Once upon a time in ancient Israel, in the latter part of the Second Temple period, there were two brothers. The younger one was named Aristobulus and the older one Hyrcanus II[i].
They were the sons of Shlomzion, the Hasmonean Queen of Israel. Upon her death in 67 B.C.E., events were set in motion that spelled the end of the Hasmonean dynasty and self-rule in Israel. The stage was set for the onset of the era of subjugation to the Roman Empire that resulted in the destruction of the Second Temple. Many lessons can be learned about what to do and, more importantly, what not to do. The parallels to our times are striking.
Neither brother was what we would categorize as a genuine winner. Each reportedly had pronounced character flaws. Hyrcanus was indolent, easily manipulated and loved the good life. He enjoyed luxurious surrounding and a life of ease; free from the challenges of leadership, including having to deal with resolving other people’s problems. Aristobulus was charismatic; but also headstrong, temper-prone and violent. Their opposing personality traits may help account for why they so readily fought with each other, especially given the manipulative influence exerted by interlopers.
The strife began when Hyrcanus the older brother was named king. Aristobulus thought that he was better qualified to be king than his older brother. He marshaled his forces and attacked Hyrcanus. Aritobulus won, unseated Hyrcanus and took over running the kingdom. As a part of the understanding they reached, Hyrcanus agreed Aristobulus would be king and he would retire to and quietly enjoy his ample estate and not meddle in public affairs. The brothers publicly agreed on these terms at the Second Temple, confirmed them with oaths, shook hands, embraced and each took their leave. Aristobulus went to the King’s Palace and Hyrcanus to his home, which coincidently had previously belonged to Aristobulus.
However, not everyone was happy with this new state of affairs. Antipater, a rich opportunistic supporter of Hyrcanus, hated Aristobulus and was categorically against the deal. He immediately began to demonize Aristobulus and stir up opposition to him and his rule. He also counseled Hyrcanus that he was in mortal danger because Aristobulus and his cohorts were secretly planning on killing him and that, therefore, he had to get rid of Aristobulus first. Given Hyrcanus’ lack of spirit and lazy temperament that was anything but pro-active, he just let Antipater handle every thing. This suited Antpater fine and he proceeded to enlist his friend Aretas, the King of Arabia, which bordered Israel, in his scheme. It was a ambitious plan; Hyrcanus would be restored to the throne; albeit as a puppet of Antipater and his cohorts. The fact that Antipater would handle all the duties may have been an added incentive to participate in the counter-coup.
There was however one insidious problem with the entire plan. This was not to be a popular uprising of a majority of the nation, who felt Arsitabulus did not represent their interests properly. To the contrary, the majority of the people were content to leave things as they were. Aristobulus was not perfect, but his government functioned and things were copacetic under his reign.
The Hyrcanus faction was a small cabal of those, like Antipater, who felt disenfranchised by Aristobulus. They were not interested in the best interests of the people and the nation of Israel. They were only interested in promoting their own power and prestige for personal gain. Thus, they did not seek to win popular support from the people, which likely would have failed. Rather, their nefarious plan was to enlist foreign powers to assert their potent influence; in a misguided effort to assure the results they sought, in furtherance of their own self-interests. Their concept was to compel obedience by the populace to their program of forcibly usurping power. However, as discussed below, the plan not only failed miserably, it backfired and the consequences were catastrophic. This was an entirely predictable result and we must learn from history to avoid this kind of tragic outcome.
Antipater got Hyrcanus out of the way, by moving him to Arabia and placing him under Aretas’ protection. Antipater and his supporters then joined forces with Aretas and his army. After some negotiations and promises of future concessions to Aretas, if they gained power, they made war together on Aristobulus and initially won battles. However, the war continued and the country and people suffered mightily.
Aristobulus seemed on the verge of losing; but then the opportunity was presented to seek out Pompey of Rome, who was in Damascus at the time, in order to arbitrate the dispute. The Roman Empire was the dominant power in the region and Pompey was pleased to get involved in the dispute. As the new interloper on the scene, he successfully lulled both Aristobulus and Hyrcanus into submission and set in motion a course of events that favored Rome and neither of the disputants or the people of Israel.
It wasn’t long before Pompey invaded Israel and besieged Jerusalem. He made Jerusalem a tributary to Rome and installed a Roman governor to rule over the land of Israel.
As Solomon so wisely and pithily remarked[ii], there is nothing new under the sun. We are living through a time of seeming discord that threatened to erupt into civil disturbances. Fortunately, cooler heads have prevailed and, thusfar, the protests been peaceful. Reasonable people can disagree and there is a clear path to constructive compromise that will hopefully result in a peaceful resolution of the issues of judicial reform.
However, there is another undercurrent that is more insidious and troublesome. It is about who shall govern, as opposed to reaching a consensus on policy concerns. In an effort to delegitimize and demonize a duly elected government, some have reached out to foreign influencers. The ostensible goal is to force a regime change, by harnessing outside forces and overruling, instead of embracing, the democratic election process in Israel.
