This past summer eighteen young men participated in the Torah Academy of Bergen County’s (TABC) sixth annual Tanach Kollel. We spent a week studying the Nevi’im (prophets) who inspired the Jews during the difficult times of the early second Beit Hamikdash (Temple) and continue to inspire us today with our struggles, especially regarding Eretz Yisrael (Israel). This coming summer we plan to study Sefer Iyov from June 15 through June 19 and we invite all high school age boys (including incoming eighth graders) to join us in our learning. In this essay we shall present how the messages of these three Nevi’im are responsible for the continued survival and thriving of the Jewish People in their times and future generations. I acknowledge insights of the Da’at Mikra commentary, Rav Hayyim Angel, Rav Yoel Bin Nun and Rav Menachem Leibtag which have helped me formulate my understanding of these three important Nevi’im.
Chagai’s Call to Build the Beit Hamikdash
Chagai opens with his Nevu’ah (prophecy) challenging the common wisdom of the time that it was not the proper time to build the Beit Hamikdash. Chagai asserted that the poor economic conditions of the time were a consequence of our failure to build the Beit Hamikdash. The commonly held view, though, made much sense in light of the conditions of the time. The first Pasuk records that Chagai presented his Nevu’ah during the second year of the reign of the Persian emperor Darius (520 B.C.E. following Da’at Mikra). The conditions of this time period are described in Sefer Ezra.
Sefer Ezra begins with the proclamation issued by Cyrus (the grandfather of Darius) permitting the Jews to return to Jerusalem to build the Beit Hamikdash in the year 539 B.C.E., the year in which Cyrus had defeated the Babylonian Empire and established the Persian Empire which controlled the lands from India to Ethiopia (as we know from Megillat Esther). The Jews must have been ecstatic upon hearing this news, much as Jews were when the British government issued the Balfour Declaration in 1917 which authorized the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Eretz Yisrael.
However, the dream fell far short of expectations as the Jews were afraid to build anything more than a Mizbei’ach (altar), due to protest from other inhabitants of Eretz Yisrael. Moreover, only a relatively small number of Jews returned to Eretz Yisrael, 42,360 (although Abarbanel interprets this to refer only to adult males), while most remained in the Galut (exile). They did not achieve political independence as they were still ruled by the Persian Empire. Finally, Chagai records that the financial situation of the Jews living in Eretz Yisrael was abysmal. Thus, eighteen years after the Cyrus Proclamation, the Jewish People were depressed (note that Zechariah 2:14 urges the Jews to rejoice – implying that they were sad). This is also similar to Jews eighteen years after the Balfour Declaration (1935) when Jews were disheartened by the relatively few Jews who took advantage of the opportunity to settle in Eretz Yisrael, the troubles caused by the other inhabitants of Eretz Yisrael, and the continued British control of our homeland.
Accordingly, it is quite understandable that people felt that it was hardly the time to build the Beit Hamikdash. The Torah (Devarim 12:10 and see Rashi ad. loc.) teaches that we build the Beit Hamikdash only when we live securely in Eretz Yisrael. In fact, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (cited in Nefesh HaRav pp. 96-97) cited this point in his objecting to building the Beit Hamikdash after the 1967 Six Day War. Indeed, it was for this reason that David HaMelech (King David) felt that it was appropriate for him to build the Beit Hamikdash once he established security in Eretz Yisrael by ridding it of its enemies (Shmuel II 7:1-3). Interestingly, Hashem instructed David not to build the Beit Hamikdash and Chagai to tell the Jewish People to build the Beit Hamikdash despite Devarim 12:10.
I recall as a student in Israel’s Yeshivat Har Etzion in 1982, a visiting Rabbi delivered a fiery speech calling for the immediate building of the Beit Hamikdash, blaming Israel’s woes on its failure to build the Beit Hamikdash just as Chagai blamed the Jews’ economic woes on their failure to build the Mikdash. However, a critical difference exists between Chagai and the guest speaker – the guest speaker was not a Navi delivering the word of Hashem as was Chagai. In the absence of a Nevu’ah we must follow the directives of Devarim 12:10 and refrain from building the Mikdash based on current conditions.
Chagai’s Prophecies of Encouragement
Sefer Ezra (5:1 and 6:14) records that the encouraging words of Chagai and Zechariah motivated the Jews to succeed in their efforts to rebuild the Beit Hamikdash. Indeed, it took great courage to build the Mikdash as there were formidable obstacles to success in this endeavor. Other inhabitants of Israel were fierce opponents of this project, and we lacked the economic means to complete the project. Moreover, older members of the community recalled the first Beit Hamikdash with all of its grandeur and were unwilling to settle for anything less than the Mikdash of yore.
