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Churban Bayis Rishon: A Historical Perspective

Churban Bayis Rishon: A Historical Perspective Leading up to the Destruction of the First Temple

          Chazal tell us (Gittin 55b): Rabbi Eliezer said, “Come and see how intense is the power of shame, for Hashem assisted Bar Kamtza in destroying and burning the second Bais HaMikdash.” Due to a messenger’s error, Bar Kamtza received an invitation to a celebration hosted by a man who hated him. He showed up at the party where, to his great humiliation, the host ordered him to leave. When he begged the host not to embarrass him before all the assembled guests, the host grabbed him and pulled him out of the hall. The Sages present at the celebration remained seated, and not one of them uttered a single word of protest. Bar Kamtza sought revenge not only on his host but on all those who sat by and did not object to his being humiliated, and he set in motion the siege of the Roman Empire on Jerusalem that culminated in the Churban.

          Rav Leib Chasman ZT”L (Ohr Yahel) writes: “And yet, who was Bar Kamtza? The lowest of the low, an oppressor, an informer! An ill-tempered man who decided to take vengeance on all of Klal Yisroel. He was a “Rodef” – a pursuer who is chasing another with intention to kill; such a man may be slain to save his intended victim. Yet, in spite of all this, Hashem saw his shame and this shame was the cause of a horrible indictment against Klal Yisroel, raging famine and death to thousands upon thousands of Jews, the destruction of the Bais HaMikdash, and the terrible Exile!”

          Shame can be a very powerful tool and it can be used to manipulate a great many things. Ever since the Jews were sent into exile and the Bais HaMikdash was destroyed, the Jewish people have lived in shame of their failure to adhere to the word of Hashem and his mitzvos. Just as the destruction of the second Bais HaMikdash came about as a result of someone being shamed, the first Bais HaMikdash, with all the many explanations for its destruction had this element as well, binding the two together and teaching us a very powerful lesson for generations to come. Over the years, that shame has enabled the nations of the world to force the Jews into a constant state of oppression. Throughout our long and bitter exile, the gentile nations have taken pleasure in shaming, defaming, and discrediting the Jewish nation and its storied history.

          But it wasn’t always this way….

          At the beginning of Sefer Yehoshua, the Navi describes a sense of optimism among the Jewish people. Although their two great leaders, Moshe Rabbeinu and Aharon HaKohen were no longer there to guide and protect them, Yehoshua bin Nun, a great man in his own right and Moshe’s closest disciple, took over the role of leadership of the Jewish people. The nation felt that they were now ready to begin their journey into the holy land of Israel.

          The Gemara (Bava Basra 75a) compares Moshe to the sun and Yehoshua to the moon. The moon is meant to reflect the light of the sun in order to shine its light at times when the sun is unable to. The events that took place while Yehoshua was the leader, shadow many of the events from Moshe’s time: Moshe split the Yam Suf (Red Sea) and Yehoshua split the Yarden (Jordan River); Moshe oversaw the first Korban Pesach in Egypt as well as the sole Korban Pesach offered in the desert, and Yehoshua oversaw the next Korban Pesach in Gilgal. Rashi quotes the Yerushalmi that although Moshe Rabbeinu physically died, he was considered alive through Yehoshua, who flawlessly picked up where Moshe left off, continuing his legacy, doing what his mentor would have done if he were physically present. It was for this reason that Yehoshua was chosen to succeed Moshe and bring the Nation into Eretz Yisroel.

          However, with all the pomp and fanfare, the journey did not go as smooth as expected. After entering the Land of Canaan, the task of Yehoshua and the Jewish people was to eradicate the seven Canaanite nations and conquer their lands – lands that were promised to Avraham, Yitzchok, and Yaakov. Although the nation did win numerous victories in battle, they did not fully succeed in driving the Canaanim out of the land, for a number of stated reasons, thereby setting the stage for future problems to arise.

