Tag Archives: Jeremiah

Netanyahu and Yirmiyahu

This week’s parasha, Bechukotai, contains an infamous list of curses that could befall the Jewish people, has v’shalom, if they stray from God’s ways. Jewish history shows that we have indeed experienced such tragic curses over the millennia every so often, and not just in the distant past but recently on October 7. As difficult and inexplicable such events may be, we have to keep in mind that while they come at the hands of various political entities and ethnoreligious groups, ultimately the source of the pain is God Himself. As the parasha tells us, the tragedies are both an unfortunate retribution for our transgressions, and a wake-up call to be better.

‘Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem’ by Francesco Hayez (1867)

One of the first such unspeakable catastrophes took place roughly twenty-five centuries ago, at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians. They massacred tens of thousands of Jews, enslaved and exiled many more, destroyed Jerusalem, and burned down the Holy Temple. Yet, the prophet Jeremiah quotes Hashem saying Nebuchadnezzar is His “servant” (Jeremiah 43:10), His instrument in bringing about punishment. The sad reality is that history’s wicked tormentors were tools of God. They would not arise had we not deserved it. We read in Isaiah 45:7 that “I am God, and there is no other; I form light and create darkness; I make peace and create evil, I am Hashem, doing all of these things.” If it is God’s Will to do such things, what does that make of the free will of the human tormentors?

Our Sages teach that when a person ascends to a high political position, and holds the lives of many in their hands, God limits that person’s free will. God will occasionally “harden their hearts” (as He did with Pharaoh) and steer their choices if necessary. This was described long ago by King Solomon when he said “Like channeled water is the heart of a king in God’s Hand; He directs it wherever He wishes.” (Proverbs 21:1) The Talmud cites this verse in saying that each person should pray “for a good king”, meaning we should pray that God direct political leaders to act justly and kindly with the populace (Berakhot 55a). God can cause a political leader to do more good, or to bring about punishment. And this takes us right back to October 7:

Everyone is puzzled by the fact that the Israeli government missed all the warning signs, was paralyzed by inaction on the morning of, and seemingly allowed the October 7 massacre to happen. It appears to be totally inexplicable and, not surprisingly, has given rise to multiple conspiracy theories. Did the government deliberately allow the massacre to happen? Did they want a serious external conflict to end the civil unrest that was taking place in the months prior to October 7? Did they have a hand in planning the attack? Did they purposely keep the border unguarded, or move military units away from the border, or give an abnormally large number of holiday vacations, or jam communication channels, or change permits to move the Nova festival from its original location right to the Gaza border? The theories are numerous, each more sinister than the next. Personally, I find them hard to believe, and although I am no fan of the government, it feels absurd to suggest that anyone could deliberately allow something like this to happen to their own people.

But then I was reading Jeremiah—the same Jeremiah that refers to Nebuchadnezzar as God’s servant, and the same Jeremiah from whom we read this week’s Haftarah. We find something quite amazing in the Book of Jeremiah: it is the one place in the Tanakh that describes a family called “Netanyahu”. (Another is briefly mentioned in a list in I Chronicles 25:12.) Jeremiah first speaks of a righteous court official named Yehudi ben Netanyahu (36:14). Yehudi delivers a scroll bearing Jeremiah’s gloomy prophecy to the king, and reads it before him. Judea’s King Yehoyakim refuses to heed the warning and thinks he is safe from the Babylonians. He scoffs and burns the prophetic scroll of Jeremiah. We hear no more of Yehudi ben Netanyahu after this.

We then read how Jeremiah’s prophecy was tragically fulfilled. The Babylonian armies arrived, destroying Jerusalem and the Temple and starting the grim period of the Babylonian Captivity. However, the Babylonians did not expel all the Jews from the Holy Land, and even allowed the Jews some autonomy to continue governing themselves. They appointed a Jewish leader named Gedaliah ben Ahikam as governor of Judea. Gedaliah reassured the remaining Jews that everything would be okay; to stay in the Holy Land and rebuild.

Here we are introduced to another Jewish leader, called Ishmael ben Netanyahu (40:8). A descendant of the Davidic monarchy, he had dreams of becoming king and making himself the undisputed leader of Israel. Gedaliah, of course, stood in his way. Ishmael made a secret alliance with the king of Ammon (same place as today’s Amman, capital of the Palestinian state of “Jordan”) to assassinate Gedaliah. Gedaliah was warned of Ishmael’s sinister plans, but dismissed the rumours, thinking no self-respecting Jew could ever stoop so low.