Chagai (1:7) implores the Jews to go to the mountain and gather wood to build the Mikdash. His message is that even though importing fine cedar wood from Lebanon is not an option for them as it was for Shlomo HaMelech (due to economic restraints and the obstructions of other inhabitants of Eretz Yisrael, see Ezra 3:7 and chapter four) they nevertheless should move forward with the project. Chagai (1:13 and 2:4) supports the Jews with the all important assurance that Hashem is with them in their endeavors and that they are fulfilling His command. Chagai (2:15-19) even promises that from the day that work begins on the Mikdash the economic situation in Eretz Yisrael will improve.
He promises (2:8) that this Mikdash will be even grander than the first and in 2:20-23 (the conclusion of the Sefer) he issues the greatest promise of all. He presents a prophecy to Zerubavel the Jewish governor over Eretz Yisrael. Zerubavel (Divrei Hayamim I 3:16-19) is the great grandson of Yechaniah, the next to last king of Judea and is part of the Davidic line. In other words, should the Jews achieve sovereignty over Israel, Zerubavel would become the Melech. Moreover, since Zerubavel is (using the words of Yeshayahu 11:1) a “Choter Migeza Yishai”, a staff from the staff of Yishai (the father of David Hamelech) he has the potential to fulfill Yeshayahu’s great prophecy and be the long awaited Mashiach.
Furthermore, the time is ripe in 520 BCE for the arrival of the Mashiach as the seventy years prophesied by Yirmiyahu (25:11-12 and 29:10) is approaching and the potential for redemption is enormous. These seventy years may be understood, as indicated by Zecharia (1:12) as seventy years between the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash (586 BCE) and its rebuilding (which indeed occurred in 516 BCE).
Chagai promises that Hashem will overturn thrones and destroy the power of nations. Zerubavel will be “placed as a seal [of Hashem]” as he will be Hashem’s chosen one. This clearly alludes to the fall of the Persian Empire and Zerubavel ascending to the throne and not merely serving as a governor under Persian control (somewhat similar to a British Jew named Sir Herbert Samuel serving as High Commissioner over Palestine under British control in the 1920’s).
The Results of Chagai’s Prophecies
Sefer Chagai records (1:12) that Zerubavel, Yehoshua the Kohen Gadol and the entire Jewish populace heeded the words of the prophet. This is somewhat surprising in light of the fact that less than one hundred years before, the words of Yirmiyahu were ignored and Yirmiyahu himself was abused due to his prophecies. Nonetheless, the words of Chagai resonated with the Jews of Eretz Yisrael, as they were words of great encouragement and promise during a time of misery.
Sefer Ezra (chapters five and six) records that the Jews began to build the Mikdash and not surprisingly the other inhabitants of Eretz Yisrael protested bitterly to the Persian emperor Darius. Darius investigated the matter but permitted the construction to continue while the inquiry was conducted. Darius discovered a copy of his grandfather Cyrus’ decree permitting the Jewish People to rebuild the Mikdash. Darius in turn not only permitted the completion of the Beit Hamikdash but he even financed the project.
On the other hand, not all of Chagai’s prophecies were immediately fulfilled. Most prominently, the Persian Empire remained in power and Zerubavel never ascended to the throne. Rashi (Chagai 2:22) explains that the prophecy was fulfilled with the fall of the Persian Empire thirty four years after the rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash (in accordance with the chronology of Chazal, see Avodah Zarah 9a). Metzudat David (Chagai 2:23) explains that the prophecy regarding Zerubavel refers to a descendant of Zerubavel. In other words, the prophecies of Chagai were delayed and will be fulfilled at a later time. Indeed, Tosafot (Yevamot 50a s.v. Teida; but see Rambam Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah 10:4) explain that even the positive words of a Navi may not be fulfilled if the generation sins and is deemed unworthy of its fulfillment.
Indeed, we find that Yaakov Avinu (B’reishit 32:11) fears that Esav will inflict great harm even though Hashem promised Yaakov on his way to Charan that He will return him to Eretz Yisrael in peace. Chazal (B’rachot 4a) explain that Yaakov feared that his sins may have rendered him unworthy of Hashem fulfilling His promise. Moreover, the Gemara here uses this principle to explain why the second Beit Hamikdash and Shivat Tzion (return to Zion) was not as grand as our first return to Zion in the time of Moshe and Yehoshua.
Chagai’s stirring words inspired his generation with the courage to overcome all odds and successfully build the Beit Hamikdash. Similarly, the words of Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook’s words of encouragement in the 1920’s and 1930’s asserting that the rebuilding of Eretz Yisrael was the beginning of our ultimate redemption helped inspire a generation to overcome all odds and reestablish Jewish sovereignty over parts of Eretz Yisrael. His son Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook’s similar calls before and after the Six Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War likewise inspired the building of the great Jewish communities of Judea and Samaria.
However, it is very likely that there was profound disappointment in the time of Chagai that not all of his prophecies were fulfilled. Next week we shall see how Zechariah began to deal with this problem and Malachi two generations later dealt with the fallout from this great disappointment.
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