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A Bold Critique of Yoshiyahu Hamelech Hiding the Luchot

Yoma 52b

The Gemara Yoma 52b records a dramatic episode in the events leading up to the destruction of the first Beit Hamikdash (slightly modified William Davidson translation of the Talmud):

But wasn’t it taught in a baraita that when the Ark was buried, along with it was buried the jar of manna that was next to it, and the flask of oil used for anointing, and Aaron’s staff with its almonds and blossoms, and the chest that the Philistines sent as a gift to the God of Israel after they captured the Ark and were stricken by several plagues, as it is stated: “And put the jewels of gold that you return to Him for a guilt-offering, in a coffer by its side, and send it away that it may go” (I Samuel 6:8)?

And who buried the Ark? Yoshiyahu, melech Yehuda, buried it. And what did he see that he decided to bury it? He saw that it is written: “The Lord will bring you, and your king whom you shall set over you, to a nation that you have not known” (Deuteronomy 28:36). Since he knew that the Jewish people would ultimately be exiled, he felt it was better that the Ark should not be disgraced in exile, and therefore he arose and buried it.

A Pre-Emptive Save

In other words, when Chuldah Hanevi’ah informed Yoshiyahu Hamelech of the impending destruction of the first Beit Hamikdash (as recorded in Melachim II Perek 22), the latter preemptively hid the Luchot to avoid its falling into hostile hands. To place it in historical perspective, the first Beit Hamikdash was destroyed in the year 586 BCE. Chuldah shared her prophecy in the 18th year of Yoshiyahu, or 622 BCE. Thus, Yoshiyahu Hamelech preemptively buried the Aron 36 years before the first Churban.

The Rambam and Rav Soloveitchik

Although the Gemara (Yoma 53b) cites a dissenting opinion that argues that Nevudchadnetzar captured the Aron, Rambam (Hilchot Beit Habechirah 4:1) rules Yoshiyahu buried the Aron deep in the recesses of the Beit Hamikdash where it remains until today. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (Shiurim L’Zecher Abba Mori Z”L 1:173) explains that the presence, albeit hidden, of the Aron served as the source and root of the kedushah of the second Beit Hamikdash, whose holiness has not elapsed in the Rambam’s view. This everlasting kedusha stems from the Aron remaining in place. Thus the Babylonian and Roman conquest and subsequent destructions of the respective Batei Mikdash do not impinge on the holiness of the Makom Hamikdash since the Aron remains in place.

A Positive Evaluation of Yoshiyahu’s Move

Typically, Yoshiyahu is understood to have made an excellent move by preemptively interring the Aron. A positive evaluation is undoubtedly in order according to Rav Soloveitchik’s view, as Yoshiyahu is responsible for the eternal kedusha of the Makom Hamikdash.

Moreover, the Rambam writes that Shlomo Hamelech already made this Aron hiding place. Rav Soloveitchik even understands the hiding spot as part of Hashem’s original plan for the Beit Mikdash! Yoshiyahu, accordingly, decided it was time to utilize this Aron escape plan.

A Critical View of Yoshiyahu

On the other hand, it is a bit surprising to learn that Yoshiyahu hid the Aron. After all, upon hearing Chuldah’s nevuah, Yoshiyahu reacted by making every effort to rally the Jewish people to teshuva to overcome the terrible decree. Placing the Aron in hiding is a very dramatic step that cannot be done in hiding. So why did Yoshiyahu Hamelech take a measure that would seem to run counter to his efforts to avert the Churban?

Yoshiyahu’s placing the Luchot in their hiding plan signals that he considers his efforts to undo the decree to be futile. Thus, the people conclude, as they did during the impending Assyrian conquest of Yerushalayim, “let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (Yishayahu 22:13). This may be a reason why Yoshiyahu’s teshuva campaign failed for the most part.

Moreover, if Yoshiyahu was “hedging his bets,” why did he not defer this “Mayday” scenario to his successors? After all, Chuldah promised Yoshiyahu that the Churban would not happen during his lifetime (Melachim II 22:20). Yoshiyahu hiding the Aron communicates to his sons that he does not trust them. Choosing to hide the Aron displays that Yoshiyahu was concerned that his sons would be evil kings who would ignore the nevi’im’s warnings that the Churban was imminent. This is what exactly happened! Yoshiyahu’s succeeding sons and grandson were spiritually deficient leaders who failed to heed the warnings of Yirmiyahu HaNavi of the impending doom!

Conclusion

The Lubavitcher Rebbe famously emphasized the importance of positive thinking. “Think good andit will be good” was a phrase he often uttered. There is a corollary to that principle as well: Think bad and it will be bad. Sometimes our anxieties themselves create problems.

As we approach Tisha B’Av, we should bear this vital facet of the Churban in mind. Yoshiyahu Hamelech was a great tzadik. If not for him we likely would not have survived as Jews, as I explain in my work “From David to Destruction: Mining Essential Lessons from Sefer Melachim” pages 487-500 (posted online at www.sefaria.org). However, it seems he made a grave error by hiding the Aron during his lifetime. It communicated a terrible message to am Yisrael in general and his children especially. Negative thinking is likely to have been part of the cause of the Churban. The lesson that emerges is that positive thinking is not a luxury. It is very much a necessity.

Postscript

Many years ago, a very financially successful TABC graduate was about to marry. A few weeks before the wedding he asked me if I thought he should take steps to protect his considerable wealth in case of divorce.

I responded that although not taking this precautionary step is somewhat risky, taking such a preemptive action, in my opinion, is even more treacherous. Protecting assets indicates concern for failure. Sharing wealth, on the other hand, expresses confidence in the marriage.

My talmid followed my advice, and years later he continues to be very grateful to be in a happy marriage blessed with four beautiful children. So think good, and it will be good.


Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.

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