Ethical Issues in the Historical Books of Tanach;
JOSHUA, JUDGES, SAMUEL, KINGS (Nevi’im Rishonim)
These four books ostensibly are merely the history of Israel from the entry into the Promised Land until the destruction of the Temple and the temporary loss of independent statehood. In fact they are actually, in a specifically Jewish sense, the most deeply religious and spiritual books of the Bible. One does not have to be specifically Jewish to see or feel the religion and spirituality in the revelations of the prophetic writings or in the words of the Tehillim. They speak to all people, as evidenced by the fact that the Bible is still the world's bestseller and there are millions of non-Jews who regularly recite the Psalms. However, it is specifically and intrinsically Jewish to understand that G-d is revealed in the prosaic material, in the political, social and military events in the lives of ordinary men and women, kings and leaders that are described in the Nevim Rishonim. Here are described the ideology and religious thoughts in Judaism, while in Chronicles we have the purely historical.
Is There a Black Horse of
In actual fact, for long periods of history the Jews have dwelt free of persecution and suffering, and have lost relatively more people to assimilation than to pogroms. We lived as free people in our own land for an uninterrupted 1000 years and 70 years later for another 400. In exile, there were almost 1000 years of self rule in Babylon and a shorter period in Egypt. Franco-Germany, our sojourn of almost 2000 years, saw long periods of peace interspersed with religious persecution, pogroms and regional expulsions that coincided primarily with the fluctuations in the success of Christianity. In Spain we lived for over 1000 years in peace;even in Eastern Europe the Jews lived comfortably for almost 400 years. We should remember that in our long history we have created great spiritual treasures from which the whole world continues to benefit in a way that cannot be measured: Nach, Mishna , two Talmuds, Midrashim, Mysticism, Halahkic literature, poetry and philosophy and a social-communal structure of autonomous communities that retained a semblance of statehood, with independent taxation and legal system. All in all, this is a far cry from an eternally oppressed and massacred people.
Tanachic sources, as well as those of the Oral Law and traditional Jewish sources, when dealing not only with the latest destruction and exile, but also to all the subsequent tragedies of our people down to modern times, constantly refer to the internal causes for the calamity and equally to its effect on Judaism. There is little literature on the degree of suffering and almost no reference to the personal histories of the tragedy, except for our times with its streams of secularism. There were children who were orphaned of both or one parent at an early age, husband and wife separated and in ignorance of each others fates, and there was rape and plundering. There were traumatic experiences from which many never recovered. There were wanderings and refugees, and far distant exiles. In Rome after the Churban, the slave markets were so over flooded that there were no buyers; after Bar Kochva they ploughed and sowed Yerushalayim with salt, changed its name and forbade Jews to live there. In the Rhineland the Crusaders waded their horses through rivers of Jewish blood, in York fathers killed their own families and then themselves rather than be converted, and in Spain there was the Inquisition. So in every tragedy of our people there was suffering, poverty and death of Jews; but that is something different from the effect of tragedy, destruction and exile on Judaism and its nation. Yirmiyahu, whose whole book is replete with prophecies of destruction, left only the few chapters of Eicha as evidence of the suffering and the mourning. After the exile to Bavel, Yechezkeil ignored the personal sufferings and tragedies and taught Israel the faith that Hashem exists all over the world, even though our natural place to keep His Torah is Eretz Yisrael, to which we were destined to return.
Churban Bayit Sheini did give rise to the 'Mourners of Israel' who tried to introduce far reaching rites of mourning and despair, but mainstream halakhic rulings limited them and concentrated on the codification of the Oral Law and Jewish life in exile. Even the massacres in Eastern Europe by Chimelnitski in the mid 17thcentury, that saw the impoverishment of Eastern European Jewry and the beginning of its spiritual and social decline, has not left us a literature of personal individual suffering, but rather important religious movements and achievements.
As unpleasant as it is for us to somehow accept the idea of Divine punishment these same sources saw in our sins and in the failure to keep our obligations to G-d, the sole reason for all the tragedies that have afflicted our people. There is no place for the argument that they were beyond G-d's control or knowledge. Hashem is All Powerful and All Knowing but also the Zealous Judge. In the Torah Moshe warned quite clearly and graphically the stages of economic suffering, foreign invasions, destruction and exile that would be the price for non-observance of Torah (Vayikra 26:14-44; and D'varim 28:15-68). The prophets likewise enumerated our behavior that would lead to the destruction of Yerushalayim and the Temple, and the Galut; idolatry, sexual immorality and social injustice, murder and robbery (Yeshayahu 1-24). According to Yirmiyahu's prophecy, the teshuva of Zedkiyahu was not enough to prevent the Churban because he and Israel, after freeing the slaves in accordance with Torah Law in Sh'mot (21:1-11), simply enslaved them immediately afterwards (Yirmiyahu 34:8-22: haftara of Mishpatim). Amos too, saw the social sins as the final cause of the destruction and exile of the 10 Tribes (2:6-16). Chazal likewise saw the social sins - needless hatred or insistence on their legal rights or simply an inordinate love of money - as the reasons for the destruction of the Second Beit HaMikdash, even though that was a generation that was learned and otherwise observant. In Sodom, even Avraham understood that if there were only a few tzaddikim, then they too had to suffer when Divine Justice demanded that the city be destroyed.
Indeed, "By reason of our sins we have been exiled" (Musaf Chagim and Yamim Nora'im). We have no reason to doubt that what was true in one generation was true in all generations, including our own.
In our own days we have witnessed a chance to atone for this long history of sin and punishment. HaRav Kook taught that our living in exile had become in itself a sin. As the prophet said, "I do not this for you sake but for the sake of My Holy Name which was profaned among the nations whither you went. I will sanctify My Great Name, and the nations shall know that I am Hashem, for I will take you from amongst the nations and gather you out of all the countries and I will bring you to your own Land" (Yechezkel 36:16-38). May we never make the mistakes made by our ancestors.
This is the 72nd installment in Dr. Tamari’s series on “Tanach and its messages for our times”