Every year on Tishah BeAv (until the arrival of Mashiach), a Kinah written by Rav Elazar HaKalir is recited mourning the tragic death of Yoshiyahu in battle at Megiddo. By reciting this Kinah, we honor Yirmiyahu’s establishment of the practice of mourning Yoshiyahu’s death for all generations (see Divrei HaYamim 2:35:25 with the commentary of Daat Mikra). In this essay, we will seek to explain why the death of Yoshiyahu was so traumatic, to the extent that it still haunts us until this very day and is deemed worthy of inclusion in the Tishah BeAv liturgy along with the mourning of other major disasters, such as the Churban Beit HaMikdash and the Crusades.
I would like to acknowledge the influence of Rav Yoel Bin Nun and Rav Hayyim Angel on this presentation, though I accept responsibility for any error. In addition, I would like to acknowledge the contributions of my TABC Talmidim, to whom I presented this Shiur in 5767 in our study of Sefer Divrei HaYamim during our Thursday evening voluntary Mishmar. I would also note the contributions of the many members of Congregation Rinat Yisrael who attended a Shiur I delivered on this topic on Shabbat Mevarechim Chodesh Menachem Av 5767.
Background – The Prophecy Concerning Yoshiyahu
Before we explore the life of Yoshiyahu, we should note some important pieces of information that help place this great man into his proper historical context. Yoshiyahu stands out as one whose actions were foretold approximately three hundred years before his birth. In Sefer Melachim (1:13:1-2), we read of anonymous prophet (whom Chazal, Sanhedrin 89b, identify as Iddo) who visits the wicked Yaravam ben Nevat, who had built illegitimate altars in Beit El and Dan for his Northern Kingdom of Israel in. The
Navi informs the wicked king that a descendent of King David, named Yoshiyahu, will one day be born and will kill many priests who served on the illicit altars.
It is quite rare for an event to be foretold so far in advance - it is almost without parallel in Tanach. No other king’s actions and name are so specifically given so far in advance, which testifies to the greatness of Yoshiyahu. Interestingly, though, Yoshiyahu seems to have been entirely unaware of this prophecy (see Melachim 2:23:17). This expresses the dictum of Chazal, “Everything is foretold, yet the freedom of choice is given” (Avot 3:19), a theme that pervades Yoshiyahu’s life.
Background – Yoshiyahu’s Predecessors and Successors
Another vital piece of information is Yoshiyahu’s predecessors and successors. Yoshiyahu is seventeenth in the line of descendants of King David who ruled Judea (leaving out Atalyah). Sefer Melachim rates the spiritual performance of each of the kings using David HaMelech as a benchmark. Only Asa (5), Chizkiyahu (14) and Yoshiyahu (17) were as good as David, and Asa is assessed less positively in Divrei HaYamim than he is in Sefer Melachim. Of all the other kings, Shlomo (2), Yehoshafat (6) and Yotam (12) were good, though they did not measure up to David; Yeho’ash (9), Amatzyah (10) and Uzziyahu (11) started their reign as good kings but took a turn for the worse (as stated in Divrei HaYamim); and Rechavam (3), Aviyam (4), Yehoram (7), Achazyahu (8), Achaz (13), Menashe (15), and Amon (16) were bad kings. The rulers of the Northern Kingdom are regarded by Sefer Melachim as having ranged from bad to worse.
Thus, Yoshiyahu’s predecessors had an uneven record, and Am Yisrael did not enjoy the benefit of a stable succession of kings who were dedicated to honoring the Torah in a manner comparable to David HaMelech. This highlights the greatness of those kings who chose to lead our nation in accordance with Torah ideals. We should also note that Yoshiyahu’s four successors are all evaluated by Sefer Melachim as spiritual (as well as political) failures. Thus, of the last seven rulers of Judea, only Yoshiyahu was a Tzaddik, which stresses the outstanding nature of this great man.
Menasheh – Yoshiyahu’s Grandfather
We must make special note of Yoshiyahu’s grandfather, Menasheh. Despite being the son of the righteous Chizkiyahu, Menasheh engaged in wickedness in the extreme. This evil king is regarded as the worst of the monarchs described in Sefer Melachim. No other king, even among the evil Northern rulers (such as Basha), is described in such negative terms. He is described (Melachim 2:21:2-11) as having done evil in the eyes of Hashem, having imitated the evil practices of the Nochrim, having exceeded the evil of the Emori, and having sinned with the brazen intention of angering Hashem (LeHachis).
