Avraham ben Yaakov
KNOW YOUR BIBLE
II CHRONICLES CHAPTER 31
The exuberant joy of Hezekiah's Pesach gave all those assembled in Jerusalem the impetus to go out to the towns of Judah and Benjamin and even further afield into the territories of Ephraim and Menasheh in order to destroy all the idolatrous cult centers and altars. With the kingdom of Israel on the very threshold of its final collapse, the House of David was calling to all the Twelve Tribes to return to the way of the Torah.
Not only did Hezekiah re-establish the orders of the Cohanim and the Levites to serve in the Temple as instituted by King David (v 2), providing the sacrificial animals for the daily, Shabbat and festival services out of his own pocket (v 3). He also grasped that "If there is no flour [food], there is no Torah" (Avot 3:17), and he revived and reorganized the system of collecting the Torah-ordained Terumah gifts for the Cohanim and Maaser tithes for the Levites so that, with their livelihood guaranteed, they would be able to devote themselves not only to their Temple duties but even more importantly, to the crucial task of teaching the people Torah. Apparently the giving of Terumah and Maaser had fallen into abeyance in the days of Hezekiah's father King Ahaz.
The sages credited Hezekiah with having made enormous efforts to spread knowledge of the Torah throughout the land, saying that "he stuck a sword over the entrance to the study hall announcing that anyone who did not occupy himself with the Torah would be speared with the sword. They checked from Dan to Beersheba and could not find a single AM HA'ARETZ (Torah ignoramus), nor did they find a single young boy or girl who was not expert in the laws of ritual impurity and purification (Sanhedrin 94b).
The general population were not paid to study the Torah - Torah study was the national leisure-time activity before and after work - but in order to bring the people to the highest levels of Torah knowledge, it was necessary for the Cohanim and Levites to be freed from the burden of earning a living in order to devote themselves entirely to this task.
"And as soon as the matter BURST FORTH, the children of Israel brought in abundance." (v 5). The simple meaning of this verse is that as soon as news of Hezekiah's instructions to bring the Terumah and Maaser gifts "broke out" among the people, they responded open-heartedly. However the rabbis learned from here that while the obligation to bring Terumah and Maaser applies only to corn, wine and oil MID'ORAISO (according to the written Torah, Numbers 18:12), the people "burst forth" beyond the letter of the law and also brought these tithes from other kinds of produce as well even though they were technically exempt (Nedarim 55a). This shows the enthusiastic devotion of the people.
V 9: "Then Hezekiah questioned the Cohanim and the Levites concerning the heaps" (v 9). Rashi (ad loc.) explains that when the king saw such enormous piles of produce, he thought that the Cohanim and Levites must not have touched them or eaten from them so far, but Azariah the High Priest (who had served since the days of Uzziah, II Chron. 26:20) assured him that they had already benefited, and that all this abundance was because of God's blessing to the people in the merit of their renewed devotion to His commandments.
Vv 11-19 describe the administrative apparatus which Hezekiah established in the Temple and in all the towns of the Cohanim and the Levites in order to supervise the orderly collection, storage and distribution of their Terumah and Maaser gifts so as to provide them with their livelihood and that of their wives and little children both when they came to fulfill their rota duty in the Temple and when they went about their work - teaching Torah - in and around their towns. From v 16 Metzudas David (ad loc.) learns that the Cohanim and Levites used to bring their small male children with them to the Temple FROM THE AGE OF THREE YEARS OLD in order to familiarize them with the services. The fact that even the little children and other family members of the Cohanim and Levites received shares of Terumah and Maaser testifies to the enormous blessing and abundance in the harvests as soon as the people separated their tithes properly (cf. Rashi on v 19).