          When Yehoshua bin Nun passed away, Klal Yisroel entered a rather tumultuous era. Without a leader of Yehoshua’s caliber – and even for some extended periods, no leader at all – the nation began a period of spiritual peaks and valleys. Over the course of the next 355 years, as described in Sefer Shoftim, there is a concurrent cycle of highs and lows, ups and downs, beginning with the loss of a Shofet (leader, literally, a judge), leading to the loss of guidance and adherence to Torah and mitzvos. Bnei Yisrael would invariably falter as a nation and in turn, Hashem delivered them into the hands of their various enemies. However, once in the throes of their adversaries, the Jewish people would suddenly remember Hashem and begin the process of returning to Him. Hashem, in His infinite mercy would send a new Shofet to encourage the people and deliver His salvation, returning peace, tranquility and ultimately Torah observance to Klal Yisrael. Once the Shofet passed away, the cycle would unfortunately repeat itself. The Radak notes, that to their credit, the people would remain loyal to Hashem and not sin as long as the memory or the Shofet himself was still alive.

          The majority of those years consisted of pious Jews keeping the Torah and Mitzvos as they should, while fifteen Shoftim attempted to fill the role of leader. Essentially, it is important to not form a misguided understanding of this period. Some were chosen by the people and others directly by the Almighty. There is a debate among the Meforshim as to what was the role of a Shofet. Were they great Talmidei Chachamim? Were they shrewd political leaders? Or were they simply brilliant military leaders? Interestingly enough, despite the lack of overall leadership, there was not complete disorder; the Kohen Gadol and the many Nevi’im (prophets) of the time implemented forms of guidance and stricture, even in the absence of a Shofet. Each tribe living in their predetermined portion of the land, maintained their own judicial system and courts of law, with their own elders at the forefront.

          As the period of the Shoftim drew to a close, the people (not Hashem or the leaders) decided that it would be better for the Jewish Nation to anoint a ruler similar to the nations of the world – a monarchy. This fervor ushered in the beginning of kingdoms among the Jewish Nation. The Rambam and many others, detail the importance of having a Jewish king. Although today we live in blissful times of democracy, and originally Hashem had to be “convinced” to give the Jewish people a monarch, when Moshiach comes, absolute monarchy will be the way the nation will be ruled. The Rambam explains that the purpose of a king is to instill a physical fear of Hashem, so that the people will not stray. Consequently, when the king is righteous the nation will subsequently follow his lead, while a wicked king will drag the nation down along with him.

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          At the end of the period when the Mishkan was situated in Shilo, the Jewish people were led by the Kohen Gadol, Eili Hakohen. His close disciple was Shmuel Hanavi, the great prophet about whom it is written, “Moshe and Aharon were among His Kohanim, and Shmuel was among those who called His Name.” (Tehillim 99) In other words, Shmuel was equal in some degree, to the level of greatness of Moshe and Aharon. He successfully managed to gather Bnei Yisroel together to accept the yolk of Hashem, not just out of fear of retribution, but with love as well. Unlike other leaders before him, Shmuel Hanavi was constantly moving around from place to place, teaching and guiding the people, igniting a spark deeply hidden within them and bringing them closer to Hashem. Though young in years, he was entrusted with the awesome, yet delicate task of locating and anointing the nation’s first king.

          Shaul ben Kish was the man Hashem chose for this lofty position. He was an exceedingly humble man, and a descendent of Shevet Binyamin. Unfortunately, he blundered when, in his misdirected compassion, he did not completely fulfill the word of Hashem by wiping out the tyrannical nation of Amalek. Though terribly disappointed that the man he had been told to anoint had failed, Shmuel nevertheless went to the home of another great Tzaddik, Yishai, at the behest of Hashem, to anoint Dovid, his fiery red-headed son, to become the next king of Israel. With the appointment of Dovid Hamelech, Shmuel was marking the beginning of the eternal dynasty of Malchus Bais Dovid, solidifying Yaakov Avinu’s promise to his son Yehuda, that his Shevet will be the eternal rulers of Klal Yisroel.

          Although officially anointed, Dovid’s reign did not begin immediately. After marrying King Shaul’s daughter Michal, Dovid and Shaul began a series of “cat and mouse games,” as Shaul was suspicious of Dovid and wished to kill him. Time and time again, Dovid would run and hide with Shaul closely chasing behind him, until his error of judgment would be revealed to him. Shaul would then call out to Dovid who would graciously, yet carefully, accept his apology, but remain hidden. The Meforshim go into great detail to explain that Shaul Hamelech, a fair minded, compassionate king and a great Tzaddik was “possessed,” and for some reason directed his anger at Dovid, which explains why even though he had a number of opportunities and it was within his rights, Dovid Hamelech never touched or harmed the standing king of Israel.

