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Tisha B'Av and the Messiah: What Mourning Says About Our Destiny.
Video 7 of 7
With any series like this, in the process of researching it there is much material that ends up on the cutting room floor, that as an author feels terrible to leave on the cutting room floor. I really want to share some of this material with you. So I've put together this audio, Epilogue, to kind of give you a more informal take on some of the things that I wish I could have put within the videos. This audio, Epilogue, also only contains some of the stuff I'd like to share with you. Maybe one of these days I'll get a chance to put these thoughts into writing and maybe make another book out of them. That would be kind of nice.
In the meantime, I want to share a couple of thoughts with you. Beginning on two radically different perspectives on the Hezekiah story, one modern and one ancient, that converge in very, very interesting ways. The modern perspective is given by an eminent historian by the name of William McNeil, who's a professor at the University of Chicago. The ancient perspective is given by the Talmud in the Tractate of Sanhedrin. I want to talk to you a minute about these two radically different perspectives, but fascinatingly converging perspectives as well.
I want to talk with you about these two very different perspectives, on the one hand, but, in a way, very, very similar perspectives, I think, or perspectives that dovetail one another in very interesting kinds of ways.
Let me start with the modern perspective, McNeil's perspective. I happened to just stumble upon this. This past Shabbat, I was looking for some reading, pulled a book out of my library; it's a book called What If, which are speculative forays into what me called counterfactual history. The title of the book, or the subtitle says, "Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been".
Basically, what historians are doing in this book, and I recommend it to you, is they're speculating on what would have happened if various small little changes had taken place within history. What dramatic effects might have come from those?
So for example, Winston Churchill, he was walking the streets of Manhattan and a taxi cab, in 1920, just grazed him, didn't really hurt him, just grazed him. But what if that cab had just moved over by, you know, half a foot and it killed Winston Churchill in 1920. How would that have affected the outcome of world history? How would World War II have been different?
How would World War II have been different if the Americans had not managed to, quite by chance almost, steel the Japanese codes and know the location of the Japanese fleet, right before the Battle of Midway? How would that have changed everything?
Of all of these very different counterfactual speculations entertained by dozens of authors in this book, William McNeil, from the University of Chicago, argues that there is one that stands out. The greatest counterfactual speculation of all, that would have had the most dramatic impact on all of world history. What is it?
McNeil argues, the single greatest event, that had it gone differently, would have changed everything, is what if Sennacherib's armies, encamped outside the walls of Jerusalem, in the days of King Hezekiah, had not been killed in that plague. It would have changed everything. He argues that had that not happened, had the Assyrian armies managed to overrun Jerusalem, there would be Judaism, no Christianity, no Islam. The world would be fundamentally different.
So here's the argument that McNeil makes. So basically it goes back to that idea we were talking about on the videos about the advent of the age of empires. Until this time, you know, there were small regional powers that held sway in Mesopotamia, the Middle East. So you powers like Aram, like Moab, like Edom and the Kingdom of Judah was one of those small regional powers, but now you have this Assyrian monster, this juggernaut, this huge empire that begins to take over.
McNeil argues, that that basically causes a theological crisis, actually a theological vacuum in the Middle East, because until now, you know, everybody has allegiance in this polytheistic world to their various different local god and the local god is assumed to kind of defend you when you get into trouble. But all of a sudden, one local god after another, after another, after another is just completely trampled by this Assyrian monster. You know, for the first time, this nation comes from afar and just gobbles everybody up and there's this, sort of theological vacuum, the world of polytheism is no longer making sense. None of these gods are able to, sort of, step up against this threat.
So on the one hand, you have this sort of theological vacuum going on. The underpinnings of the belief in these local gods is really beginning to falter and then at the same time, here you have this G-d of Judah, who they believe is the one G-d in the whole world, this universal power and they have a different theology.
Their theology is that, G d sometimes protects you, but sometimes He doesn't protect you. Sometimes you can sin, you can do things wrong and G-d will forsake you for a while and that was how they understood what happened to the Ten Tribes. G-d was upset at what the Kingdom of Israel had done in provoking the civil war against Judah and for that they were exiled. That was Isaiah's explanation of things. But, in fact, the one G d was in fact all powerful and He could and also would save His people and that idea comes under this test.
Basically what McNeil argues is that had Judah been vanquished along with the Ten Tribes, then they would have been lost as well. You know, ultimately, the Ten Tribes, we don't hear from them again and would have heard of Judah again. If Sennacherib and Assyria is the one who carries out the exile, it's a cultural decimation. Assyria was involved, was about culturally decimating their foes, about making fun of their gods and destroying their allegiances and destroying their whole culture and taking people and mixing them all up into the great melting pot of civilization. If that had happened to Judah, then it would have been curtains for Judaism and the monotheistic idea, but it didn't happen to Judah.