Although the entire British Mandate for Palestine was originally promised to the Jewish people, the British suddenly gave away more than two-thirds to the Arabs to form a new Palestinian state now called “Jordan”. (Credit: Eli E. Hertz)

But then, “in the seventh month” (Tishrei), Gedaliah was having a holiday feast and Ishmael joined him for the yom tov meal (41:1). Wicked Ishmael suddenly struck down Gedaliah “and all the Jews who were with him” (41:3). The next day, pilgrims “came from Shechem, Shiloh, and Samaria” to bring holiday offerings. Ishmael came out to greet them and invited them into town before turning on them and slaughtering them, too (41:7). Ishmael threw all the corpses into a cistern. He didn’t stop there:

Ishmael carried off all the rest of the people who were in Mizpah, including the daughters of the king—all the people left in Mizpah, over whom Nebuzaradan, the chief of the guards, had appointed Gedaliah son of Ahikam. Ishmael son of Netanyah carried them off, and set out to cross over to the Ammonites. (41:10)

Ishmael took hostages and fled back to Ammon. A Judean general named Yochanan ben Kareach finally figured out what’s going on and chased after Ishmael with his men, managing to free the hostages. Ishmael, however, escaped and we don’t know what happened to him afterwards.

In the aftermath of the massacre, the frightened and traumatized Judeans feared the Babylonians would come back to punish them for the death of the Babylon-appointed governor Gedaliah. Despite Jeremiah’s protests and assurances that all would be fine, the remnant of Jews decided to flee to Egypt. The result of Ishmael’s treachery was that the Holy Land lost its last Jews, along with its semi-autonomous Jewish government. The last traces of the Kingdom of Judea were officially obliterated.

For this terrible tragedy, we still observe the “Fast of Gedaliah” today every year immediately following Rosh Hashanah. Though the Tanakh doesn’t say exactly which holiday it was, according to tradition the Gedaliah massacre occurred on Rosh Hashanah. Since we don’t fast on holidays, the fast is observed on the third of Tishrei. However, a careful reading of the Tanakh suggests that the holiday may have been Sukkot, hence the pilgrims that came the following day to bring offerings. Altogether, the narrative is eerily similar to what we experienced last Sukkot in Tishrei, when Ishmaelites came into the land and slaughtered Jews peacefully celebrating a holiday, while taking other Jews hostage.

Strangely, the villain in the Jeremiah narrative (also recounted in II Kings 25) is a power-hungry Jewish leader named Ishmael ben Netanyahu. It would be another millennium before an Ishmaelite by the name of Muhammad would arise, and henceforth “Ishmael” would always be associated with the Muslims. If this episode in Tanakh is not only historical, but prophetic, I wonder what it might mean for all of us today.

I am reminded of the fact that our own Netanyahu was all too kind to the Ishmaelites, giving record-high work permits to Gazans to enter Israel (the Bennett government gave 10,000 before Netanyahu came back to power last year and doubled it to 20,000), transferring Qatari suitcases of cash to support them, and refusing pre-emptive strikes when warned by military officials. The same Netanyahu has yet to fulfil a single objective in the current war. Nearly eight months later, most of Hamas’ tunnel infrastructure is still in place, their leaders still at large, rockets still being fired on Israel, and worst of all, a multitude of hostages still in captivity. The government of Israel is paralyzed, the Knesset remains a circus of corruption (on both sides left and right, secular and “religious”), and “there is no one to rely on but our Father in Heaven.” (Sotah 49b)

Will today’s Netanyahu be more like the righteous Yehudi ben Netanyahu—who supported Jeremiah the Prophet and sought to lead people towards truth and repentance, while confronting the corrupt government of Yehoyakim—or is he more like Ishmael ben Netanyahu, a power-hungry manipulator and a collaborator with Israel’s enemies, a facilitator of Jewish massacres? Will he go down in history as a real “Yehudi”, or as an imposter “Ishmael”? I hope time will prove the former to be the case, but I fear the reality is fast-approaching the latter. If Benjamin Netanyahu does not make some dramatic changes for himself and his country, he may well end up like Ishmael ben Netanyahu long before him; shamefully fleeing his country, remembered for centuries thereafter as a villain.

