The Man of Eternity and the Man of the Moment

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau

Understanding Aggada
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Shiur #23: The Man of Eternity and the Man of the Moment

by Rav Yitzchak Blau

R. Hamnuna said: "'Who is like the wise man and who knows the interpretation of a matter' ("pesher davar" - Kohelet 8:1) – Who is like the Holy One, blessed be He, who knows how to make a compromise (peshara) between two righteous people!"

Chizkiyahu said: "Let Yeshayahu come to me, just as we find that Eliyahu went to Achav."

Yeshayahu said: "Let Chizkiyahu come to me, just as we find that Yehoram, son of Achav, went to Elisha."

What did the Holy One, blessed be He, do? He brought afflictions upon Chizkiyahu and said to Yeshayahu: "Go visit the sick," as it is written, "In those days, Chizkiyahu became deathly ill and Yeshayahu son of Amotz came to him and said, 'Thus said God: Set your house in order, because you will die and not live.'" (Melakhim 2 20:1)

What does the verse, "you will die and not live" mean? You will die in this world and not live in the world to come.

Chizkiyahu said to Yeshayahu: "What is all this (why do I deserve such harsh punishment)?"

Yeshayahu said to him: "Because you did not engage in procreation."

He answered: "Because I saw through the holy spirit that I would have unworthy children.

Yeshayahu said to him: What do you have to do with the secrets of the Merciful One? You should do what is incumbent upon you, and the things that are up to the Holy One, let Him do." (Berakhot 10a)

Maharsha points out that this aggada builds upon a close reading of the relevant passages in Tanakh. After Chizkiyahu beseeches God to restore his health, the prophet reports that Hashem has accepted the king's prayers and will add fifteen years onto his life. Yet, when Chizkiyahu dies, Menashe, his son, is a mere twelve years old. It thus emerges that the king bore children only after his illness and the resulting exchange with the prophet. As with many aggadot, the midrashic impulse takes off based on an exegetical issue that arises from the pesukim.

At first glance, it would seem that this story has two distinct components. The first part addresses the clash between prophecy and the monarchy. Who represents the office whose honor demands that the other travel to visit? The second part of the gemara would then move to a much different issue – the question of functioning according to semi-prophetic visions. Chizkiyahu argues that such a vision about the fate of his children provides sufficient grounds for not having offspring. Yeshayahu counters that we must fulfill the mitzvot incumbent upon us regardless, rather than reaching important decisions based upon secrets revealed in dreams and visions. We shall begin with the assumption that these sections indeed reflect two distinct issues, and then later return to a more integrative reading.

Who emerged victorious in the clash between the honor of monarchy and that of prophecy? On the one hand, Yeshayahu eventually does go to visit the king. On the other hand, it is Chizkiyahu who falls ill, and thus the visit assumes the different character of bikur cholim. Commentators indeed differ on this point. R. Yaakov ibn Habib, the Kotev in the Ein Yaakov, argues that the prophet's honor took precedence; after all, the king suffered terribly, while the prophet's health remained fully intact. Conversely, R. Yaakov Reisher suggests that the prophet was ultimately forced to travel because a king's honor takes precedence. He draws evidence from the gemara's ruling in Horayot (13a) that a bystander should save the king's life before that of the prophet.

Of course, Chizkiyahu's illness might have nothing to do with the above clash of honor, and might have served only as a punishment for not having children. According to our gemara, the prophet informs the king that he lacks a portion in the world to come. At first glance, this drastic measure seems unduly harsh. Choosing to not have children is certainly wrong, but we do not usually view it as rendering one worthy of perdition. Maharsha appears to have understood that Chizkiyahu did not truly lose his olam haba. Without fully explaining the reference, he mentions a gemara in Bava Batra (116a) which states that the term "shekhiva" applies to those with righteous offspring, while the term "mita" is appropriate for those without such children. In Maharsha's reading of that gemara, those with problematic children are not denied entry into the world to come, but they die in the sense that their work is not perpetuated in this world. Perhaps Maharsha understands Yeshayahu's remark to mean that Chizkiyahu would not see his work continued, but not that he was denied entry into the world to come. Alternatively, R. Yaakov Reisher mentions the possibility that refraining from procreation becomes a far more grievous sin when one belongs to the Davidic line, to the point where the king would indeed forfeit his share in the world to come.

Chizkiyahu's choice to not have children might relate to a famous debate among rishonim about the Yosef story. Why does Yosef act harshly towards his brothers when they first come down to Egypt? Ramban (Bereishit 42:9) suggests that Yosef bore the responsibility of seeing to the realization of his dreams, and was thus compelled to manipulate matters such that Binyamin and then Yaakov would also bow before him in Egypt. Abravanel (Bereishit p. 398) disagrees, arguing that mistreating others for the purpose of aiding a dream along the path toward fulfillment is unjustified. Our debate between Chizkiyahu and Yeshayahu might reflect this very issue, with the king siding with Ramban, and the prophet with Abravanel.

In his Ein Aya, Rav Kook reads both parts of the gemara in a harmonious fashion. According to R. Kook, priest and king represent two different world perspectives. The prophet deals in the realm of eternal ideals and attempts to ready the people to achieve immortality. The king, on the other hand, works in the world of immediacy. He focuses his energies on strengthening the people in the here and now. These two perspectives often clash, and what proves beneficial for the moment may not help from the perspective of eternity. Rav Kook cautions against exclusive focus on either of these perspectives, and warns of the dangers inherent in following extreme policies in this regard.

If so, Chizkiyahu stood for the current needs of the people, while Yeshayahu demanded that the broader vision of eternity take pride of place. Hashem engineered the following compromise. From an external perspective, it seemed that the king had triumphed, as the prophet made the trip to the king's palace. However, those with a more penetrating outlook understand that it was the prophet who truly emerged victorious, as he traveled only to visit an ailing monarch. Apparently, the surface view served the necessary function of maintaining the honor of the kingship in the eyes of the people. Yet, the deeper level underscores that the needs of the moment often take a backseat to our eternal vision.

Rav Kook views the later debate between priest and prophet as a manifestation of the same split that gave rise to their earlier debate. Chizkiyahu foresees his children's unworthiness and imagines the immense, national trauma of an evil king. From this point of view, it appears preferable to avoid having children. But Yeshayahu, representing the totality of history, argues that discontinuing the Davidic line will have tragic long-term implications for Am Yisrael. From this perspective, one has to overlook the problems of the moment in order to maintain some eternal ideal.

The clash between the needs of the moment and the needs of eternity challenge any communal leader and educator. Finding the proper balance demands much thought and hard work, and we should be reluctant to apply Rav Kook's insight too easily to our current problems. At the same time, this insight should help provide a framework for our thinwhen approaching the pressing issues of the day.