Here was Judah, this little tiny power, the smallest of these regional powers and all of a sudden, the greatest empire in the world can't conquer Jerusalem. There's this mysterious plague and thousands and thousands of Sennacherib's troops died and he retreats back to Nineveh. You know, all this is history, you can see this in the walls of Assyrian palaces in Nineveh. The records of the campaign of Sennacherib against Lachish and his failure to overtake Jerusalem.
This made a huge impact on the residents of Jerusalem, who were the beneficiaries of this incredible happening. It really was like the Exodus from Egypt. The greatest power of the world was rendered impotent in the face of Judah and its mysterious G-d. This one G-d really was seen as somehow powerful, potentially all-powerful, able to defeat the greatest army of its time.
That one fact created such a sense of strength in the Israelite narrative, McNeil argues, that it gave them the strength to withstand what would happen to them 100 years later. Later on, Babylonia would come and would exile the Kingdom of Judah. Now before this, the prophets, Jeremiah and others, had prophesied that exile was coming, that G-d was displeased with what happened. Manasseh, the child of Hezekiah, again resorts to idolatry as a corrupt king and, you know, it's only a matter of time, Jeremiah says, before exile happens.
When exile does happen, it doesn't destroy the foundations of faith in the one G-d. it's part of the narrative. You know, sometimes you sin and sometimes G-d hides His face from you, but G-d really is all-powerful. They knew it to be true that G-d is all-powerful. They knew, because there was no other way to explain what happened at the walls of Jerusalem to the Assyrian army.
Ultimately, McNeil says, monotheism comes to the world through the sword of Constantine. Constantine is one of the Roman Emperors, who becomes a convert to Christianity and brings the Christian idea to the world.
But, you know, the what if that I would suggest we think about is, you know, what if the messengers of Babylonia had, so to speak, become Constantine? I mean, I think that's what the Talmud is talking about when it says that Hezekiah was this close to being the Messiah. You know, as it was, McNeil argues, the Israelites believed in the one G-d because of what had happened to them at the gates of Jerusalem, but it wasn't just the Israelites who could believe that. Here were these messengers from Babylonia who had seen this miraculous sign becoming.
What if Hezekiah had not shown them the gold and silver in his palace? What if he had celebrated with them? What if had expanded his circle? Would Hezekiah, together with these messengers have been able to spread the monotheistic idea? It wasn't just Israel now, it was another gentile nation that was brought into this, this umbrella. Would that have been the beginning of the entire world uniting under a monotheistic banner.
Okay, so that's kind of McNeils's view of this really momentous moment in world history. Again, I'm just going to quote from the first opening lines of his essay here for you. "What if Sennacherib, King of Assyria, had conquered Jerusalem in 701 BC? This, it seems to me, is the greatest might have been of all of military history. It may be an odd thing to say about an engagement that never took place, yet Jerusalem's preservation from attack by Sennacherib's army, shaped the subsequent history of the world far more profoundly that any other military action that I know of." Remarkable.
So that's kind of a secular view on this great kind of turning point moment in history and I want to turn now and give you a rabbinic view, going all the way back to times of the Talmud, about 1500 years ago. This comes from the Babylonian Talmud, from the Tractate of Sanhedrin. We had talked about another comment, earlier in the Tractate of Sanhedrin, this idea that Hezekiah could have been the Messiah had he only sang the songs of shirah.
This is another comment made by the Rabbis, an extended sort of commentary on that episode when the Babylonian messengers come. It's kind of a back-story --
Whether it's meant to be a literal understanding of events or whether it's allegoric, I think is kind of beside the point. One way or the other, the rabbis are trying to give you a sense of the meaning of these events with this very, very kind of interesting and kind of colorful back-story they give here.
Let me kind of read it for you. I'm going to do the original Aramaic here and just give my own kind of free-flowing translation as we go. As we know, again, from Isaiah and from the Book of Kings -- remember the sign that comes as some sort of heavenly indication that Chizkiyah is in fact going to get better. The sign is that the shadows on the sundial recede by 10 degrees. It's as if time itself has gone backwards. This happens around the world. It happens in Babylonia too. The king of the time, Baladan, he wakes up late that morning. It's like 3:30 in the afternoon, but the shadows of the sundial look as if it's 9:30.
