As I heard Rabbi Berel Wein once say (though I’m sure he’s said it many times), “Tanach (Bible) is not a history book, it’s today’s newspaper.”
I have been energized by Israeli MK’s Naftali Benet’s recent initiative to have as many Israelis (and Jews generally) learn one chapter of Tanach a day, in order to strengthen our understanding of our historic mission and unbreakable link to our destiny in the Land of Israel. Nonetheless, I haven’t been following the daily prescription according to the “new order,” that is, starting all together from Chapter 1 of Genesis and proceeding forward. Since, as a Torah-observant Jew, I read the weekly Torah portion, I will complete the Five Books of Moses once annually anyway. So, in addition to my weekly “dose” of Torah, I am adding one chapter a day of the books of the Prophets.
That said, I have been, for years, trying to make slow progress through these books, and have already completed Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Isaiah. (I skipped Kings because I had intended to learn that together with a study partner, though that didn’t materialize, so I started it on my own after finishing Isaiah.) I am now completing the 20th chapter of I Kings (Melachim Aleph), and I have some thoughts to share.
We live in a time in which Israel’s continued existence constantly comes under threat from its enemies (who are everywhere, not just in the Arab countries surrounding the Land of Israel, or within its tiny borders). And despite our efforts to “defend ourselves,” our issues of security never seem to become resolved.
What can we learn, or shall I say, what are we CALLED UPON to learn from our holy books? (For that is their purpose, is it not? To learn from them, not to coldy read from them as some kind of quiet entertainment.)
Here is what I found in my reading for today. In short, Ben-Hadad, the king of Aram (modern-day Syria), wages war on Israel time and again, continuously seeking its destruction, but is thwarted again and again, not because of the righteousness of its kings, but because of the mercy of the great G-d of Israel. Before Ben-Hadad can attack Israel again, a prophet comes to the king of Israel and tells him (I Kings, 20:28):
“The Man of G-d (i.e. prophet) approached and said to the King of Israel, and said, “Thus said the Almighty (HaShem): Since Aram said that the Almighty is a G-d of mountains (only), but He is not a G-d of valleys, I have given all this great multitude (the army of Aram) into your hand, and you shall know that I am the Almighty.”
Did you catch it? No, it was not a typo, because it’s in the Hebrew, too. That’s right — the verse says “and (he) said” twice. “The Man of G-d (i.e. prophet) approached and said to the King of Israel, and said…” Why twice? What does this add?
Rashi’s comments are illuminating.
Rashi points out that there must have been a SECOND statement, in addition to this one, that the text does not record. Based on a comparison with later context, Rashi concludes that the second statement was that once the king has Ben-Hadad in his grasp, he should NOT show him any mercy! As we will see, the king will be reprimanded for not following this dictate (yet if the prophet had not said it, it would not have made sense later for the king to be taken to task for this, as we shall see).
So, of course, G-d was right and Israel defeats Aram again, and this time, the King of Aram is desperate for his own survival. Of his army of over one hundred thousand men, only he and a few close servants survive and find hiding.
“[The king of Aram]’s servants said to him: ‘Behold now, we have heard that the kings of Israel are kings of kindness. Let us please put sackcloth upon our loins and ropes upon our heads and go forth to the king of Israel. Perhaps he will allow you to live.”
Isn’t it amazing how our reputation as kind and merciful (and our predilection to be duped by our enemies’ false sincerity) hasn’t changed in three millenia? But you don’t think the King of Israel falls for this one, right?
Wrong! “They girded sackcloth upon their loins and ropes upon their heads, and they came to the King of Israel and said: ‘Your servant Ben-Hadad said: ‘Please allow me to live!” [The King of Israel] said: ‘Does he yet live? He is my brother!'”
At the first sign of a peaceful overture, the Jewish king is filled with nothing but love for his former enemy.
The King of Israel then makes a pact with his newfound “brother,” and sends him peacefully back to Damascus to his rule.
The prophet in disguise tells the king that he was among the soldiers of Israel who had gone out to war with Aram. While at war, another soldier brought him a prisoner, telling him to guard the man with his life, or deserve a penalty. Nevertheless, the prisoner escaped. The king replied, “You decided your own sentence!” I.e. You accepted upon yourself the terms when you agreed to guard the prisoner, now face the penalty!
The prophet then reveals himself and explains that this was a metaphor for the king’s own actions.
This confirms Rashi’s explanation earlier that the King of Israel must have been likewise commanded to “guard his hostage” and not let him go as he did, just like the man in the prophet’s parable.
So as Berel Wein said, these scriptures are today’s news. Will we learn from history and cease to accept the false promises of those who have sworn to destroy us? As Rashi has explained, sometimes the seemingly merciful course of action is that which is most unwise.
J-Street needs to read the Tanach.
[Paranthetically, I think it worthwhile to examine one more of Rashi’s comments to this passage. HaShem calls the king of Aram “איש חרמי,” which I have translated, based on Rashi, as “My enemy.” Rashi offers an alternative translation of the word חרם, that is, “entrapment.”
It was as if HaShem was saying to the King of Israel: “How many traps did I set for you until [the king of Aram] fell into your hands!” Over and over HaShem offered the King of Israel divine assistance in entrapping his enemies to that he may be victorious over them, yet the King of Israel has squandered all these efforts. Will we make the same mistakes? It appears to me that, G-d forbid, we are.]