Nevuchadnezer and Chizkiyahu

  • Rav Ezra Bick

Yeshivat Har Etzion

The Virtual Beit Midrash


by Rav Ezra Bick

The Gemara (San. 96a) relates the following story:

(God said): If for the four steps taken by such a villain who ran in my honor, I reward; can you be surprised that I reward Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaacov, who ran before me like horses. These four steps, to what does it refer? It is written: "At that time, Merodach Baladan, the son of Baladan, king of Bavel, sent letters and a present to Chizkiyahu..." (Is. 39,1). It was after Chizkiyahu was ill and recovered that he sent the letters and the present. "To inquire of the wonder that was done in the land" (2 Chron. 32,31). R. Yochanan said: The day that Achaz died was only two hours long; when Chizkiyahu was sick and recovered, God returned the (missing) ten hours to him.... (Merodach) said: What is this? They said to him: Chizkiyahu was sick and recovered. He said: Should I not send a greeting to such a man? Write to him, Peace be unto King Chizkiyahu, peace unto the city of Yerushalayim, peace unto the great God. Nevuchadnezer was the scribe of Baladan, but was not present at that time. When he came, he asked them: How did you write (the letter)? They replied: Thus did we write it. He said to them: You called Him the great God, and mentioned Him only at the end? This is how you should have written: Peace unto the great God, peace unto the city of Yerushalayim, peace unto King Chizkiyahu. They said to him: He who reads the letter should be the messenger. He began to run four steps after (the letter bearer). The angel Gavriel came and stopped him. R. Yochanan said: Were it not that Gavriel came and stopped him, there would have been no relief for (the Jews).

The power to destroy the Temple which was granted to Nevuchadnezer derived from the four steps he took in order to correct the greeting which his king had sent to Chizkiyahu. Not only did he perceive the absurdity of leaving God to the end of the greeting, but he set out personally to rewrite the letter. Two questions arise. First, why, given our understanding of the personality of Nevuchadnezer "harasha', a cruel and vicious murderer, did Chazal decide to attribute to him this virtue? He did not merely recognize the greatness of God - Baladan had already done that. He, and he alone, properly understood the relationship between the glory of God, who had performed the miracle, and the glory of cities and kings, in whose honor the miracle had been performed. History has not prepared us to expect such spiritual sensitivity from Nevuchadnezer, of all people.

Secondly, what is the connection between this sensitivity, together with his willingness to act in order to honor God, and the destruction of the Mikdash? Being honored with the building of the Mikdash, a symbol of God's glory and presence in the world, would appear more appropriate. Surely the destruction of the Mikdash indicates a callous disregard for God's glory on the part of Nevuchadnezer.

This aggada traces the causes of the destruction of the Mikdash back to the reign of Chizkiyahu, even giving Nevuchadnezer a role, many years before he ascended the throne. Although Chizkiyahu was considered a righteous king, Chazal perceived the roots of the destruction in his reign. Is. 39, upon which the above aggada was based, is often considered to be the turning point, as it contains the first prophecy of the destruction of the Mikdash. Chazal however trace it back even further. Is. 9 is a prophecy of triumph and redemption, forecasting the birth of the mashiach. Verse 6 states: "For the increase of the rule and for peace without end, upon the throne of David and upon his kingdom, to order it and establish it with judgment and justice, from hence and forever, the zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this." The word "increase" ("marbeh") is written with a "final" mem at the beginning of the word. This mem is called "closed", based on its shape. The Gemara (San. 94a) asks:

R. Tanchum said: Bar Kappra preached in Zippori: Why is every "mem' in the middle of a word open and this one closed? God wished to make Chizkiyahu the Mashiach and Sancherev into Gog and Magog. Justice ("middat hadin") said to God: Master of the Universe, David, king of Israel, who said so many songs and praises before You and yet You did not make him Mashiach; Chizkiyahu, for whom You performed all these miracles (the destruction of Sancherev's army before the walls of Yerushalayim) and he did not recite song ("shira") before you - shall You make him Mashiach!? Therefore (the mem) was closed.

Chizkiyahu, waiting fearfully behind the walls of Yerushalayim, witnesses the sudden and totally unexpected destruction of the mighty hosts of Assur, and is not moved to proclaim the praises of God. This is not due to a lack of faith on his part. The Midrash (Shir HaShirim Raba 4) states that he justified his inaction by claiming that there is no need to publicize God's greatness, as since the Parting of the Sea it is known throughout the world. Chizkiyahu lacked the perception to grasp the significance of the moment, to transcend the daily routine and to recognize the unique character of God's grace at this particular instant, the special presence of God on this particular day. Mashiach, Gog and Magog, redemption - all depend on recognition of God's unique presence in history, on grasping the significance of a single moment, above the routine of creation. Almost at the same time as Chizkiyahu returns to his daily routine of prayer and study, a scribe in Assur stirs himself to run in order to prevent another moment from being overlooked, or even slighted. Another miracle performed for Chizkiyahu is proclaimed by none other than Nevuchadnezer. Not the walls of Yerushalayim and its king proclaim the glory of God, but the scribe of Assur. The prophecy of the unlimited realm of God and the eternal peace of David's kingdom is "closed", limited, restricted, and hence unable to overcome the sins of the coming generations.

The Mikdash represents the presence of God within the world of creation. Chazal stress that it was a place of constant miracle, outside the course of daily natural law. If we cannot grasp that unique revelation, the Mikdash loses its basis of existence. The world can continue without the Mikdash, as 2000 years of Jewish exile have demonstrated. Faith will continue to relate to God as a constant, as the God of nature, of creation. Having relinquished to Nevuchadnezer the perception of the unique, of the visible hand of God, the Jewish people will survive within the four cubits of the Law, of Halacha.

Why was Nevuchadnezer able to perceive this, when Chizkiyahu could not? This ability is not necessarily dependent on whether one is good or evil. Nevuchadnezer had the quality of historical destiny, which in his case would lead him to attempt to conquer and reorganize all. Vicious and cruel, he nonetheless was sensitive to every moment, and when presented with a visible sign of God's awesome power he responded appropriately. If he could not build the Mikdash, bring about the redemption, he could destroy it and attempt to redesign the world in the image of the idol of Dura. His conquest of the world would eventually lead him to believe that all must recognize his glory and greatness, until God humbled him and sent him to eat grass like an ox (Dan. 4). Chizkiyahu, the king to whom Chazal ascribe the greatest dissemination of Torah - from Dan to Be'er Sheva, forfeited the moment of geula by refusing to change, to transcend his usual, admittedly very high, level of faith, and give expression to the uniqueness of God's intervention in history.

Every generation in which the Mikdash is not rebuilt - it is as though it has been destroyed. Have we, disciples of King Chizkiyahu, responded to the acts of God in the last forty years as a routine continuation of history, or are we capable of rising to acknowledge, through words and actions, the miraculous presence of God? On that question depends the ultimate outcome of the events.

Ve-nizkeh lir'ot bimeheira bi-vinyan Yerushalayim ve- simchat olam al yoshveha.

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