Shockingly, this appears to have included former Prime Minister Lapid, who reportedly[iii] traveled to the US to campaign against and enlist support for undermining the duly elected coalition government of Prime Minister Netanyahu and forcing new elections. Lest there be any doubt about the efficacy of his misguided campaign and the malevolent results, it is reported[iv] the New Israel Fund, a US based NGO, has admitted financing protests against the Netanyahu government. It is also reported[v] that the US State Department has been funding the left-wing groups behind the protests. Imagine, even US NGO’s and the US have now been cast in the role of interlopers, interfering in the democratic process of loyal ally and friend Israel. This is not only intolerable; it is destructive of the system of alliances and relationships of trust that are fundamental to the international order. It could also, G-d forbid, destabilize the government of Israel, at a time, when Israel, the US and their allies are facing potential existential threats from Iran and increased terrorist activities. Unity and trust in government, in these particularly sensitive times, are critical; why is anyone stoking poisonous divisiveness and promoting anarchy? It begs the question of whose interests are being served; it’s certainly not those of Israel and the US.
There is little difference between the cabals and the interlopers enlisted of ancient times and the current versions. Each has their own agendas that don’t necessarily cohere with the views and best interests of a majority of Israel nor serve the national security interests of either the US and Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu recognized the exigent circumstances and paused[vi] the judicial reform measure, which was the ostensible predicate for the discord. However, as was the case in ancient times, this was just a pretext; the goal of forces unleashed by the cabal and interlopers is to unseat the Netanyahu government.
History teaches that cabals form and dissolve and interlopers have self-interests that they seek to advance, at the expense of their prey. We may not put the future of the people of Israel in the hands of cabals and interlopers. We respect and honor government, albeit imperfect, because there is a need for government to order the affairs of society and mankind. Anarchy is abhorrent because it inevitably results in untoward and often catastrophic consequences.
Jewish law and custom elevates this principle to a community mandate in a variety of circumstances. Thus, Jeremiah[vii] enjoined the exiles in Babylon to seek and pray for the welfare of the city in which they resided, so that they too would share in its peace and prosperity. Ezra[viii] expressed a similar sentiment in requiring the community pray for the life of the king and his sons. The Talmud[ix] had no illusions about the selfish motives of the Persian government in allowing Jewish exiles to return to Jerusalem and build the Second Temple. This, though, did not detract from the requirement to be gracious and demonstrate our gratitude, as a community.
The Mishna[x] and Talmud[xi] require that a person pray for the welfare of the government. Absent this vital function in the society, there would be anarchy and, as the Mishna notes so vividly, people would swallow each other alive. Blessing governmental leaders and praying for their welfare is a customary part of the Sabbath prayer service[xii]. This is a non-partisan matter. It makes no difference who serves in the office of the President at the time or how many members voted for the person; the congregation joins in the prayer by answering amen.
Doctrinaire uncompromising idealism is no substitute for sober judgment. It is unfortunate that some dogmatic progressives are just unable to compromise. They view other good people’s opinions, which don’t precisely align with their sacred principles as an anathema and reflexively demonize them for having a different weltanschauung. Never mind that without compromise, it is nearly impossible to accomplish anything useful and enduring, which requires the input and agreement of others. They would rather just feel good, by identifying with like-minded people and presumptuously assuming their virtuous nobility, while loudly condemning everyone else.
This is an example of the ‘Sinat Chinam’ that was one of the preeminent causes of the destruction of the Second Temple in the Talmud[xiii]. The Hebrew words are often loosely translated as baseless hatred, although that definition may not do justice to the import of the term. Gratuitous may be a more accurate way of defining the word ‘Chinam’. It adds a layer of nuance because, although hate may have some basis, it is hardly ever fully justified, necessary or appropriate. Gratuitous hatred serves no genuine purpose. It’s reckless and the unintended consequences may be catastrophic[xiv]. It also engenders the kind of divisiveness that is enjoined by the Bible[xv], as interpreted by Resh Lakish in the Talmud[xvi].
The Talmud[xvii] also views publicly shaming another, which by extension would include its modern incarnation the cancel culture, as wholly unethical and reprehensible; and it excoriates anyone who does so. As Rabbi Yonasan Eybeshitz[xviii] so eloquently points out as to Biblical Joseph and his brothers[xix], instead of sitting together, speaking and remonstrating with each other and eventually making some sort of peace with one another, they refrained from talking and listening to each other. In essence, like so many today, they demonized each other. It was tragic then and it is every bit as unfortunate when it occurs today. Moreover, as the Talmud[xx] so poignantly concludes, it was this kind of sordid behavior that was one of the major causes of the destruction of the Second Temple and the exile.
