Last week, we began to discuss why we still mourn the death of Yoshiyahu in our Tishah BeAv Kinot. This week, we shall conclude our explanation of why his devastating death has traumatized the collective Jewish psyche.
Last week, we noted that Yoshiyahu’s was one of the few shining examples of a Judean king who achieved spiritual excellence comparable to that of his ancestor, David HaMelech. We noted that this was all the more remarkable considering that his grandfather, Menasheh, was the worst of all the kings in Sefer Melachim and that Yoshiyahu began his program of national Teshuvah after seventy five years of rule by kings who either promoted or tolerated idolatry.
Was Teshuvah Possible after Chuldah’s Prophecy?
We concluded our discussion last week with Yoshiyahu’s reaction to Chuldah’s devastating prophecy that the Beit HaMikdash would be destroyed. Yoshiyahu made a colossal effort to thoroughly remove all traces of Avodah Zarah from Eretz Yisrael in an attempt to reverse the terrible decree.
We must ask, however, why Yoshiyahu even bothered to attempt to undo the decree. After all, the word of the prophetess represented God’s immutable will. How could this possibly change? The answer appears to be (following the approach advocated by the Abarbanel) that an evil decree that can be reversed with Teshuvah. We see that after the Cheit HaEigel, Moshe Rabbeinu, through Teshuvah and Tefillah (as we discuss in an essay that appears at www.koltorah.org), was able to reverse the decree to destroy Am Yisrael. We see this in regard to the Cheit HaMerglim as well. Ashkenazic Jews express this idea on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur by stating, “Teshuvah, Tefillah, and Tzedakah can remove the evil of the decree.” Indeed, on Yom Kippur we read (in Sefer Yonah) about how the Teshuvah of the people of Nineveh brought about the repeal of the decree that the city be destroyed. Yoshiyahu follows in Moshe Rabbeinu’s footsteps in trying to rid Bnei Yisrael of idolatry and lead them back to a path of retaining Hashem’s intense presence in their midst.
Am Yisrael at the time of Chuldah’s prophecy can be compared to a football team that is, for example, ten points behind with five minutes left in the game and is standing at its own eighteen yard-line. Defeat still can be averted, but it will take a titanic effort in order to prevail.
Yoshiyahu’s Achievements – Korban Pesach, Justice, and Expanded Borders
For a period of thirteen years, Yoshiyahu enjoyed great success as a ruler. He organized the most widespread observance of the Korban Pesach since the days of the Shoftim (Melachim 2:23:22). Yirmiyahu (22:15) describes Yoshiyahu’s reign as a time when justice prevailed in Eretz Yisrael. Rav Yoel Bin Nun notes that an archaeological discovery seems to corroborate Yirmiyahu’s evaluation. A shard of pottery ACLdated to Yoshiyahu’s time describes a soldier who called to the attention of the authorities what he deemed unfair treatment (the destruction of his clothes) by his commanding officer. Only in a society where justice prevails would a soldier even dare to lodge such a complaint. In an unjust society, a soldier would not dare complain against a commanding officer, for he certainly would be punished for his complaint.
Sefer Divrei HaYamim (2:34:6-7 and 21) describes Yoshiyahu as impacting all of Eretz Yisrael, not merely Judea. This appears astonishing in light of the fact that Yoshiyahu was a Judean king – what was he doing in the North? The answer lies in the historical events of the time of Yoshiyahu’s reign (see Daat Mikra Divrei HaYamim p. 933). During that time, the Assyrian Empire that had controlled the Northern portion of Eretz Yisrael since the reign of Chizkiyahu was collapsing. Yoshiyahu appears to have seized the opportunity to expand the borders of his kingdom to include the former Northern kingdom.
Sefer Melachim (2:23:24), however, indicates the limitations of Yoshiyahu’s Teshuvah campaign. It states that Yoshiyahu succeeded in eliminating the idolatry that “appeared” in Judea. This clearly implies that the Avodah Zarah that was not in plain view remained. Two Pesukim later, we are told that there was never a king who so sincerely returned to Hashem either before or after Yoshiyahu. This also seems to imply that only Yoshiyahu had returned but that the people had not wholeheartedly join him in his efforts.