          With the tragic death of Shaul Hamelech and his son Yonason, Dovid’s closest friend, it would seem that the next anointed king would step into his role seamlessly. Hashem had other plans, however, and Dovid Hamelech spent the first seven years of his 40 year reign in the historic city of the Patriarchs, Chevron, before eventually making his way to the capital city of Jerusalem.

          As a successful king and military tactician, Dovid Hamelech, along with his nephew and general. Yoav ben Tzruya, established the “Malchus Bais Dovid,” continuously attacking and subduing the Pelishtim, enabling peace to reign throughout the land. At the beginning of his reign, Avner ben Ner, Shaul Hamelech’s beloved general accused Dovid of being a traitor to the throne and installed Ish Boshes, Shaul’s remaining son as rightful heir and king over Bnei Yisroel. But Ish Boshes was quickly assassinated, and Avner switched loyalties, joining Dovid’s camp. Unwittingly, Yoav ben Tzruya rose up and struck down Avner, his former nemesis, effectively closing the book on the first Jewish royal dynasty.

          Though his kingdom was now firmly in place, throughout Dovid’s 40-year reign there were a number of incidents that threatened to shake the foundation on which it stood. Among them, were three separate rebellions against the king by Sheva ben Bichri, and Dovid’s two sons Avshalom and Adoniyahu. He successfully fought off each challenge, and through it all, never lost focus on accomplishing his ultimate and fundamental goal – building an edifice that would house the Holy Shechina, the Bais HaMikdash. With unlimited love for Hashem, Dovid set aside mountains of gold and silver to be used for the building of Hashem’s Holy house. Hashem though, deemed it inappropriate for someone who had spilled so much blood in battle – even with good reason – to build His house of peace, and reserved the privilege for his son and successor, Shlomo.

          Shlomo Hamelech, known the world over as the wisest man to have ever lived, began his reign at the tender age of 12 years old, amidst the chaotic rebellion of his brother Adoniyahu. As prophesied by Nassan Hanavi, Shlomo, son of Bas Sheva, who was named by Hashem himself, ascended to the throne after his father’s death, and experienced one of the only all-peaceful times throughout the Jewish people’s long history.

          After 480 years from the time of the Jewish nation’s redemption from Egypt, Shlomo Hamelech began the construction of the glorious and magnificent Bais HaMikdash. He collected the best materials and artisans from around the world and infused a pure holiness into the very stones, deeming them worthy of inclusion in Hashem’s holy house. While the actual building was constructed with human ingenuity, Hakadosh Boruch Hu sent down the “blueprints” to His humble servant, Dovid Hamelech, many years earlier, as a way of including him in the actual construction. The purpose of this was borne out at the completion ceremony, Chanukas Habayis, of the Bais HaMikdash. Amidst festive music and celebration, Shlomo Hamelech attempted to bring the Aron HaKodesh (Holy Ark into the sanctuary and to its rightful place. However, the doors of the Holy of Holies, the Kodesh Hakodashim, would not open. Fearing that he might be unworthy to see the project through to its completion, Shlomo began to pray to Hashem and only in the merit of his esteemed father, Dovid, did the doors finally swing open and the Aron was restored. This made it clear to the world that Dovid Hamelech was completely vindicated of any wrongdoing with Bas Sheva, and the Bais HaMikdash was finally inaugurated in his zechus.

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The wondrous project progressed, and what began in the fourth year of his reign, the construction of the Bais HaMikdash, Shlomo Hamelech completed seven years later.

          In its splendor and glory, the magnificent edifice now stood at the center of Jewish life, spreading its holiness throughout the land. The people would come with various korbanos, and the scent of Ketores – incense, would fill the air wafting its way to the farthest reaches of the city of Jericho. Now that Hashem had a sanctuary for the Divine Presence, the Nation of Israel began to experience open miracles on a daily basis, creating an awesome positive impact on the people as a whole.

