Even when the sky is blackest, Hashem often gives us a second chance.
THE DAYS AFTER GEDALYAH
After the Churban of the first Bais Hamikdash and after the assassination of Gedalyah, when everything seemed hopeless, Hashem gave the Jews one last chance to retain their nationhood and continue dwelling in Eretz Yisroel. There was one caveat, however. To deserve this privilege, the Jews must first pass a severe challenge – they must be willing to obey the dictates of a prophet at the risk of their lives!
By this time, the Jews were in a terrible quandary. A Jewish traitor had ruthlessly assassinated the Babylonian appointed governor, Gedalyah! Who knew what terrible punishment Nevuchadnetzar had in store for them? As the verses tell us, they calculated that the only logical solution was to flee for their lives:
“Yochanan ben Kare’ach and all the generals with him took the remnant of the people … to go and return to Egypt, away from the Kasdim, as they were afraid of them because Yishmael ben Nesanyah had killed Gedalyah ben Achikam, whom the king of Bavel had appointed over the land.” (Yirmiyahu 41:16-18)
Why did they specifically choose Egypt, a place to where the Torah commands us never to return? Because Egypt had fought the northern kings of Ashur and Bavel for centuries and was the Jews’ ally in their revolt against Nevuchadnetzar. In fact, Egypt was inexorably connected with the whole story of the Churban from beginning to end.
THE POINT OF NO RETURN
When did the Churban begin? It can be argued that the situation reached the point of no return twenty-two years earlier, during the reign of King Yoshiyahu, who was so apprehensive of the countless prophesies of destruction that he buried the aron and other Temple items.
During the Tisha B’Av kinos, many people are puzzled when we recite “Eicha Keili Konenu Me’eilav,” in which the Kalir describes how King Yoshiyahu was killed with arrows after preventing an Egyptian army from passing through Eretz Yisroel. Tragic as this was, what does it have to do with Churban Habayis?
The simplest answer is that we recite this kinah in order to shed tears over the death of the righteous King Yoshiyahu. Likewise, this is one reason why we recite the story of the Asara Harugei Malchus (The Ten Martyrs) on Tisha B’Av and Yom Kippur.
However, delving into the history of the Churban makes it clear that the battle between King Yoshiyahu and Pharaoh Necho was a prelude to the Churban; the death of King Yoshiyahu was almost tantamount to the Churban itself.
As the kinah relates, the eight-year- old King Yoshiyahu made a massive spiritual revival in his kingdom and totally eradicated the idolatry that had proliferated in the reigns of the evil kings who preceded him – or so he thought. This spiritual success and victory fueled his actions during his eighteenth year of rule when Pharaoh Necho requested permission to transit through Eretz Yisroel in order to fight King Charkemish of Ashur.
Confident in the Torah’s promise that when Jews observe the Torah, “No sword will pass through your land” (Vayikra 26:6), King Yoshiyahu turned down Necho’s request; this was a tragic error. He was unaware that certain Jews had managed to continue serving idols by cunningly drawing idolatrous images on the two sides of double doors. Whenever the king’s inspectors raided homes, they would throw open the double doors during their search for contraband, splitting the images in two and making them unrecognizable. Once the inspectors left, the doors shut and automatically restored the idolatrous images.
With insufficient merit to back Hashem’s promise of invincibility, King Yoshiyahu lost his war against Necho, and with the death of this last righteous king, the road to the Churban was open. The Jews had squandered their last chance to repent. King Yoshiyahu’s sons and successors, King Yehoyachin and King Tzidkiyahu, were evil men who did nothing to reform the people and avert the coming destruction.
A USELESS ALLY
Egypt also had a huge part in the Churban itself, since King Tzidkiyahu’s main impetus in raising the flag of rebellion against Nevuchadnetzar was his confidence that the king of Egypt would come to his aid. At this time, the king of Egypt was Pharoah Khafra (Apries), whom the Yalkut Shimoni identifies as one of the pharaohs who considered himself a god, and in the same vein, the Greek historian Herodotus records that “Apries is said to have supposed that not even a god would be able to cause him to lose his rule, so firmly did he think that it was established.”
Yirmiyahu warned the people that their faith in Egypt was a tragic mistake (27:9):
“Do not listen to your [false] prophets … that say to you – do not serve the king of Bavel. Because they are prophesying falsely to you in order to distance you from your land; I will exile you and you will perish.”
Yechezkel (17:3, 5, 7) delivered a similar warning, comparing the kings of Egypt and Bavel to two powerful eagles.
“A great eagle (Nevuchadnetzar) with large wings and long claws, full of feathers, came to the Levanon. … It took of the seed of the land and put it in a fruitful field .