The Mishna[xxi] records Hillel’s sage counsel not to separate from the community, rely just on your own judgment or be judgmental about another person. To put this in perspective, the Talmud[xxii] exquisitely records that despite the profound and fundamental disagreements between members of the Schools of Hillel and Shamai, they did not refrain from marrying into one another’s families. There’s one big tent, which accommodates so many different points of views. Indeed, the School of Hillel was known to present the opinion of Shammai before discussing their own view. The credibility earned by this kind of a balanced approach was incomparable. Is it any wonder that the Talmud[xxiii] extols this kind of approach? Indeed, suspecting someone because they held different points of view or acted differently was a source of the separation among people that doomed the Second Temple[xxiv] .
It appears this non-constructive attitude continues to dog us even today. There is no excuse for this kind of behavior. It matters not that the person does this out of a sense of extreme piety or socially righteous indignation. The result is the same; it undermines the social cohesion of society and brings civilization to ruin.
We should be mindful of these cogent lessons of the past, which can inform how we appreciate and react to what is occurring in the present. Israel has a time-tested and proven democracy, which has successfully functioned to bring Israel to its glorious 75th anniversary, may it continue to be graced with G-d’s blessings. As Winston Churchill said[xxv], ‘Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…’
Pray for Israel and its government. As the Bible[xxvi] declares, those who bless Israel will be blessed. Psalms[xxvii] also provides that those who pray for the wellbeing of and love Jerusalem, as the Jewish people do, will enjoy repose and security.
[i] See, Josephus, Antiquities XI, 4-79: Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus and The End of the Hasmoneans, The Rise of Rome, at Jewish History.org.
[ii] Ecclesiastes 1:9.
[iii] See, for example, Lapid thanks US Jews for criticism of overhaul, backs talks if coalition halts bills, by Judah Ari Gross, in the Times of Israel, dated 2/22/2023; Lapid plans US trip to rally Jewish groups against Netanyahu, at JNS, dated 1/5/2023; Lapid shouldn’t be campaigning against Israel in the US, by Morton A. Klein, in Israel Hayom, dated 4/17/2023; US Orthodox Jewish leaders: Yair Lapid undermines Israeli government, by Zvika Klein, in the Jerusalem Post, dated 4/13/2023; and American Jewish organizations to Lapid: Remarks to Jewish leaders delegitimize Israel, by Yitz Goldberg, at Israel National News, dated 4/13/2023.
[iv] See, for example, New Israel Fund admits financing protests against Netanyahu government, at JNS, dated 1/11/2023.
[v] See, for example, State Department funds left-wing groups behind protests against Israeli prime minister, by Gabe Kaminsky, in the Washington Examiner, dated 3/6/2023.
[vi] See, for example, Netanyahu announces pause on judiciary reform, in significant victory for protesters, by Ron Kampeas, at JTA, dated 3/27/2023.
[vii] Jeremiah 29:7.
[viii] Ezra 6:10.
[ix] BT Rosh Hashanah 4a and Rashi commentary thereon.
[x] Avot 3:2.
[xi] BT Avodah Zara 4a and see the Meiri commentary thereon, which notes that a person is obligated to do so.
[xii] See Kol Bo 20:29 and Sefer Abudraham, at the end of Dinei Kriat HaTorah (in the Bar Ilan Responsa Project edition), as well as, the reference on page 94 (of the Warsaw edition-1878)
[xiii] BT Yoma 9b and JT Yoma 1:1 (at page 4b).
[xiv] See, for example, BT Gittin 55b-56a and Maharsha commentary thereon, as well as, Maharal, Netzach Yisrael, Chapter 5, Chiddushe Aggadot on Gittin. See also Eicha Rabbah 4:3. See also
[xv] Deuteronomy 14:1.
[xvi] BT Yevamot 13b.
[xvii] BT Bava Metzia 59a.
[xviii] An 18th Century Talmudic and Halachic authority, in his Tiferet Yonatan commentary on Genesis, Parshat Vayeshav (Verse 37:4), at page 73.
[xix] Genesis 37:4.
[xx] See BT Yoma 9b, Gittin 55b-56a, and Shabbos 119b.
[xxi] Avot 2:4.
[xxii] JT Kiddushin 1:1 (at page 4a) and Yevamot 1:6 (at page 8b).
[xxiii] BT Eruvin 13b, which praises Beit Hillel for this kind of approach. See also BT Shabbos 63a, where Resh Lakish notes that G-d listens when two scholars listen to each other. Rashi (on this Talmudic text) explains that they learn from and understand each other. The Shelah (Shenei Luchot HaBerit, Shaar HaOtiyot, Chaver Tov 5) notes that through this collaborative process, they both gain understanding and knowledge of the matter under discussion.
[xxiv] See, for example, Haemek Davar commentary on the Bible, Introduction to Genesis 3.
[xxv] Winston S. Churchill, November 11, 1947 (see, International Churchill Society, at winstonchurchill.org/resources/quotes).
[xxvi] Number 24:9.
[xxvii] Psalms 122:6.