Parshat Bechukotai: The Tragedy of Yoshiyahu and its Lessons

And I will place peace in the Land. You will lie down to rest and no one will fear. I will remove injurious animals from the Land. The sword will not pass through your Land. (VaYikra 26:6)

This passage plays a central role in one of the most tragic incidents recorded in the Navi – the Prophets. Yoshiyahu was one of the final kings of Yehudah[1] before the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE. He ruled from 640 BCE to 609 BCE. During his reign, Yoshiyahu initiated and led a national religious reformation and renaissance. He uprooted all forms of idolatry and paganism from the Land and reestablished Torah observance throughout the nation. All pagan altars and monuments were eradicated and Temple service to Hashem was fully restored.

The Navi describes the circumstances that led to the initiation of Yoshiyahu’s campaign. Yoshiyahu’s predecessors were not faithful to the Torah. Menashe and Amon who ruled from 699 BCE to 643 BCE and 642 BCE to 640 BCE respectively were particularly hostile to Torah practices and supported various forms of idolatry and paganism. They conducted a very successful campaign against Torah practices and vigorously persecuted those who persisted in observing the Torah.

Yoshiyahu brought an end to this campaign and one of his first acts as King was to direct that the Bait HaMIkdash – the Temple – be fully repaired, restored, and maintained. During the restoration process, a Sefer Torah – a Torah scroll was discovered in the Temple. The discovery caused a sensation. Malbim suggests that the scroll discovered was the original, written by Moshe himself. The scroll had been hidden during the reign of Menashe, who was determined to burn every Torah scroll in the Land.[2] The Sages add another factor that contributed to the sensation. When the scroll was opened, it revealed the section of the Sefer Devarim that foretells the degeneration of the people and their destruction and exile.[3] Yoshiyahu perceived the relevance of this portion of the Torah to his own times and determined to avert catastrophe through restoring national observance of the Torah and its commandments.

Yoshiyahu initiated his campaign of Torah renaissance with a national convocation in Yerushalayim. There he read to the nation the same section of the Torah that had so moved him. He renewed the covenant between Hashem and His people and immediately responded to covenantal duties of the nation by initiating an extensive and intensive campaign against all forms of idolatry. The Navi lauds Yoshiyahu’s righteousness and commitment by commenting that he exceeded all previous kings in his return to Hashem.

Despite his outstanding righteousness, Yoshiyahu died tragically and prematurely. The Navi relates that Paroh Ne’cho of Egypt launched a campaign against Ashur. In order to carry his war into Ashur, Paroh planned to march his army through the Kingdom of Yehudah. Yoshiyahu refused to grant Paroh Ne’cho permission to pass through his kingdom. Paroh Ne’cho did not wish to enter into a conflict with Yoshiyahu and virtually pleaded with him to not oppose his transit through the Land. However, Yoshiyahu refused to heed to Paroh Ne’cho’s entreaties and confronted the Egyptian armies on the battlefield. Yoshiyahu was trapped by the Egyptian archers and mortally wounded. He died soon after.[4]

In Devrai HaYamim – Chronicles – Yoshiyahu’s reign and death are described. The account ends by relating that Yermiyahu, the Prophet, composed a lamentation over Yoshiyahu’s death and that the practice was established to include a lamentation for Yoshiyahu whenever lamentations are recited. Today, this practice is observed on Tisha B’Av. Many editions of the kinot – lamentations – for that day include a moving composition by Rav Elazar HaKalir devoted to Yoshiyahu and the tragedy of his death.

Why did Yoshiyahu enter into an unnecessary conflict with Paroh Ne’cho? Why did he not allow him to pass undisturbed through the Land? Our Sages respond that Yoshiyahu’s decision was based upon the above passage. The Torah promises that if the people observe the mitzvot, then no sword will pass through the Land. This promise seems redundant. The passage opens with an assurance of peace. However, our Sages explain that there is not redundancy in the passage. The passage assures us that there will be peace. The promise that no sword will pass through the Land is not a reiteration of the promise; it is further promise that no army will pass through the Land even in the course of its transit to do battle with another nation. Yoshiyahu’s opposition to Paroh Ne’cho was based this interpretation of the pasuk. He understood that Paroh Ne’cho intended no harm to him and his kingdom. Nonetheless, he felt that this was specifically the circumstance described in the passage. No army should pass through the Land – even if its transit involves no malice or threat to Israel.[5]

