Every year we recall the miracles of Purim in gratitude and acknowledgement of Hashem’s might. So important is such conduct that every day, three times a day, we emulate the historical act of a certain person who, while a world-class rasha, nonetheless realized the importance of giving honor where honor is due. All this started one Seder night 2,257 years ago.
Thirteen years ago, author Richard Carlson published a psychological primer entitled “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff – and it’s All Small Stuff,” a book that enjoyed astounding popularity and hovered on best sellers lists for months. As we will see, the title of this blockbuster contradicts a Torah value, as small stuff can be very important indeed, so much so that it might be more appropriate to say: “Sweat the big stuff — and it’s all big stuff.”
Thousands of years ago, two men stood at the crossroads of destiny. One of them was Chizkiyahu, who possessed the potential to usher in the world’s Messianic era. Had this taken place as planned, the recently exiled Ten Tribes would have returned and there would have been no necessity for two churbanos and centuries of exile. The fate of the universe hung in the balance. At the time, King Sancheriv of Ashur had captured huge tracts of territory around Yerushalayim as part of his attempted conquest of the Middle East; now he gathered his men around Yerushalayim for the final kill.
This is reflected in the pesukim of Melachim II (chapter 18) that report huge victories followed by a stunning defeat. Initially, Sancheriv conquered the major cities of Yehuda, exacting so much “protection money” that Chizkiyahu was forced to denude the Bais Hamidosh of its funds.
“In the fourteenth year of King Chizkiyahu, Sancheriv, King of Ashur, went against all the fortified cities of Yehuda and captured them,” the verses relate. “Chizkiyahu, King of Yehuda, sent to the King of Ashur at Lachish saying: ‘I have sinned. Leave me, and I will bear whatever tribute you impose on me.’ The king of Ashur imposed three hundred talents of silver and thirty talents of gold upon Chizkiyahu, King of Yehuda. Chizkiyahu paid him all the silver there was in the Temple of Hashem and in the palace treasuries.”
Later pesukim relate how Sancheriv suffered a stunning defeat at the gates of Yerushalayim.
“Behold on that night,” the verses relate, “the angel of Hashem went forth and struck down 185,000 men in the camp of Ashur. They rose in the morning and behold, they were all dead corpses. Sancheriv, King of Ashur, traveled and went and returned back to Nineveh. When he was prostrating in the temple of his god Nisroch, his sons Adramelech and Sharezer struck him with the sword and escaped to the land of Ararat.”
Centuries later, archeologists discovered that Sancheriv’s official records carefully concealed the conclusion of his disastrous campaign, camouflaging it as a great victory. Over the centuries, Nineveh crumbled into giant mounds of earth and stones near the Tigris River close to the village of Nebi Yunus, which locals claimed to be Yonah HaNavi’s traditional burial place. Excavations begun during the nineteenth century unearthed a hexagonal column of baked red clay in the ruins of Sancheriv’s palace covered with closely packed cuniform letters etched into the clay when it was still damp.
“Sancheriv’s Prism,” as it is known, impeccably recorded his eight military campaigns, beginning with exaggerated flattery of his prowess: “Sancheriv, the great king, the mighty king, king of the world, king of Ashur, king of the four quarters, the wise shepherd… guardian of right, lover of justice, who lends support, who comes to the aid of the destitute, who performs pious acts, perfect hero, mighty man, first among all princes, the powerful one who consumes the insubmissive, who strikes the wicked with the thunderbolt…”
After a flattering introduction like this, it was inconceivable to record his battles against the Jews beyond a certain point, and the prism only records the initial successes of the campaign:
“As for Chizkiyah the Judean, who did not submit to my yoke: forty-six of his strong walled cities, as well as the small towns in their area, which were without number, by leveling with battering-rams and by bringing up siege-engines, and by attacking and storming on foot, by mines, tunnels, and breeches, I besieged and took them. 200,150 people, great and small, male and female, horses, mules, asses, camels, cattle and sheep without number, I brought away from them and counted as spoil. (Chizkiyah) himself, like a caged bird I shut up in Jerusalem, his royal city. I threw up earthworks against him…
“As for Chizkiyah, the terrifying splendor of my majesty overcame him, and the Arabs and his mercenary troops which he had brought in to strengthen Jerusalem, his royal city, deserted him. In addition to the thirty talents of gold and eight hundred talents of silver, gems, antimony, jewels, large carnelians, ivory-inlaid couches, ivory-inlaid chairs, elephant hides, elephant tusks, ebony, boxwood, all kinds of valuable treasures, as well as his daughters, his male and female musicians, which he had brought after me to Nineveh, my royal city. To pay tribute and to accept servitude, he dispatched his messengers.”