"Amar lei mai hei," Baladan, the king, says to his palace attendants what's going on. "Amar lei Chizkiya chalash v'itpach," so his servants said back to him oh, there's this king by the name of Chizkiya over their Judean kingdom, that little place, he got sick and he's better now. It's some sort of a sign, the shadow's going backwards. "Amar ika gavra ki hai v'lo b'inun lishpira lei shalma." Baladan, the king, says to himself is there really a man such as this, a king for whom time itself goes backwards, "v'lo b'inun lishpira lei shalma," and I shouldn't send greetings to him. "Katfu lehon," so he sends messengers with the following message. The message has three parts to it. "Shalma l'malka Chizkiya, shalom l'karte d'Yerushaleim, shaleim l'Eloka raba." Peace be unto the king, Chizkiya; peace be unto the city of Jerusalem; peace be unto the great God.
That was the message and "Nebuchadnezzar safrei d'Baladan hava." The Gemara tells us something really interesting and mysterious here. Nebuchadnezzar, a man who is familiar in Jewish history for something else; because a generation later, Nebuchadnezzar is going to be the king of Babylonia. He's going to be the one who actually comes and destroys the temple and finally conquers Jerusalem. Actually manages to do what Sancherev is not able to do. Nebuchadnezzar, at this time, the Gemara says, long before he was king, he got a start in politics as a palace scribe. He was Baladan's scribe.
He was out on a long weekend that particular day; "hahi sha'ata lo hava hatam." He wasn't in the palace that particular day and, therefore, these messages went out with him. "Ki asa," when he arrived home back in the palace, "amra lehu," he was catching up on business and he said "heich yekatvitu," I heard that there were these messages that went out. What was written in them? "Amru lei," the replacement scribe said to him "hachi katvinun," we wrote the following. We wrote these three things; shalom to Chizkiya, shalom to Jerusalem, shalom to the great God in heaven. "Amra lehu," so Nebuchadnezzar says "karitu lo l'Eloke raba," one second, this doesn't make any sense; you're already calling him the great God in Heaven, so you obviously think He's something, "v'katvitu lei l'b'sof," and you put Him at the end after Chizkiya, after Jerusalem. You should have written the other way round. "Amra l'hachi kesuvu," you should have written the following; "shalom l'Eloka raba," peace be unto the great God, "shalom l'karta d'Yerushaleim," peace be unto Jerusalem, "shalom l'malka Chizkiya," peace be unto Chizkiya, the king. You have to get it in the correct order.
"Amru lei," they said oh, it's too complicated. "Kariana d'agrasa ihu l'havei parvanka," if you're so interested in making the change, then you go do it. So he did. He wrote up new messages, the way he thought it should be written with God first. "Rat basrei," he started running after the previous messengers to try to catch up to them so that he could deliver the proper message. But, "k'drad arba p'sios," he only got four steps when the Angel Gabriel came and stopped him. "Amar Rav Yochanan," Rav Yochanan said "ilmale ba gavriel v'he'emido, if Gabriel had not come and stopped him, "lo haya takana l'soneihem shel Yisrael." If the story would've have continued, the messages would have actually reached Chizkiya and there would have been no hope for the kingdom of Judea. A kind of ambiguous statement, perhaps suggesting that the destruction would have happened earlier. It might have happened even in Chizkiya's own day.
Now, it's a very mysterious statement by the Gemara. A very mysterious kind of back-story that the Gemara gives over here. The thing at the end is mysterious certainly; why the angel had to come and stop them and why it would be so terrible if Nebuchadnezzar hadn't been stopped. But even more interesting, I think, is this notion that Nebuchadnezzar was such a frum guy. He was such a religious person. Nebuchadnezzar, again, is famous as the person who actually comes and destroys the temple, yet he's being portrayed here in the Talmud as almost sticking up for the glory of God. How do we understand that? What is the Talmud really telling us here?
I'd like to suggest an explanation of what the Rabbis are getting at here in this back-story. What I think is particularly noteworthy is the way the Rabbis see Nebuchadnezzar. Again, Nebuchadnezzar is famous in Jewish history as the general, or actually, the king, who sweeps down from Babylon and ultimately, 100 years after Chizkiya does exile the kingdom of Judah, does destroy Jerusalem, does burn the temple. Nebuchadnezzar is known as this great bad guy in Jewish history, as Jewish history actually turns out. But the Talmud over here seems to be portraying and startlingly different picture of this fellow. If anything, they're seeing him almost as a nascent spiritual seeker. They're placing him as the scribe for Baladan over here and not just the scribe, but the one who runs after these messengers to try to get it right, to try to put God first. I mean, who is this fellow?