The Navi presents a stunning list of idolatrous practices in which he engaged: Molech, Ov, Yidoni, Baal, Asheirah, Onein, and Nichush. He even placed an idol in the Beit HaMikdash. It seems as if Menasheh looked in the Chumash for any and every form of Avodah Zarah and then engaged in that practice. To top it off, Menashe is described as having murdered so many innocent people that he filled the streets of Yerushalayim with blood from “mouth to mouth.” It is reasonable to assume that he killed these people because they resisted his plans to make Judea awash with idolatry. To make matters worse, Menasheh ruled for fifty five years, the longest of any monarch in Sefer Melachim, allowing his lust for idolatry to seep into the hearts and minds of Am Yisrael. Shockingly, nothing bad happens to this unrepentant sinner (at least as recorded in Sefer Melachim).
Yoshiyahu – The Early Years
When Menasheh finally died, he was succeeded by his son Amon, who continued his father’s evil practices but ruled for only two years before being assassinated. Sefer Melachim describes how Yoshiyahu succeeded his father at the tender age of eight. He was installed as the king, even though he obviously was unfit to rule at that age, because he was next in the Davidic line. The people of Judea, despite their spiritual shortcomings, zealously honored the Davidic line even after they assassinated a disliked king. Yoshiyahu is described in Sefer Melachim as beginning to take interest in repairing the Beit HaMikdash already at age twenty six. In Sefer Divrei HaYamim chapter thirty four, he is described as having begun to take an interest in the proper Torah way at age sixteen, and he began the process of purifying the Beit HaMikdash at age twenty. Incidentally, this shows that the teen years are a time that is ripe for youngsters to return to their Jewish roots. Interestingly, Rav Elazar HaKalir’s Kinah for Yoshiyahu states that at age eight he sought Hashem on his own.
In total, the Jewish people had experienced seventy five years - fifty five of Menasheh, two of Amon, and eighteen more until Yoshiyahu matured and was fully committed to Hashem - of rule under monarchs that were, at the very least, not dedicated to Torah law. Despite this handicap, Yoshiyahu embarked on his program of national reformation (Teshuvah). The challenge of trying to affect such a sea change amongst Am Yisrael was enormous. Imagine if the United States had been under communist rule from 1900 until 1975, and in 1975 a president sought to restore democracy. Imagine further that America had not enjoyed a stable succession of leaders even before 1900 that were dedicated to the ideals of democracy. The challenge of affecting such change would require a Herculean effort, and it probably would need two or three generations for the American people to internalize the need to return to the roots upon which the country was founded. Yoshiyahu faced similar formidable odds in his attempt to restore the ideals of David HaMelech’s rule.
Undaunted by the enormity of the challenge, Yoshiyahu set out on his path to national Teshuvah. He encountered, however, a major setback at the early stages of his campaign. He discovered, in his efforts to purify the Beit HaMikdash, a Sefer Torah that was opened to the Tochachah (reprimand) of Sefer Devarim. As explained by the Midrash HaGadol (Devarim 27) and the Radak (Melachim 2:22:11), Yoshiyahu correctly saw this as a bad omen and sought the interpretation of a Navi. Chuldah the prophetess presented a crushing message. Her prophecy was that as a result of Am Yisrael’s intense sinning, Hashem had resolved to destroy the Beit HaMikdash. She noted, however, that since Yoshiyahu had expressed remorse for the evil committed by his predecessors and his people, he would be spared from experiencing this awful event in his lifetime and that he would die a peaceful death.
Reaction to Chuldah’s Prophecy
Sefer Melachim (2:23:1-24 records that Yoshiyahu did not accept this prophecy with equanimity. Instead, he reacted by embarking on a massive campaign of national spiritual renaissance. He gathered all of Am Yisrael and its leaders and demanded that the nation make a solemn commitment (Berit) to dedicate itself wholeheartedly to the service of Hashem. He committed himself to eliminating Avodah Zarah completely from Eretz Yisrael. The Navi records that he eliminated the Avodah Zarah of his grandfather Menashe as well as the misdirected places of worship (Bamot) of Yaravam and Shlomo HaMelech that had stood for hundreds of years that not even Yoshiyahu’s righteous predecessors (other than Chizkiyahu) dared to disturb.
It is important to contrast Yoshiyahu’s reaction with that of his great grandfather, Chizkiyahu. Although Chizkiyahu was a righteous king of first rank, when he was told by Yeshayahu that eventually the Beit HaMikdash would be destroyed by the Babylonians, he responded, “Well, at least there will be peace in my day” (Melachim 2:20:19). Yoshiyahu’s contrastingly selfless reaction again marks him as an unparalleled Tzaddik among the descendants of David HaMelech. Indeed, Rav Hayyim Angel notes that Yoshiyahu is the only individual in Tanach who is described (Melachim 2:23:25) as having fulfilled the Torah’s mandate to worship Hashem “with all of your heart, soul and resources” (Devarim 6:5), which also serves to emphasize the greatness of this amazing king. Indeed, Rav Elazar HaKalir even goes as far to compare Yoshiyahu’s righteousness to that of Moshe Rabbeinu!
Next week, we shall conclude our discussion and explain why the death of Yoshiyahu is a cause for mourning even today.