At first sight it is hard to understand why it was that precisely when Hezekiah and his generation repented so whole-heartedly and sought out HaShem, He immediately sent Sennacherib and his hosts to lay siege to Jerusalem (v 1). Our sages addressed this question in their comment on the somewhat unusual phrase in this verse, "After these words and this truth." - "After what??? Ravina said, After the Holy One blessed-be-He jumped and swore, saying, If I tell Hezekiah I am going to bring Sennacherib and deliver him into your hand, he will say 'I don't want either him or his terror' [i.e. I will forego the whole miracle]. Therefore the Holy One immediately jumped and swore: 'HaShem of hosts has sworn. I will break Assyria in My land and upon My mountains tread him under foot; then shall his yoke depart from them and his burden depart from off their shoulders' (Isaiah 14:24-25). Rabbi Yohanan said: The Holy One blessed be He said, Let Sennacherib and his supporters come and provide fodder for Hezekiah and his supporters" (Sanhedrin 94b).
In other words, Sennacherib's advance on Jerusalem , terrifying as it was to a kingdom that was tiny in comparison with his world empire, was not a punishment but rather was intended to enrich Judah with the booty they would take after the miraculous overthrow of his army. Indeed, the rabbis taught that Sennacherib and his army had the potential to be Gog and Magog and Hezekiah had the potential to be Melech HaMashiach and to bring about the final repair immediately - except that Hezekiah failed to sing a song of praise to God after all the miracles and thereby lost the opportunity (Sanhedrin 94a).
Sennacherib's advance against Jerusalem and the intense psychological warfare he employed are described in great detail in II Kings 18:13-19:37 as well as in Isaiah 36:1-37:38. Prior to the arrival of the Assyrian armies, Hezekiah took sensible defensive precautions and mobilized the people in preparation for a lengthy siege (vv 3-6 in our present chapter). For the rest, he relied entirely on faith (vv 7-8) and prayer (v 20).
Sennacherib's arrogant boasting about the powerlessness of all the gods of the nations he had conquered to save them and his denigration of Hezekiah's efforts to bring Judah to worship God at only one altar instead of many (which Sennacherib mocked as a sleight to His honor, v 12 and Rashi ad loc.) were enough to cause HaShem to overthrow him in order to sanctify His Name. The conclusion of the Talmudic discussion about how He struck his army is that He opened the ears of all the soldiers so that they heard the song of the angelic Chayoth, and out of sheer rapture at such beauty, their souls flew out of them and they simply expired (Sanhedrin 95b).
"And in those days Hezekiah fell mortally sick." (v 24). The story of Hezekiah's sudden illness and the heights of repentance to which it brought him, which secured him another fifteen years' lease of life, is told in detail in II Kings 20:1-11 and Isaiah 38:1-22. What is not directly apparent from our texts is that Hezekiah was struck down by this illness just three days before the overthrow of Sennacherib's army (see Rashi on II Kings 20:1) - i.e. at a time when Jerusalem was under total siege surrounded by hundreds of thousands of enemy soldiers. Bearing this in mind we can better appreciate the magnitude of the crisis and the subsequent miracle.
"But Hezekiah did not pay back according to the benefit done to him, for his heart was proud, therefore wrath came upon him and upon Judah and Jerusalem " (v 25). Hezekiah's pride came to the fore when envoys from the far-off, innocuous-seeming kingdom of Babylon came to congratulate him on his miraculous delivery from mortal illness, and instead of heeding the rabbinic warning that "blessing is found only in something hidden from the eye" (Taanis 8b), he wanted to flaunt his wealth and glory, and showed them all his treasure-houses and his most precious possessions. Tragically, Hezekiah, for all his saintliness, was unable to stand up to this subtle test (v 31 of our present chapter), and it was decreed that the Babylonians would capture all the treasures of Judah and take them to Babylon (see II Kings 20:12-19 and Isaiah 39:1-8).
Yet Hezekiah was spared seeing this decree in his days and died peacefully, being buried with the utmost honor side by side with King David and King Solomon (Bava Kama 16b).
BACK TO KNOW YOUR BIBLE HOMEPAGE
By Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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