I think what they're doing is, perhaps, giving us a very deep insight into the nature of hatred and where hatred comes from. I think perhaps they're suggesting that hatred comes from thwarted hope or thwarted striving. This was brought home to me once a long time ago by a boss of mine; a fellow by the name of Rabbi Yechezkel Danziger who I worked for in the Artscroll translation of the Talmud and I had a wonderful relationship with him for many years. One day, he shared this idea with me which I'll share, in fact, with you. He shared a similar idea having to do with Ruth and with Orpah.
Of course, in the book of Ruth, Ruth and Orpah are two women from Moab who are married to Machlon and Kilyon, these men who died. They share their mother-in-law, Naomi, and they want to go back to the Land of Canaan, to Israel. Naomi tries to dissuade and said there's nothing in the Land o Canaan for you; don't come back. They both seem to be interested in levirate marriage and perpetuating the memories of their dead husbands. Naomi says it's not going to work; it's a fool's error that just won't work. Ultimately, Rush persists; Orpah persists too, but ultimately, turns around and goes home. Actually, the word Orpah comes from the word oref, the back of the neck. Perhaps she is named so because she ultimately showed the back of her neck to Naomi as she turned around. But that's not to say that Orpah didn't want to stay with Naomi. If you look carefully at the text, "vatisena kolan vativkena," they both raised their voices, they both cried, they both wept. They both see Naomi as a real role model; a real role model, by the way. I mean, listen to Ruth's speech; "v'asher telchi elech," whither thou go I shall go, where you sleep I will sleep, your nation is my nation, your God is my God, only death will separate us. This is a very passionate speech. These words have lived throughout history.
What Rabbi Danziger suggested to me is that the Sages say something fascinating about Ruth and about Orpah. We know from the Book of Ruth that Ruth becomes the great-grandmother of King David and they suggest that Orpah becomes the great-grandmother of David's nemesis, Goliath. They suggest that that very night, Orpah became pregnant with the father of the grandfather of Goliath. He said what is it that the Sages are getting at here? Why are they telling us this? They're not just playing an interesting game of matchup of the grandmothers. Why is it that these two women whose vision was so close, Ruth and Orpah, should end up having descendants that are literally at odds with each other; that seek to tear down everything that the other holds sacred? Where's that coming from?
What he suggests is that it comes from the same idea of a thwarted spiritual quest to the very, very dangerous thing. Where does the hatred of Goliath come from for a person like David? It comes from the frustration of an Orpah? If you desired to cling to Naomi because she was a mentor to you, because what she represented spiritually was something that you desperately were striving for and you wanted her in your life and in the end, that didn't work out, you were frustrated in that ability, then one of the darker sides of human nature is that we can end up becoming the enemy of the ideal for which we originally strived. If we fall short of achieving that ideal, one of the things that can happen is that the energy that we poured into trying to achieve that ideal becomes frustrated and the energy can switch and turn into a kind of hatred for that which we used to revere. Many different reasons perhaps; maybe that's how we rationalize it to ourselves that we didn't get there. Maybe -- I don't know. He just suggested that it seems that that's where the Sages are coming from.
I wonder if something like that might be going on with what the Rabbis are telling us about Nebuchadnezzar. Maybe they're trying to give us an insight into the hatred that is Nebuchadnezzar, a man whose mission is to destroy the temple, to sack Jerusalem; that it's not consistent to believe that that hatred was the product of a very, very passionate energy of frustrated kind of love. This is the man who tried to set the messengers straight. He said look, you know, if you're going to put God into the mix, God comes first. The messengers from Babylon, they were sent on this insipient spiritual quest. They didn't quite get it right. They weren't sure who came first, who came second. Is it God, is it Chizkiya, is it Jerusalem? It was Chizkiya's job to expand that circle and to bring them into that circle. But once they're not brought into that circle, once they come back, oh, I guess there was bad hygiene among Sancherev's troops. I guess it was just an incredible coincidence that happened over here, but we sure saw a lot of gold and silver. That King Chizkiya, you know, we really should get to know him. If they played the game of empires, if that's the message that these messengers comes back with, wasn't the message that they started with, what began their -- there was a passion, there was a striving there on the part of Babylon. It was a striving that doesn't come to its fruition, a striving that becomes frustrated in the actual meeting with Chizkiya and maybe that passion doesn't go away. Maybe that passion frustrated becomes the fuel for hatred a generation later. Maybe that's what gives rise to a Nebuchadnezzar who seeks to tear down everything that those messengers might have learned (inaudible).
This is Rabbi David Fohrman. It's been good talking with you and I hope you have a meaningful Tisha B'av.
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