          With the purpose of his kingship accomplished, building the Bais HaMikdash, Shlomo Hamelech instituted a massive movement of Torah study as well, bringing the Jewish people to new highs in scholarship and the observance of Hashem’s commandments. Alongside this movement, the nation came to revere and respect Shlomo Hamelech’s great wisdom and compassion in judgment, as well as his prowess and determination to continue his father’s great legacy. Together with Shlomo, Shimi ben Geira, his primary teacher, and Binayahu ben Yehoyada, head of the army and a great Torah scholar, provided spiritual guidance which enabled the nation to find favor in the eyes of Hashem.

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          Shlomo ruled for forty years, just as his father Dovid did before him. Upon his death, his oldest son Rechavem inherited the throne. He immediately erred by foregoing the advice of his father’s close advisors, following instead his young friends’ misguided advice. This error stirred the nation to rebellion which in effect caused the kingdom to split into two separate entities known as Malchus Yehuda and Malchus Yisroel. To establish the new kingdom, the prophet, Achiya Hashiloni, anointed Yeravem ben Nevat as its first king. While Shevet Yehuda, Binyomin and the Kohanim remained faithful, the other ten Shevatim pledged their loyalty to the new king. Since the Bais HaMikdash was located in the territory of the kingdom of Yehuda, Yeravem banned his subjects from traveling between the two kingdoms, fearing they might defect, and erected two large golden calves in the central cities of his kingdom.

          Sefer Melachim, while detailing the many stories of this 400-year span, continuously jumps back and forth between the two Jewish kingdoms. While the kingdom of Yehuda remained loyal to Hashem, for the most part, the kingdom of Yisroel strayed far off the path of their forefathers. They sinned in many ways and served foreign gods of gold and silver. Hashem sent many righteous prophets to help the northern kingdom of Yisroel and guide them back to the correct path. Most notable among these was Eliyahu Hanavi, and his student Elisha. Eliyahu, among his many other great accomplishments, was responsible for creating one of the greatest sanctifications of Hashem’s Name in history, when he was challenged by the evil king Achav and his wicked wife Izevel, on Har HaCarmel. Although the people were unified, idol-worship was rampant throughout the kingdom, and eventually was the final straw that sent the ten tribes of Malchus Yisroel into exile at the hands of the Assyrian king, Sancheriv.

          For the people of the kingdom of Yehudah, the Bais HaMikdash was their focal point, their mainstay which played a major role in their lives. As the kings dictated, so did their subjects strictly adhere, creating an assumption of perfection that was marred only by the constant presence of Bamos, temporary altars, which were prevalent throughout the land. But enemies lay on the horizon and on the eve of the holiday of Pesach, with Sancheriv and his massive army surrounding the holy city of Yerushalayim, King Chizkiyahu, a righteous Tzaddik and benevolent ruler, was informed through Yeshayahu Hanavi, not to fear for Hashem will deal a terrifying blow to the Assyrian army, completely wiping them out and freeing the Jewish people from the terrible siege. Indeed, Sancheriv suffered a stunning defeat at the gates of Yerushalayim, when a heavenly angel came down and smote the Assyrians, killing 185,000 soldiers in one night. Sancheriv ran away, back to his palace, where he was killed by his own sons while prostrating in the temple of his god.

          Out of the ashes of the Assyrian kingdom came the rise of the small and unknown kingdom of Bavel – Babylonia. The Babylonians, sensing their time has come, began a conquest to conquer the world. As supreme leader of his kingdom, Nevuchadnezzar advanced his troops throughout the neighboring lands, toppling kingdom after kingdom and subjecting each one to his rule. Many Meforshim wonder, in what merit was Nevuchadnezzar granted so much success. What did he do in his lifetime that Hashem allowed him free reign? The answer is that although he was a terribly wicked and treacherous man, unlike many of the other gentile kings, Nevuchadnezzar had and showed his respect for Hashem, the G-d of the Jewish Nation. He recognized His supremacy over the world and even feared it. Because of this respect, Hashem empowered him greatly, allowing him to conquer the world and eventually destroy the Bais HaMikdash.

