Thirty years before the Churban Bayis Sheni, the situation in Eretz Yisroel seemed idyllic.
King Agrippa, ruler of almost all the land, was a close friend of Emperor Claudius of the Roman Empire. Furthermore, despite his Roman upbringing, his fascination with Greek theater and gladiator battles, and his building of amphitheaters and idolatrous temples in foreign towns, he displayed amazing sensitivity to halacha.
Of course, Agrippa was no lamed vavnik (hidden tzaddik). Besides reveling in Greek culture, his spendthrift lifestyle that had bankrupted him earlier in his life now was resurrected with a vengeance. Despite his tax revenues that amounted to no less than twelve million drachmae, the equivalent to millions of modern-day dollars, his expenses and gifts cost even more, forcing him to borrow massive sums to keep afloat.
MAN OF TWO WORLDS
Agrippa was a man of two worlds. Despite his shortcomings, Josephus records how Aggripa loved spending most of his time in Yerushalayim and was careful in the observance of the halachos of his adopted country to the extent of punctiliously keeping the laws of tumah and taharah. No day passed over his head without his bringing its appointed sacrifice.
His humility, too, was exemplary. On one occasion, when Agrippa was away in Caesarea, a learned Jew named Shimon tried to rouse the populace against him, claiming that he was not adhering to the laws of purity and should be barred from the Bais Hamikdash. Instead of lopping off Shimon’s head or throwing him into prison, Agrippa sent for him and asked him specifically, in a low and gentle voice, “What is there done in this place that is contrary to the law?”
When Shimon had nothing to say on his behalf and apologized, the king gave him a small gift and sent him off in peace.
Chazal, too, praise Agrippa for his humility; once, because he stopped his entourage in order to allow a bridal procession to take precedence over him, and a second time during the ceremony of Hakhel, when he stood during his public recitation of Sefer Devorim in the Bais Hamikdash, even though, according to halacha, everyone stands and listens while the king sits and reads.
The latter story is the basis of a mystery that will be discussed later. In an attempt to defend his beloved Yerushalayim against future invasions, Agrippa began strengthening the walls of a new Yerushalayim neighborhood, called Bezetha, attempting to make them impregnable to any enemy. However, in the midst of this important reinforcement, Marcus, the watchful Roman proconsul in Damascus, wrote to Emperor Claudius and reported the happenings. Claudius’ friendship with Agrippa had its limits, and he immediately ordered Agrippa to desist. Who would have thought that the Churban lurked around the corner?
As tranquil as political life seemed on the surface, spiritual dissolution had set in, partly hidden in the people’s psyche and partly public, waiting for some event to expose it overtly. The end was almost inexorable. Years before Agrippa’s arrival, even the Bais Hamikdash had signaled that destruction was at hand.
As the Gemara (Yoma 39b) states, “The rabbis taught: Forty years before the destruction of the house (the Bais Hamikdash), the lot [of the Yom Kippur goats] did not come up in the right hand, and the strip of red wool did not whiten (which would have indicated divine forgiveness), and the western lamp [of the menorah] did not burn [the whole day], and the doors of the Sanctuary opened by themselves until Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai rebuked them. He said to it, ‘Sanctuary, Sanctuary, why are you alarmed? I know that you will be destroyed. Zechariah ben Ido already prophesied regarding you, Levanon (the Bais Hamidkash), open your gates and let fire burn your cedars.’”
Surprised at Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai’s admonition that the Sanctuary should not be alarmed at such disastrous circumstances, the Maharsha cites an alternative text of the Yerushalmi,
“Sanctuary, Sanctuary, why are you panicking us?!”
Sensitive to the approaching doom, R. Tzadok fasted for forty years before the Churban in a futile attempt to avert the catastrophe (Gittin 56a). Because murder had become more prevalent, the Sanhedrin exiled itself from the hewn chamber in the Temple area and moved to “Chanuyos,” which is either on the Temple Mount or elsewhere in Yerushalayim (Sanhedrin 41a, Rosh Hashanah 30a). Once the Sanhedrin moved there, no beis din of twenty-three could impose the death penalty since this is only permitted when the Sanhedrin is sitting in the actual Bais Hamikdash grounds.
Then, on the fateful Sukkos of 3802/41 CE, the people’s fate was sealed. Describing how the king publicly reads a Torah scroll in the Bais Hamikdash every seven years after shmittah, the Mishnah (Sotah 41a) tells us how Agrippa humbly stood up while delivering the reading even though the king is supposed to sit down.