The boastful story goes no further, never admitting the final destruction of Sancheriv’s forces at the gates of Yerushalayim.
Another, less impressive clay tablet records his death by patricide: “On the twentieth day of the month Teves, Sancheriv King of Ashur his son slew him in rebellion… Esarhaddon his son sat on the throne of Ashur.”
While this was happening, another drama was unfolding in parallel. The Seder Olam Raba (chapter 23) tells us that the story of Sancheriv’s downfall and the story of Chizkiyahu’s miraculous recovery from illness happened at exactly the same time: “Before Sancheriv’s downfall, Chizkiyahu was sick for three days. Rabbi Yosi says, ‘The third day of Chizkiyahu’s illness was the downfall of Sancheriv.’”
Seeds of Destruction
Tragically, Chazal (Sanhedrin 94a) tell us that Chizkiyahu’s pivotal successes bore the seeds of destruction, deriving this from a group of verses (Yeshayahu chapter 9) that describe the future Moshiach (see Maharsha): “For a child is born to us, a son is given to us, and the government will be upon his shoulder. His name will be called Peleh Yo’etz, Kel Gibor, Avi Ad, Sar Shalom. That government may be increased (l’marbeh) and of peace without end, etc.” The Gemara finds a fl aw in this beautiful prose: the mem in the middle of the word l’marbeh is closed. “Why is every mem in the middle of a word open, and this closed?” the Gemara asks. “Because the Holy One wanted to make Chizkiyahu into Moshiach and Sancheriv into Gog and Magog. But the attribute of Justice said, ‘If you did not make King David, who sang so many songs and praises before You, into Moshiach, will You make Chizkiyahu Moshiach when you did all these miracles and he did not recite song before You?’”
The medrash (Esther Raba parsha 4) relates further that, even after Yeshayahu urged Chizkiyahu to say shira, he still refused, explaining that it was unnecessary:
“Chizkiyahu said, ‘Why do we need to say the Holy One’s miracles and powers? This is already known from one end of the world to the next! Hasn’t the sun stopped in the middle of the sky so that they saw the miracles and powers of the Holy One until the end of the world?’” This refers to the ten hours Hashem added to the day He healed Chizkiyahu (Melachim II 20).
Now, after Chizkiyahu’s refusal to recite shira, the initiative passed to one of the most sinister villains of history.
Impressed by the worldwide miracle, Merodach Baladon ben Beladon, King of Bavel, decided to send a letter to Chizkiyahu (Yeshayahu 39:1). At that point, the Gemara Sanhedrin (91a) relates, Navuchadnetzar, who was a humble scribe at the time, complained that the letter mentioned Chizkiyahu before mentioning Hashem and took four steps to halt the messenger carrying the letter in order to alter its text.
As a reward, Hashem made him king of Bavel and granted him the power to destroy the Bais Hamidosh. In this, we see a wondrous unfolding of events similar to the “coincidental” unfolding of the Purim saga. At the very time Chizkiyahu was demoted from being Moshiach because of his reluctance to say shira, Navuchadnetzar was rewarded for honoring Hashem and became the stick that delivered the consequences of Chizkiyahu’s reticence.
The tragedy continued to unfold after Merodach Beladon’s messengers arrived and Chizkiyahu showed them the Temple and its treasures. At that time, Yeshayahu uttered the first prophecy he ever made regarding the future churban:
“Behold, days are coming when he will carry all that is in your house and all that your fathers stored away until this day to Bavel; nothing will remain” (Yeshayahu 39).
The Yalkut Shimoni explains further: “When Chizkiyahu saw the messengers of the King of Bavel, he was extremely proud in his heart and showed them all the treasure of the kings of Yehuda and the treasures of the house of the Holy of Holies. He also opened the Aron and showed them the Luchos and said to them, ‘With this we make war and are victorious.’ The Holy One was angry at him and said to him, ‘Is it not enough that you showed them all the treasures, but that you showed them the Luchos, the work of My hands? By your life, they will come up and take all the treasures.’”
All this teaches us how small seeds sprout into mighty consequences; it is important to sweat the seemingly small things in life. Indeed, the Maharsha and other commentaries point out that, according to medrashic sources, Navuchadnetzar took not four but only three steps, and it is in atonement for this that we take three steps backwards in Hashem’s honor after every Shmoneh Esrei before pleading, “May it be Your will… to rebuild the Bais Hamidosh soon in our days.” Through three small steps, we will overpower the three steps Navuchadnetzar took in Hashem’s honor.