Indeed, Chazal (Taanit 22b; see Rav Elazar HaKalir’s Kinah mourning Yoshiyahu) explain that during Yoshiyahu’s time, many Jews covertly worshipped Avodah Zarah. They describe how people hid Avodah Zarah behind their doors in order to escape its detection by soldiers enforcing Yoshiyahu’s rule. It seems that the soldiers were not particularly thorough in their searches, as they seemed to carry out royal decrees perfunctorily and without much enthusiasm. This also explains how Bnei Yisrael deserved the Churban not so long after Yoshiyahu’s death. Yoshiyahu’s reformation seems to have made little impact on people’s hearts. They merely cooperated in the removal of public idolatry. Finally, this also explains why Yirmiyahu was castigating Am Yisrael even during Yoshiyahu’s reformation (see Yirmiyahu 3:6-10 and 25:3). We should note that Rav Yehudah Amital and other religious opponents of expanding religious legislation in Israel cite the failure of Yoshiyahu’s government to affect any meaningful change on the part of much of Am Yisrael in its commitment to Hashem and His Torah as precedent for their position.
The Traumatic Death of Yoshiyahu
Thirteen years after he began his reformation in earnest, Yoshiyahu was killed, at the age of thirty nine, by Paroh Necho’s Egyptian army. This episode was so traumatic that Sefer Melachim (2:23:29) describes this tragedy in one cryptic Pasuk. It is almost as if the Navi does not want to record this event and therefore presents the story in the shortest and most obscure manner possible. The Pasuk informs us that when Paroh Necho of Egypt went to the Assyrian king on the Euphrates River, Yoshiyahu went towards Paroh Necho, whereupon Paroh Necho killed him. The Pasuk does not explain why Paroh was traveling to the Assyrian King, why Yoshiyahu went towards Paroh Necho, or why Paroh Necho killed Yoshiyahu.
Divrei HaYamim (2:35:20-23) provides us with a few more details but is also sparing in its presentation of this tragedy. It informs us that Paroh went to join the King of Assyria at Karkemish on the Euphrates. This is a well-known battle that we know from non-Jewish sources occurred in 609 B.C.E (see also Yirmiyahu chapter forty-six). The battle pitted the crumbling Assyrian Empire against the emerging Babylonian Empire. It seems that Paroh Necho joined the Assyrian forces in an attempt to prevent the Babylonian takeover of the region and to further Egyptian interests to expand their empire into the areas lost by the Assyrians.
Divrei HaYamim records that Paroh Necho sent Yoshiyahu a message not to confront him, as he did not intend to engage Yoshiyahu in battle. He sought merely to travel through Eretz Yisrael along the international trade route that cuts through the Jezreel Valley, the location of Megiddo. Yoshiyahu ignored the warnings, Divrei HaYamim tells us, and confronted Paroh Necho. Yoshiyahu disguised himself in battle but nevertheless fell to arrows shot by the Egyptian forces. It is of note that an arch-villain of Sefer Melachim, Achav, died under eerily similar circumstances (see Melachim 1:22:30-34 and Midrash VaYikra Rabbah 20:1).
Assessing the Extent of the Tragedy
Yoshiyahu’s death was a multidimensional tragedy. It seems that he was motivated to wage war to prevent Paroh Necho extending his sphere of influence in the Middle East and thereby impinging on the former’s control of the northern portion of Eretz Yisrael. Unfortunately, Sefer Melachim records that after the death of Yoshiyahu, the Egyptians seized control of Eretz Yisrael, and the subsequent Judean “kings” were merely vassal kings controlled by Egypt. The Babylonians then overtook the Egyptians (Melachim 2:24:7) and grabbed control over Eretz Yisrael. Thus, the death of Yoshiyahu effectively marked the end of Jewish sovereign control of Eretz Yisrael, which was not regained until centuries later in the days of the Chashmonaim.