“There was another great eagle (Egypt) with great wings and many feathers, and behold, this vine (which Nevuchadnetzar had planted in the field) bent its roots toward it and sent forth its branches to it, to water it from its plant-bed .”
Yechezkel explains his meaning (17:15-17):
“He [Tzidkiyahu] will rebel against him [Nevuchadnetzar], sending his ambassadors to Egypt that they may give him horses and many people. . With his mighty army and many people, Pharaoh will not prevail against him when he [Nevuchadnetzar] throws up mounds and builds towers to cut off many souls.”
But during Yerushalayim’s fight for survival, something seemed to have gone wrong when Pharaoh Necho sent an army and Nevuchadnetzar’s forces fled from Yerushalayim (Yirmiyahu 37:5). The false prophets of the Jews rejoiced at this “definitive” proof that they were correct and that Yirmiyahu and Yechezkel were mistaken.
Yirmiyahu warned the people that this was only a temporary respite: “Behold, the army of Egypt, which has come out to help you, will return to its land, Egypt. The Kasdim will return and fight against this town, and they will capture it and burn it in fire” (Yirmiyahu 37:7-8).
And this is exactly what happened. What made the Egyptians change their minds and leave the Jews in a lurch?
Rashi explains that as the Egyptians were traveling by ship to reach Eretz Yisroel, Hashem ordered the sea to spit up objects that looked like human bodies and the Egyptians said, “These are our forefathers who were drowned by the forefathers of these whom we are traveling by sea to help.” They immediately returned to their land, leaving the Jews to fend for themselves.
FISHING FOR A P’SAK
Now, after Gedalyah’s assassination, Egypt was still at loggerheads with Bavel, and the Jews thought it might be a good place to flee from Nevuchadnetzar’s wrath.
Before going, however, they pleaded with Yirmiyahu to ask Hashem what course they should follow, promising that they would faithfully obey whatever Hashem told him: “May Hashem be our true and faithful witness, if we do not do all according to what Hashem your G-d sends to us!” (Yirmiyahu 42:5).
At the end of ten days, Yirmiyahu returned with a reply. Hashem was willing to give the Jews one last chance. If they remained in the Land, Hashem would regret all the evil He had done until then and they would live securely in Eretz Yisroel: “I will give you mercy and have mercy on you, and he (Nevuchadnetzar) will return you to your land” (Yirmiyahu 42:12).
If they went to Egypt, however, they would perish by hunger and the sword and plague.
While still speaking to them, Yirmiyahu sensed they were not interested in Hashem’s advice and were intending to go to Egypt. In that case, he warned them, the negative prophecy would be fulfilled: “Know for certain that you will die by the sword, hunger, and the plague in the place you wish to go to live there.” (Yirmiyahu 42:15-16).
The answer the people gave Yirmiyahu is astounding:
“You are speaking falsehood. Hashem did not send you to say, ‘Do not come to Egypt to live there.’ Rather, Baruch ben Neriyah (Yirmiyahu’s talmid) has provoked you against us in order to give us into the hands of the Kasdim, to kill us and to exile us to Bavel.” (Yirmiyahu 43:3)
The obvious question is, if the people were so set on going to Egypt, why did they bother to ask Yirmiyahu’s opinion in the first place? The Malbim attempts to answer that they were only asking him the best route to Egypt; they were not interested in his opinion whether they should go to Egypt or not.
Alternatively, perhaps the tactics of these leaders was, lehavdil, similar to the tactics of people with a shailah who go “shopping” for the kind of p ’sak they want, finding out in advance which rabbis will rule the way that suits them. Or to the tactics of people who go to a gadol hador to receive a rubber-stamp approval for their projects. Here, too, perhaps the leaders were convinced that Yirmiyahu would agree to their going to Egypt and only wanted his imprimatur in order to persuade everyone to go along with them.
Whatever the reason for their ambiguous behavior, the leaders irrevocably sealed the exile by taking all the people left in Eretz Yisroel and heading to Egypt. Despite their disobedience, Yirmiyahu accompanied the people on their trek, just as he had accompanied the exiles to Bavel; ancient tradition connects him with the site of Egypt’s oldest shul, the Ben Ezra Shul of Fustat (Old Cairo).
Arriving in the Egyptian town of Tachpancheis, where many Jews had settled, Yirmiyahu immediately prophesied (chap. 43:10-11) that Egypt, the Jews, and Pharaoh Khafra would soon be destroyed by Bavel.
Pharaoh Khafra’s magnificent palace was dug up at the beginning of the last century by the British School of Archeology in Egypt.