          When Menashe, the wicked son of Chizkiyahu, became king of Israel, he plunged the nation to a terrible depth of sin, spreading many forms of extinct idol-worship. Following his death, the nation saw a wave of repentance under the reign of his grandson Yoshiyahu, who grew up as a child with no knowledge of Hashem and His Torah, and eventually became a Tzaddik who led the people back to their roots. However, even with this resurgence, there were those among the people who stubbornly held onto their idols, concealing them behind their doors in a most ingenious way. The king, Yoshiyahu, believed that the nation had wholeheartedly reembraced Hakadosh Boruch Hu and his Torah, and had no compunctions about refusing to allow the Egyptian king and his armies to pass through their land to fight the Babylonians. This stubbornness provoked a war against Egypt, which cost him his life, and with the death of the great and righteous king Yoshiyahu, the spirit of the nation died, invoking an irreversible downward spiral towards destruction and exile.

         As the nation deteriorated, the great prophet Yirmiyahu was called to the fore. Through him, Hashem sent warning after warning detailing what will happen to the Jewish people if they did not repent. Yirmiyahu, in his great love and compassion for his people, would constantly badger them, begging and pleading that they return to the ways of Hashem. After constant and continuous harassment from Yirmiyahu Hanavi, the people had enough of him and sought ways to rid themselves of this nuisance. Eventually, he was cast into the pit of a dungeon, where he languished while the nation hoped that his terrible prophecies would somehow never occur.

          Unfortunately, his voice fell on deaf ears and his prophetic words rang true. On the tenth of Teves, about the year 3830, Nevuchadnezzar and the Babylonians laid siege to the holy city of Yerushalayim. With the people starving inside, morale fell to an all-time low, paving the way for the infamous breach and collapse of the city walls on the seventeenth of Tammuz. Not believing it possible, the people could not fathom a foreign entity gaining control of Hashem’s beloved temple. Yet Hashem, wishing to keep His people intact, took out His anger on His residence of sticks and stone, and on the ninth day of Av, the Bais HaMikdash was looted and set ablaze. In utter pain and disbelief, the young Kohanim climbed to the roof of the Heichel (inner courtyard) and returned the “keys” of the holy temple to Hashem’s outstretched “hand” exclaiming, “We were not worthy of protecting Your home,” before jumping into the flames.

          As the building burned, the smoke and flames rising like a pyre, the always positive and optimistic Yirmiyahu Hanavi burst into tears. His worries and fears had been realized and his devastating prophecies were finally coming true. With a shattered heart, Yirmiyahu begged the Almighty to allow him to be exiled along with his people, so he may be there to encourage and strengthen them in their troubled times. Hashem responded that only one of them could go with the people and with deep-seated compassion for his brothers and sisters as they were hauled off into slavery, Yirmiyahu understood that it was more important for Hashem to be with the Jews in exile, rather than him. Brokenhearted, he turned back and remained in Yerushalayim for the rest of his days.

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          With the Bais HaMikdash destroyed, the kingdom dismantled, the people exiled, and the capital city of Yerushalayim razed to the ground, all hope of return seemed lost.

          Fourteen years into their bitter exile, Yechezkel Hanavi had a rather peculiar prophecy. The wounds had barely begun to heal and the rebuilding of the second Bais HaMikdash was nowhere in sight. Suddenly, Hashem appeared to him with blueprints of what the third and final Bais HaMikdash will look like. The Radak points out that Chazal teach us: “Whoever believes in the advent of Moshiach will ultimately merit the redemption.” This special revelation at this particular moment in time was intended to be a powerful comfort to the Jewish nation in exile. Downtrodden, they viewed themselves as rejected by Hakadosh Baruch Hu and unable to envision any sort of glorious era awaiting them in the future.

          In the midst of their hopeless despair, Hashem revealed to them His boundless love and demonstrated to them that during those very difficult moments, when all hope seems lost and the wounds of the Churban, death, suffering and exile, are very raw and real, Hashem was focusing on their future redemption, the era of Moshiach, a time when Klal Yisroel will see the glorious light of freedom, solace and everlasting peace. Now, in the “birth pangs” of Moshiach, we are almost there. It is our utmost duty to remember and internalize this inherent lesson, and focus on it as well. May Hashem send Moshiach soon – speedily and in our days.

Tzvi Hoffman

Teves 5778


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