“Tisha b’Av: Never Beyond Redemption”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Va’etchanan, we read the portion from Deuteronomy 4:25, which is read on Tisha b’Av, “Kee to’leed ba’neem,” When you beget children.

Rabbi Levi is cited in the Midrash Yalkut Shimoni, Va’etchanan 247 (based on Tosafot Gittin 88a), declaring that the Jewish people were not exiled until seven wicked royal families arose. Rabbi Levi arrives at this conclusion based on the verses in Deuteronomy 4:25 & 27, “Kee to’leed ba’neem, oo’v’nay va’neem, v’noshantem ba’aretz,” When you beget children and grandchildren and will have been long on the Land, you will grow corrupt…and will do evil in the eyes of G-d…to anger Him…. G-d will scatter you among the peoples.

The allusion to seven kings is found by analyzing verse 25: “Kee to’leed,” when you (singular) beget–1, “ba’neem,” children (plural)–2, “oo’v’nay,” children of (plural)–2, “va’neem,” children (plural)–2, a total of seven. Seven kingly families of the Kingdom of Israel promoted and worshiped idolatry: Jeroboam son of Nebat, Baasha the son of Ahijah, Ahab the son of Omri, Jehu the son of Nimshi, Pekach the son of Remaliah, Menahem the son of Gadi and Hoshea the son of Elah.

Even though previous generations of the people of Israel had abandoned G-d after the death of Joshua, nevertheless, whenever a prophet arose, the people would return and repent. But now, not only did the people engage in idolatry, they also committed adultery and murder. They were now not only evil to G-d but brutishly evil to humankind as well.

Evil was not limited to the kings of Israel; the kings of Judah were equally iniquitous. Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov (1912-1976, one of Israel’s most acclaimed religious writers) cites the Talmud in Sanhedrin 103b, which maintains that every one of the wicked kings of Judah who engaged in evil tried to outdo the previous king’s evil. King Menashe built an idol that took 1000 men to lift, and every day he would execute the bearers. Initially, he created an idol with one face, and then redesigned it to have four faces, as if to say: Wherever the Divine Presence is, let Him look and be angry.

While Ahab, king of Israel, placed an idol at the entrance to the Holy Sanctuary, Menashe placed it in the Sanctuary itself, and Amon, king of Judah, brought it into the Holy of Holies. Ahab terminated the sacrificial service in the Temple, Menashe destroyed the Altar, and Amon placed an idolatrous image on the Altar. Ahab permitted all sexual relationships. Menashe had relations with his sister, and Amon had relations with his mother. The Talmud records that Amon’s mother said to him “Are you having pleasure from the womb that bore you?” He responded, “The only reason I am doing this is to anger my Creator!”

When King Jehoiakim assumed the throne of Judah, he gloried in evil, crying out that those who preceded him did not know how to truly anger G-d, but that he was the expert. King Jehoiakim brazenly prided himself that he no longer needed the sun, because the gold that he had could outshine the sun. He was not afraid that G-d would take the land from him, or his wealth; his only purpose in life was to anger G-d. Rabbi Elazar says that the leaders would sit and scheme about what types of sexual trespasses they could possibly commit that would be even more horrendous. They sought to chase away the Divine Presence, to remove the yoke of heaven, the burden of the mitzvot, and to declare that Israel shall be like all the other nations.

Given the extent of the evil, and the commitment to evil that pervaded those early generations, it is almost inconceivable that G-d would grant his prodigal children forgiveness. Yet, not only did G-d grant forgiveness to His children, He actually predicted their return, saying that no matter how distant the Jewish people stray, they will always be welcomed back. In fact, G-d passionately beseeches His people, saying that despite the evil that you have done (Deuteronomy 4:40), “V’sha’mar’ta et choo’kav v’et mitz’vo’tav ah’sher Ah’no’chee mi’tzav’cha ha’yom,” Keep My statutes and My commandments that I command you this day, that it should go well with you and your children after you that you may remain for a long time on the land that G-d thy L-rd gives you for all time.

And here we are today, on the threshold of Tisha b’Av, the fast that commemorates the destruction of both Temples, a fast that reminds us of the many calamities that befell our people because we strayed from G-d. We need to ask ourselves: Are we any better than the hardcore rejecters of old? Are contemporary Jews beyond redemption? Look how many have forsaken G-d? Have we tested G-d’s patience? Undoubtedly, yes! But we are still a far cry from the ancient evil kings of Israel and Judah and their followers, who pushed the envelope until there was no further room to push. If the Al-mighty could say to those consummately evil generations, “So keep My statutes and My commandments that I command you this day that it should go well with you and your children after you,” then there is certainly hope for us as well.

May the fast of Tisha b’Av be a most meaningful day. May it usher in a new period of return to G-d and His acceptance of us in love.

May you be blessed.

The observance of the fast of Tisha b’Av, marking the destruction of the Jerusalem Temples, starts on Wednesday night, July 29th and continues through Thursday night, July 30, 2009. Have a meaningful fast.