Whatever happens, Jeremiah in this week’s Haftarah reminds us of a critical principle never to lose sight of: “Cursed is the man who trusts in man… Blessed is the man who trusts in God; and God shall be his security.” (17:5-7)

Why Was the Temple Really Destroyed?

‘Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem’ by Francesco Hayez (1867)

Tonight, we usher in Tisha b’Av to commemorate a number of tragedies in Jewish history, most notably the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, Jerusalem’s Holy Temple. The first iteration of the Temple, built by King Solomon, was destroyed by the Babylonians in the middle of the 1st millennium BCE. The second, originally built by Jewish leaders like Ezra, Nehemiah, and Zerubbabel upon the conclusion of the Babylonian Exile—and later greatly magnified and renovated by King Herod at the end of the 1st century BCE—was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. Why were these Temples destroyed? What did the Jewish people really do (or not do) to merit such catastrophes?

We have all heard the simplistic answers before. Now especially, with what’s going on in the State of Israel, many are quick to point out that sinat hinam, baseless hatred and divisiveness among Jews, is the reason. People on the left and right of Israeli society today are warning that sinat hinam will do us in yet again. But the real story is much more complicated, and interesting, than that.

The reasons for the destruction of the First Temple are simpler to understand: there was a general lack of Torah observance. Idolatry was rampant, as described throughout the Tanakh, and there was a plethora of sexual sin and even bloodshed (Yoma 9b). In addition, the people failed to properly observe Shabbat and Shemitah (the Sabbatical year). Among other things that the Talmud (Shabbat 119b) notes are failure to recite Shema twice daily, interfering with children’s Torah education, a lack of honour for elders and priests, and Jews turning a blind eye and not rebuking each other for their sins.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 64a) tells us that following the Babylonian Exile, the Sages that rebuilt Judea and ushered in the Second Temple era convened a special assembly and beseeched God to remove the desire for idolatry. God acquiesced, and idolatry was no longer really an issue among Jews going forward. Thus, Torah observance in the Second Temple era was much better. In fact, it was so much better that it was perhaps too much, and the Talmud (Bava Metzia 30b) says the Second Temple was destroyed because people were too exact with the law, and didn’t go lifnim mishurat hadin, “beyond the letter of the law”. This phrase is typically interpreted to mean that they should have been even more stringent than the law requires, but it can also mean the opposite, that they should have been more understanding and rule more kindly and favourably (see Ben Yehoyada here, as well as Rashi on Bava Metzia 83a).

In fact, we know that there was a push to make Jewish law extra strict in the times leading up to the Temple’s destruction. The most infamous case of this was when Beit Shammai took over the Sanhedrin and forcibly passed 18 new decrees, including the requirement to consume only pat Israel (Jewish-made bread), and to forbid all gentile-made cheese (gevinat ‘akum) and gentile-made wine. When this happened, Rabbi Yehoshua sadly remarked that they had “erased the measure”: by making Judaism even more difficult, few would want to observe it and it would ultimately serve to drive people away from God’s law. The Talmud Yerushalmi (Shabbat 1:4) goes so far as to call this event as tragic as the Golden Calf!

Another major factor in the Temple’s destruction was sexual immorality (Yoma 9b). Although the statement here in the Talmud is said with regards to the First Temple in particular, we know this was an issue in Second Temple times, too, as we see in other places. In Gittin 58a, for instance, we are presented with a convoluted story where a young apprentice desired the wife of his master, so he cooked up a plan that ended with the apprentice stealing the wife of his master, and enslaving the master to serve them. It was at this specific point that God decreed the Second Temple’s destruction. And it was not an isolated case either. In Sotah 47a we read how Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, the leading sage in Judea during the Second Temple’s destruction, abrogated the entire sotah procedure for a suspected adulteress because there was just too much adultery going on!

