Sancheriv’s Prism

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. 

Sancheriv’s Prism 
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.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.