Then, when he reached the verse, “You may not place over yourselves a foreign person [to be king]” (Devorim 17), his eyes fl owed with tears, and the people cried out to him, “Do not fear, Agrippa. You are our brother!” The Gemara reports that this was a heinous crime: “It was taught in the name of R. Nosson, at that time the enemies of Yisroel (a euphemism for Yisroel) became liable for destruction because they flattered Agrippa.” The Yerushalmi adds that this was not only a portent for the future but also applied to the immediate present; a huge number of Jews perished on that very day.
WAS AGRIPPA A KOSHER KING?
But why was this flattery? How can the Gemara state that Agrippa was considered a foreigner and not fit to be king? If he was not considered a king, why did he read Hakhel? Also, why does the Gemara object that his sitting down during Hakhel was a denigration of his royal status?
The most surprising answer to these questions is that of Rashi (as interpreted by Tosafos). Rashi says that since Agrippa’s mother was Jewish, this made him fully qualified to be king. Nevertheless, his paternal descent from the slave-king, Herod, meant that it was a zilusa (denigration) for him to be king over Klal Yisroel.
Tosafos objects that it is inconceivable that the Jews would be subject to such terrible punishment if Agrippa’s kingship was a mere zilusa. Therefore, he disagrees with Rashi and maintains that Agrippa’s paternal descent invalidated his being appointed as king (Tosafos Sotah 41b). Elsewhere, Tosafos maintains that even Agrippa’s mother was of slave descent.
The last two opinions seem to maintain that although Agrippa’s invalid status made it illegal to appoint him as king, once he was appointed, all the halachos of a king appertained to him.
What was so terrible about flattering Agrippa? Tosafos (ibid) explains: “This was the flattery: that he had ruled by force and not according to din Torah, and they agreed to him and supported him in this. Even if they could not protest, they should have kept silent and not encouraged him. And flattery is punished as a sin because someone who flatters someone out of his fear for him and is not concerned about fear of Hashem makes the eye of Above as if it cannot see.”
Agrippa’s death was a wonderful manifestation of Hashem’s attribute of “measure for measure;” as a person behaves, so Hashem measures out to him. Just as Agrippa’s tears induced the Jews to flatter him in the Bais Hamikdash, so his behavior later caused a different kind of flattery that led to his death.
After ruling over all of Eretz Yisroel for three years, Agrippa arrived in the Greek-inhabited port of Caesarea to participate in a celebration that had been organized in Caesar’s honor. On the second day of the proceedings, he put on a garment made wholly of silver and entered the theater early in the morning. The silver of his garment was illuminated by the reflection of the rising sun’s rays and shone out so resplendently that the huge crowd was struck with awe. Evil flatterers began calling out from every corner of the edifice that he must be a god and added, “Be merciful to us; until now we have revered you as a man but now we acknowledge you as supernatural!”
The king did nothing in response, neither rebuking them, nor rejecting their heretical flattery, and almost immediately, he was afflicted with a violent stomach pain.
“I, whom you call a god, am now ordered to leave this life,” he called out. “This disproves the lying words you just told me!”
After five days of agony, he died at the age of fifty-four, after a reign of seven years, the last three over the whole of Eretz Yisroel. The Greeks of Sebaste (Shomron) and Caesarea whose flattery had caused his death now revealed their true colors, publicly feasting and celebrating the death of the king who had been so generous to them.
The friendship between King Agrippa and Emperor Claudius represented the zenith of good relations between Eretz Yisroel and Rome. After Agrippa’s passing, things went steadily downhill.
Although Agrippa’s son, Agrippa II, had been personally raised by Claudius Caesar and was no doubt carefully coached for his future job of ruling Eretz Yisroel on Rome’s behalf, he never reached his father’s eminence. Though Emperor Claudius intended to send him off to rule in his father’s stead, his friends persuaded him that it would be a dangerous experiment to entrust so large a kingdom to such a very young man, and so he sent Cuspius Fadus to act as Roman procurator of Eretz Yisroel. Some regard this son as the last king of the Jews.
The close rapport between Jew and Roman had come to its end, leaving the way open to destruction and exile.
(Sources:  Josephus;  Goldwurm, Rabbi Hersh. History of the Jewish People: The Second Temple Era, Mesorah Publications: New York, 1982.)