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On the Precipice of Evil (2 Kings 11:17-12:17)

This Shabbat begins the cycle of four special Shabbatot which precede Pesah. The first of these, Shabbat Shekalim, deals with the special Jewish half shekel tax which was collected for a variety of needs in the Temple. The special haftarah for this Shabbat records an episode in the Temple where the High Priest and the king worked to insure the proper use of the collected funds. The story related there also has some other twists and turns. The king, Yehoash was raised in the Temple from childhood by the High Priest, Yehoiada, in order to prevent his assassination by the queen mother, Ataliah. Yehoash assumed the kingship at age seven under the ward of the High Priest. His rule was described in the book of Kings this way: “And Jehoash did that which was right in the eyes of the Lord all his days as Yehoiada the High Priest had taught him.” (2 Kings 12:3)

This verse does not tell the whole story. Rashi points this out: “But after Jehoiada died, then the princes of Judah came and worshiped the king; they made him a deity. They said to him: ‘One who enters into the Holy of Holies for a single hour, his life is endangered, and you were hidden there for six years, you are therefore worthy of being a deity.” (See Exodus Rabba 8:3)

What is the source for such an idea? The Book of Chronicles (the last book of the Tanakh) offers a later, more expanded and less sanguine account of this episode: “But after the death of Yehoiada, the officers of Judah came, bowing low to the king and the king heeded them. They forsook the House of the Lord, God of their fathers to serve the Asherim and the idols; and there was fury against Judah and Jerusalem because of this guilt of theirs. The Lord sent prophets among them to bring them back to the Lord. They (the prophets) admonished them, but they (the officers) paid no heed. Then the spirit of God invested Zechariah the son of Yehoiada the priest; he stood over the people, and said to them: ‘Thus said God: Why do you transgress the commandments of the Lord, when you cannot succeed? Since you have forsaken the Lord, He has forsaken you.’ They (the officers) conspired against him (Zechariah) and pelted him with stones at the commandment of the king in the court of the House of the Lord. King Yehoash disregarded the loyalty that his (Zechariah’s) father Yehoiada had shown to him and slew his son. And when he (Zechariah) died, he said: ‘May the Lord see and require it (do justice).’ (2 Chronicles 24:17-22)

Chronicles records Yehoash’s tragic transformation from a righteous person to an evil person. The change is all the more painful when contrasted with the righteous Zechariah son of Yehoiada as his foil. In addition, Zechariah was murdered in the very place where Yehoash was given sanctuary when his own life was threatened. What a terrible irony? (See D. Rothstein, Chronicles 2, The Jewish Study Bible)

How fragile is the tipping point in our lives between being good and being evil. Perhaps this is why Rashi has Yehoash turned into a deity by his followers. All of us have the potential to fall if we make of ourselves gods. And the higher we rise up, the more tragic the fall.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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