There are few things God hates more than sexual licentiousness and public promiscuity. Such behaviour is undoubtedly a cause for catastrophe, and we should keep this in mind when reflecting on the disgusting hyper-sexualization of society going on today. We must not forget the Sages’ teaching that God did not decree the Great Flood until that generation had started marrying two men and even men to beasts (see Beresheet Rabbah 26:5, as well as Chullin 92a-b). The former has now not only become common but bizarrely needs to be celebrated, while the latter might still seem absurd but has started to happen in our days, too. There is an ironic connection to the Temple here that is worth pointing out:

The villain initially cast for the role of destroying the Temple was the Roman emperor Nero (Gittin 56a). However, he soon realized that God was using him as a pawn: Nero learned that God uses despicable people as His agents of evil, so that He could then punish them, too. Nero understood he was that evil pawn, and would eventually perish for it. So, he abandoned the task. From historical sources, we know that he committed suicide because everyone left him—including his own royal guard—as they were fed up with his monstrosity. Nero had killed his wife, then regretted it so much that he found a slave boy that looked like her, castrated him, dressed him up like the wife, and married the boy. This is the kind of villain God tasked with destroying the Temple. Today, such a person might be celebrated by secular society and the mainstream media as a progressive hero.

The task of destroying the Temple was ultimately left to Vespasian and his son Titus. The exact way that it came about is through the infamous story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza (Gittin 55b-56a). In short, a wealthy man intended to invite his friend Kamtza to his party, but the invitation went to the wrong address and instead came his enemy, Bar Kamtza. The wealthy man wished to eject Bar Kamtza, and Bar Kamtza was so embarrassed he offered to even pay for the entire party if only they would let him stay and not suffer the shame. The host refused and kicked him out unceremoniously. People often misunderstand this story and think that here is an example of terrible sinat hinam that caused the Temple destruction. But that’s not how the story ends!

After getting kicked out of the party, Bar Kamtza said: “the Sages were sitting there and did not protest the [humiliation]!” How could the rabbis at the party stay silent? Angry, Bar Kamtza went to the Romans and told them that Israel is plotting a rebellion. He said he could prove it if they would send an official Roman sacrifice to the Temple. The Romans would see that the Jews would refuse their offering. As the sacrificial animal was being delivered, Bar Kamtza nicked it so that it would be blemished and unfit for offering. The Sages and priests were in a bind: on the one hand, they could not offer up a blemished sacrifice, as this would be insulting to God. On the other hand, rejecting the official Roman offering would certainly insult the Caesar and trigger a cruel response from Rome. One of the leaders at the time, Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkolas, concluded that their hands were tied and they should simply do nothing. The Romans were insulted, and the war began.

What is typically overlooked here is not the villainy of Bar Kamtza or his host, but the weakness, silence, and indifference of the rabbis. In fact, the passage concludes with Rabbi Yochanan teaching: “The ‘humility’ of Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkolas destroyed our Temple, burned our Sanctuary, and exiled us from our land.” The fault is placed not on Bar Kamtza, nor his host, nor the sinful Jewish masses, but squarely on the rabbis.

Today, again, we have rabbinic leaders who stay silent, who are indifferent, who are afraid to act, who don’t empathize with their flock, who rule stringently without heart, and who don’t bother getting involved in difficult issues. We have rabbinic leaders who take bribes masked as “charity” and avoid rebuking the wealthy and powerful; who spend their time in business and politics instead of spiritual upliftment and community building. Rabbinic leaders who do nothing to actually solve the many issues plaguing the Jewish world, and instead cowardly choose to support an unhealthy status quo. The prophet Jeremiah saw this long ago when he quoted Hashem declaring v’tofsei haTorah lo yeda’uni, “and the ‘guardians of the Torah’ don’t know Me!” Those who claim to hold steadfastly to the Torah—the supposed, self-appointed tofsei haTorah—are really the furthest from Hashem.

And so, the Temple was destroyed not simply because of sinat hinam. It was destroyed because of lax Torah observance, and also because of overly strict Torah observance. It was destroyed because of sexual immorality and shameless promiscuity. And perhaps foremost, it was destroyed because of the silence and indifference of rabbinic leaders. The Temple has yet to be rebuilt because we are still dealing with these same problems. Until every Jew speaks out and refuses to play along, nothing will change. Until every Jew rises up and opposes the insanity on both sides of the social, political, and religious spectrum, we shouldn’t expect a rebuilt Temple or a Mashiach. Crying about it and pretending to be sad on Tisha b’Av is essentially pointless—two thousand years of that clearly hasn’t brought us one iota closer. To conclude with an oft-used (and oft-misused) verse: et la’asot la’Hashem, heferu Toratecha! “It is a time to act for God, for they have violated your Torah!” (Psalms 119:126)