Our Sages do not dispute Yoshiyahu’s interpretation of the pasuk. If Yoshiyahu’s interpretation was correct, then why did Hashem not protect and vouchsafe His righteous and anointed King? HaKalir addresses this issue. He explains, “There clung to him the sin of the generation’s scorners who stood idols behind the door.” HaKalir refers to the comments of our Sages – reflected in the admonitions found in Sefer Yirmiyahu. Despite the outward piousness and observance of the people, in private they continued to cling to idolatry and paganism. Yoshiyahu failed to appreciate that the transformation he had initiated was not yet complete. He had succeeded in reaching the people. They had abandoned all outward manifestations of idolatry and paganism. However, the complete uprooting of inner attitudes and perspectives can only take place over a more prolonged period. This process had not yet been completed. Yoshiyahu entered into battle with Paroh Ne’cho confident that Hashem would award him victory in fulfillment of the Torah’s promise. However, he failed to realize that his nation had not actually achieved the level of commitment required to secure this reward.

In itself, this is an important lesson. Yoshiyahu was certainly not foolish or naïve. Yet, he did not appreciate the full complexity of the mission he had undertaken to reform the nation. Attitudes and perspectives are not as easily impacted as are actions. Yoshiyahu did succeed in initiating and nurturing a remarkable renaissance of Torah observance. It would be unjustifiably cynical to assume that the nation’s return to observance was merely a sham. More likely, it was sincere and authentic. However, it was not yet complete. Attitudes are only slowly and incrementally changed. This change had not yet been completed.

Why did Yoshiyahu not recognize the limits of his reformation? It is only possible to speculate on this issue. However, there are two possible and related factors that are worthy of mention. First, Yoshiyahu was fully devoted to Hashem. His repentance and devotion was not merely external; it was complete and all-encompassing. In Yoshiyahu, there was no dichotomy between external practice and internal attitudes. Sometimes, it is difficult for a person to recognize the diversity within humanity. We interpret others’ behaviors using ourselves as a model. In other words, we assume that behaviors that we observe in another person have the same meaning and significance as they have in ourselves. Yoshiyahu’s commitment to Torah was uncompromised and unlimited. His external behaviors reflected his inner thinking and attitudes. He took for granted that this was also true of the behaviors of those around him. Therefore, he understood the nation’s commitment to observance as reflecting an internal commitment.

Second, Yoshiyahu’s life-mission was the reformation of the nation. This reformation was his life’s work and his highest aspiration. When a person is completely committed to a mission, it is natural to wish to see that mission achieved and fulfilled. Unfortunately, that dedication and commitment can lead to self-deception. It can cause the person to see success where it has not been completely achieved. Perhaps, Yoshiyahu was a victim of his own commitment. His commitment was so intense that he could not contemplate or accept the possibility that his people fell somewhat short of his assessment. He believed that they had progressed further than they truly had.

This is an important lesson for all leaders. This includes teachers, parents, community leaders, rabbis or anyone charged with the responsibility of inspiring and motivating others. The more committed the leader is to his or her mission, the more difficult it is to accurately assess one’s degree of success. For example, if parents sometimes overestimate the accomplishments or virtues of their children and if teachers sometimes believe that they have accomplished more with their students than they have, we should not rush to judge them harshly. Their overestimation of their accomplishments may simply reflect their deep, sincere commitment to their mission of inspiring those for whom they labor.

[1] In 931 BCE, the Yeravam led a rebellion against the dynasty of King David’s descendants. This insurgence resulted in the splitting of the Jewish people into two kingdoms. The larger – the Kingdom of Israel – was led by Yeravam. The smaller – the Kingodom of Yehudah – remained faithful to the House of David. The Kingdom of Israel was conquered and the inhabitants of Kingdom were sent into exile in 722 BCE. The Kingdom of Judah survived until 587 BCE.

[2] Rabbaynu Meir Libush (Malbim), Commentary on Melachim II 22:8.

[3] Rabbaynu David Kimchi (Radak), Commentary on Melachim II 22:11.

[4] The basic account is taken from Melcahim II, chapters 22-23. Additional details are taken from Divrai HaYamim II, chapter 35.

[5] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer VaYikra 26:6 and Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer Melachim II 23:22.