regional power, and a small one at that. It will only be a matter of time until you’re swallowed whole.
Years later, Babylonia would indeed be back – not as friends, but as conquerors. And when they finally do conquer Jerusalem, the prophet Jeremiah would compose the Book of Eicha to lament that terrible loss. In it, he would evoke images of the Splitting of the Sea, but with a tragic, alternative ending. Why did Jeremiah do that?
We’re now, maybe, in a position to understand. There was a backstory behind that imagery. In the days of Chizkiah, generations before there was a moment that had occurred that evoked the Splitting of the Sea – and the failure to fully realize the potential of that moment somehow became a harbinger of the destruction of Jerusalem generations later. Vayosha Hashem et Chizkiyahu miyad Sancherev. God had saved Chizkiah from the hand of Sancherev. Sancherev had been defeated in a middle-of-the-night mysterious plague. Chizkiah had told his people al tira’u, do not to fear. The myriad horses and chariots of Assyria that Ravshakeh had boasted about – they would be vanquished in one sudden moment, just as Egypt’s had been, so long ago.
In the aftermath of that glorious moment, something was missing. The shared song was missing. And that moment became a knife-edge. The joyous song that was never sung at the walls of Jerusalem became the silent herald of a mournful dirge – the somber melody we know as Eicha.
What does this story mean to us, today? Each of you would perhaps have your own answer to that question. For what it’s worth, I’ll give you my own, personal answer. It has to do with destiny.
You know, I find it fascinating that the very same events that we mourn as chorban, as destruction, came close to being the very opposite of that; they came close to being the moments that heralded the Messianic era itself.
I guess I’d say this: If Tisha B’Av is a day on which we mourn tragedy, it’s also a day on which we must, at least, consider and weigh tragedy’s opposite – the destiny we might have achieved, the destiny we’re still meant to achieve.
You know, back when I was a kid, I didn’t think much about our destiny as a people. I kind of imagined that there was a great chalice in the sky. If you did a good deed, it went into the chalice. And if you did something bad, a big Heavenly Hand would take something out of the chalice. Andif the chalice should ever become filled with enough good deeds – then presto! The Messiah would come.
I mean, it’s strange. But as a kid, you know, I heard about Torah learning, about observance, but no one ever really told me that all of that, it could help me achieve something; that I was meant, as a human being and as a member of the Jewish People, to create and to develop a relationship with God. That if we managed to build this relationship with integrity, it would be a model that would have value in the world. It seems like such a simple idea, but it’s so easy to miss. It’s the forest that’s so easily glossed over in search of the trees.
Chizkiah began his heroic trajectory as King by looking around him and seeing that forest. His most basic commitment, the text tells us, was to renew his people’s relationship with God. There was a covenant between God and His People and that covenant was in ruins. Chizkiah worked – personally first at first, and then with larger and larger groups of people – to breathe life into that covenant, into that relationship. To burnish it, to deepen it, to make it shine. The product of his success, at each stage, was a sense of serenity, a sense of shared satisfaction. A sense of joy. That joy turned out to be infectious.
But Chizkiah didn’t go far enough.
I guess the question is: Can we?
Hi, it’s Rabbi Fohrman again. In looking back on this series, I do want to say that there’s one last thing that disconcerts me just a little bit. And it’s this: How, really, could Chizkiah have failed in this way? I mean, it seems so unlike him to have shown the messengers around his palace, pointing out the gold and silver. I mean, how could he, of all people – a king so conscious of God’s role in his people’s destiny – how could he have missed the opportunity to bring these messengers into his circle?
I put together a little epilogue in which I offer some thoughts about that issue. If you have a few minutes, join me! See you soon.
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