Wishing everyone a meaningful fast


More Learning Resources for Tisha b’Av:
The Untold Story of Napoleon and the Jews
The Powerful Link between Tisha b’Av and Tu b’Av
The Jews Who Destroyed the Temple

The Origins and Meaning of ‘Lecha Dodi’

The Haftarah for this week’s parasha, Shoftim, has several phrases that are very familiar from our prayers, such as hit’oreri hit’oreri (התעוררי התעוררי), uri uri (עורי עורי), and hitna’ari m’afar kumi (התנערי מעפר קומי). We recognize these words, of course, from the Friday evening Kabbalat Shabbat song of ‘Lecha Dodi’—but they are originally adapted from the prophecies of Isaiah. The first letters of the eight main stanzas of ‘Lecha Dodi’ spell Shlomo haLevi (שלמה הלוי), alluding to the author of the song, Rabbi Shlomo haLevi Alkabetz (c. 1500-1576).

Rabbi Alkabetz was born in Salonica (present-day Thessaloniki, Greece) to a Sephardic family. He was a student of the great Rabbi Yosef Taitazak (1465-1546), who was among the Spanish Jewish exiles of 1492 and settled in Salonica. Rabbi Taitazak would become the “father” of the Tzfat Kabbalists, for many of his students (including Rabbi Yosef Karo, 1488-1575) were from, or settled in, Tzfat and transformed it into the capital of Jewish mysticism. Another one of Rabbi Taitazak’s students was Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (the “Ramak”, 1522-1570), who was the brother-in-law of Rabbi Alkabetz. Together, the Ramak and Rabbi Alkabetz famously popularized the ancient mystical practice of staying up all night to study Torah on Shavuot.

Tzfat in the 19th Century

Rabbi Alkabetz settled in Tzfat in 1535. One of the notable practices of the Tzfat Kabbalists was to go out into the fields on Friday evening to welcome the “Sabbath Queen”. This is based on the Talmud (Shabbat 119a), which says that Rabbi Chanina would do so, as did Rabbi Yannai, who would also call out bo’i kallah, bo’i kallah. In another place, the Talmud (Bava Kamma 32b) adds that some would say to go out likrat Shabbat, kallah, malkata, to welcome the Sabbath Bride and Queen. The Tzfat Kabbalists resurrected this ancient practice. Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543-1620), the preeminent student and scribe of the great Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572), records in his Pri Etz Chaim (Sha’ar Shabbat) the Arizal’s precise procedure for Kabbalat Shabbat:

He would go out into the fields and first recite Psalm 29 (‘Mizmor l’David’). Then he would say bo’i kallah three times, followed by Psalm 92 (‘Mizmor Shir l’Yom haShabbat’). That was it! The Arizal would then return home, and had another set of rituals around the meal table. One of these was to recite the words Zachor v’shamor b’dibbur echad ne’emru, to recall the mitzvah of Shabbat in the Ten Commandments. Recall that in the first passage of the Ten Commandments in the Book of Exodus, God says zachor et yom haShabbat, to “commemorate” the Sabbath day, while in the second passage of the Ten Commandments in the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses recorded it as shamor et yom haShabbat, to “safeguard” the Sabbath day. Our Sages explained that God had said both words simultaneously—the people heard zachor v’shamor b’dibbur echad, to “commemorate” and “safeguard” in a single utterance.

The Arizal passed away in 1572, while Rabbi Alkabetz outlived him and passed away in 1576 (or 1580 according to alternate sources). We do not know for certain when Rabbi Alkabetz wrote ‘Lecha Dodi’, but it is quite possible that it was composed in his final years, as the Kabbalah of the Arizal was already spreading. A major clue is that Rabbi Alkabetz incorporated the Arizal’s practice of reciting Zachor v’shamor b’dibbur echad into his song (though it is possible that the Arizal had himself adopted the practice from earlier Tzfat Kabbalists). Rabbi Alkabetz also included the key words from the Talmud, and the phrases from this week’s Haftarah about the Final Redemption and rebuilding of Jerusalem, among other Biblical verses. Encrypted into the popular song are some fundamental and profound ideas. Let’s take a deeper look into what the verses of ‘Lecha Dodi’ really mean. Continue reading