Accordingly, Yoshiyahu’s death essentially is the beginning of the Churban. In fact, Rav Yoel Bin Nun suggests that Yirmiyahu’s prophecy of seventy years of exile (Yirmiyahu 25:11) refers in part to the seventy years from Yoshiyahu’s death until Koresh’s proclamation permitting us to return to Yerushalayim to rebuild the Beit HaMikdash, which according to non-Jewish sources occurred in 539 B.C.E (exactly 70 years after the battle of Karkemish). For further discussion of the fulfillment of the seventy years, see Daat Mikra to Divrei HaYamim 2:36:21 note 56.
A second dimension of the tragedy of Yoshiyahu’s death is the fact that it contradicted the prophecy of Chuldah (mentioned last week) that Yoshiyahu would die in peace. The failure of this prophecy to materialize was certainly traumatic. We can explain this failure based on the teaching of Chazal (see Berachot 4a) that even positive prophecies can be reversed if we sin and do not continue to merit the promise. As we cited last week, “Everything is foreseen, yet freedom of choice is given” (Avot 3:19). Chazal (Taanit 22b) explain that Yoshiyahu’s sin was his failure to consult with Yirmiyahu before heading to battle.
However, the most profound aspect of this tragedy is the fact that such an incredibly righteous king could die in battle. To make matters worse, he died in the very same manner as did Achav! In fact, Rav Yoel argues that it is for this reason that Am Yisrael ignored the impassioned pleas of Yirmiyahu and Yechezkeil to repent before the Churban. People most likely felt that serving Hashem did not pay. While Menashe served every sort of Avodah Zarah and reigned peacefully for fifty five years, Yoshiyahu, who destroyed the Avodah Zarah, was killed prematurely in battle at age thirty nine. Therefore, pleas for Teshuvah fell on deaf ears.
Furthermore, had Yoshiyahu not died and had lived until the age of sixty seven (as did his Menashe), his Teshuvah movement potentially could have remained in effect for another twenty eight years, totaling forty one years. In that amount of time, a new generation that did not know Menashe could have emerged and possibly been much more committed to Torah life than their parents’ generation. Such a Teshuvah movement likely could have averted the Churban. Alas, this was not to be (see Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik’s Reflections on the Tishah BeAv Kinot pp. 285-286 for a similar approach).
Why Didn’t Yoshiyahu Consult Yirmiyahu?
I would suggest that Yoshiyahu did not consult with Yirmiyahu (in addition to the consideration mentioned in Taanit 22b) because he would have received an answer that he did not want to hear. Yirmiyahu (see Yirmiyahu 2:18) followed in the footsteps of Yeshayahu (30:1-5) in maintaining consistently that Am Yisrael should stay out of any involvement with the superpowers. Rather, these two prophets felt, Am Yisrael should remain neutral and should be satisfied , as Yishayahu expresses it metaphorically, with “the waters of the Shiloach (a stream outside of Yerushalayim) that moves along slowly” (Yishayahu 8:6). Despite his mistake, Chazal (Taanit ad. loc.) tell us that Yoshiyahu repented and that his dying words were, “Hashem is righteous, as I have rebelled against His word” (Eichah 1:18).
The death of Yoshiyahu was an event of enormous disappointment for the spiritual and political aspirations of our people, and it merits our attention even today. We must also note, though, that we owe a great debt of gratitude to Yoshiyahu. Had he not done Teshuvah, Bnei Yisrael would have had to endure living for more than a century under the rule of eight consecutive evil kings. Had that happened, our fate might have been the oblivion that befell the ten Northern tribes who were ruled by evil kings for very long periods of time. Therefore, we must pay our respects to and acknowledge Yoshiyahu. Avi Levinson adds that the righteous Jewish leaders in exile, such as Yechezkeil and Daniel, likely were impacted positively by Yoshiyahu’s Teshuvah movement. Without the thirteen years of Teshuvah, such great spiritual leaders would have been unlikely to emerge. Yoshiyahu must retain a significant place in the collective Jewish psyche since it was he who preserved the legacy of David HaMelech. Our spiritual survival, in the main, can be attributed to him (for further explanation for the mourning of Yoshiyahu on Tishah BeAv, see Rav Soloveitchik aforementioned work pp. 275-286).