Parshat Devarim - 5760
Chazon - Fateful Decisions
of the Material on Tzidkiyahu is based on the essay "The
Last King of Yehudah - The Tragic
Saga of King Tzidkiyahu," by Yitzckak Levi, found in "The 1996
Book of Jewish Thought," Published by the OU)
connection between King Tzidkiyahu and Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai is that
each is pictured, by the "TANACH," the Bible (mainly Yirmiyahu and
Melachim II), in the case of the King, and by the Talmud (mainly in Masechet
Gittin 56a-56b), in the case of the great Torah Scholar, as the key
decision-maker for the Jewish People in time periods immediately
preceding the destruction of our two Temples.
The First Temple and the Royal City of Yerushalayim were destroyed by
the Babylonians, led by their King, Nevuchadnezzar and his general,
Nevuzaraddan, in 586 B.C.E. and the Second Temple with the Capital City by
Titus and the Romans, about six hundred fifty five years later, in 68-70 C.E.
case, there is a powerful besieging army, that has conquered nation after
nation, poised at the gates of the City.
In each case, there is a tremendous conflict over what to do - fight
for independence against the
much larger and physically more powerful force, or to yield to the apparent
reality and accept secular domination, even Exile, maintaining the spiritual
life of the Jewish People, and
hoping for physical renewal in the distant future.
In the case
of Tzidkiyahu, there is Prophetic advice at hand, in the person of "Yirmiyahu
HaNavi," Jeremiah the Prophet. Yirmiyahu
continues to call for complete national repentance, over and above any
political action that the Jewish People would undertake, as the most
important thing for them to do. He
also conveys the message that Nevuchadnezzar cannot now be defeated; HaShem
is "using" him as an instrument of retribution in the world.
Therefore, to rebel against Nevuchadnezzar now is folly.
officers, who advocate rebellion, also have Prophets on their side, who turn
out to be "false" prophets. These
support the view of the officers, that a rebellion at this time would
succeed, and peace would be the result of the war.
Tzidkiyahu knows that Yirmiyahu is the true Prophet.
But he is too weak to expose the opposing prophets as charlatans.
returns, again and again, with the message that only complete repentance
will save the City and the Temple. At
one point, an agreement is made that the wealthy Jews will release their
Hebrew servants and maidservants because many Jubilee Years have passed, and
the Torah's requirement to release them has been ignored (Yirmiyahu
34:8-10). When, however,
political events cause the temporary lifting of the siege, the Jews renege
on this agreement, and return their indentured servants to slavery (Yirmiyahu
34:11). Again, Tzidkiyahu is
not strong enough to prevent this abandonment of the agreement.
reneging on this important agreement to free the slaves is not the
"last straw." At the
last possible moment, the King asks Yirmiyahu what he should do. Yirmiyahu says he should voluntarily go to the Babylonians,
and profess loyalty to Nevuchadnezzar.
If he does this, it would have the effect of holding back the
destruction of the City and the Temple.
Tzidkiyahu cannot reconcile himself to abdicating his throne, the Throne of
the House of David, voluntarily and, even here, refuses to go.
Yirmiyahu tells him "
you will not escape from their hand; for
you will be captured by the King of Bavel, and you will burn down this City
by fire!" (Yirmiyahu 38:23)
King of Yehudah, although he is called in the Talmud (Masechet Horiyot 11b)
"perfect in his deeds," can no longer hold back the retribution
that was decreed long ago against his People because of their evil deeds.
His generation does not deserve it, and he lacks the moral strength
to stand against them.
Yochanan ben Zakkai, head of the Rabbis and himself a descendant of the
House of David, would have been
willing to hold out against the Roman siege, because the Talmud (Gittin 56a)
describes Yerushalayim under siege as being stocked with sufficient
provisions to withstand a siege
of twenty one years. If not for
the fact that the "Biryonim," the Jewish
"freedom fighters" were "spoiling for a fight."
They had burnt the provisions of the City, in their zeal to force the
Jerusalemites to confront the Romans, and defeat them.
realizing that such a battle would be futile, arranged with his
brother-in-law, the titular Head of the Biryonim who had lost control over
them, a scheme to enable ben Zakkai to exit the City and negotiate with the
Roman general, Vespasian.
of political events in Rome, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was able to surprise
Vespasian with the news that the general had been promoted to Emperor by the
Roman Senate, even before the good news arrived from Rome.
Impressed with the Rabbi's wisdom, Vespasian offered to fulfill three
wishes for him before his departure for Rome.
Now here was
Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai caught on the horns of a dilemma of immense
historic and spiritual implications. He
could ask for it all! That the
Roman legions should withdraw from Yerushalayim, and give the Jews one more
chance to show their loyalty to Rome, which ben Zakkai would have been
willing to do. But the danger
was that he might then be asking for too much, anger the Roman, and achieve
nothing by his negotiation.
he decided to ask for less, accepting the inevitability of the Destruction
of the Temple and the City and of Exile and achieve the protection of Torah
scholarship in Yavneh, that would enable the Jewish people to survive an
Exile of unspecified length.
cites an opinion of Rav Yosef, or according to another version it was Rabbi
Akiva, that in his choice of request, Rabban Yochanan had erred. And that
the verse "
Who turns wise men backward, and makes their knowledge
foolish" applied to him in that case, for not asking for Yerushalayim
and the Temple.
although his decision preserved the Jewish People, by giving them a means to
live anywhere in the world without a physical homeland, holding that dream
in abeyance while serving HaShem through the study of the Torah and
observance of its Commands, perhaps he could have done more.
his students came to him as he lay on his deathbed, weeping, and astonished,
they asked him, "Master, why do you, of all people, with your great
accomplishments, fear death?" "I
weep," he answered, "because I don't know on what path I will be
taken;" meaning, towards reward for saving the People of Israel, or
towards punishment for abandoning Yerushalayim and the Beit
Fascinating, in both cases, is that the Jewish People had provided the L-rd with more than enough provocation and sin to deserve to lose their two spiritual centers, the Temple and the Holy City. Yet, at the end, it was placed in the hands of one individual to decide which way to go; that is, to make the fateful decision, each in his own unique set of circumstances, that would affect the course of all of the future.
Rabbi Pinchas Frankel