The Great Jewish Challenge

The haftarah for the second day of Pesah is separated into two distinctive parts: the first part is a description of the religious reforms of King Josiah and the second, an account of how Josiah reinvigorated the observance of Pesah. Josiah is best known for his reform of religious life and his reestablishment of the people’s covenant with God: “At the king’s summons all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem assembled before him. The king went up to the House of the Lord, together with all the men of Judah and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and the priests and the prophets – all the people, young and old. And he read to them the entire text of the covenant scroll which had been found in the House of the Lord. The king stood by the pillar and solemnized the covenant before the Lord; that they would follow the Lord and observe His commandments, His injunctions, and His laws with all their heart and soul; that they would fulfill all the terms of this covenant as inscribed in the scroll. And all the people entered into the covenant.” (verses 1-3)

Josiah’s restoration of the covenant with God came just two generations after Josiah’s grandfather, Hezekiah, led a religious reformation movement. What led to the lapse in loyalty to God during the generation between these two kings? The answer to this question is, of course, grounds for speculation of all sorts: historical, philosophical and religious. Often times, this speculation says much more about the commentator than it does about the problem at hand, but for our purposes, this, too, can be interesting and significant.

Rabbi Haim Hirschenson, one of the early seminal thinkers of religious Zionism (early 20th century Safed, Hoboken), proposed that the generation between Hezekiah and Josiah did not know how to share Torah with the next generation. They failed, according to Hirschenson, both methodologically and attitudinally, creating disinterest and disdain, leading the next generation to idolatry. He contends that Hezekiah’s generation made both the ‘Written Torah’ and the ‘Oral Torah’ unintelligible and burdensome. The discovery in the Temple of a book described as the ‘covenant scroll’ at the beginning of Josiah’s reign was a symbolic turning point in this destructive process. (22:8-9) Josiah, in reading this covenant publicly, symbolically made all of the Torah, both oral and written, accessible to all of the people. When they heard the Torah and understood it, they entered into the covenant. (Eleh Divrei Habrit ch. 23, pp. 149-155)

Hirschenson is obviously talking about his own generation (early 20th century US), but his interpretation could easily be applied to our generation as well. The future of our people and our religious enterprise depends upon making the Torah accessible and cherished to all of our people. It is incumbent upon the religious leadership of our people to take Josiah’s cue and be unceasing at meeting this challenge.

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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