World of the Sages: Harsh words

The Bible relates that the prophet Isaiah paid a call to the ailing sovereign of the Kingdom of Judah, Hezekiah.

The Bible relates that the prophet Isaiah paid a call to the ailing sovereign of the Kingdom of Judah, Hezekiah (II Kings 20:1; Isaiah 38:1). Our sages explain that this visit was divinely engineered to bring the two leaders together, so the prophet could fulfill his mission of carrying God's word to the king as he lay on his deathbed (B. Berachot 10a). Upon appearing before King Hezekiah, the prophet wasted no time on niceties: "Thus says the Lord - Set your house in order for you will die and not live." Truly a harsh statement to say to a fading monarch. "Why am I deserving of such a severe sentence," protested Hezekiah. "Because you did not engage in procreation," responded Isaiah. Indeed the king had not married, but not without good reason: "I saw with Divine inspiration that I will bear unvirtuous children. I surmised that it was better to avoid procreation than to beget evil offspring." The prophet, however, was not satisfied with this excuse: "Why do you concern yourself with these hidden matters of the Merciful One? What you are commanded to do - namely marry and bear children - you should do; and that which the Holy One, blessed be He, deems appropriate, He will do." Hezekiah countered the prophet's resolve with a cunning suggestion: "Now that I realize the error of my course, let me marry your daughter; perhaps our combined merits will cause virtuous children to issue from me!" Isaiah, however, declined: "A decree of death has already been pronounced. Marrying my daughter now will be of no use." Perhaps angered by the news and frustrated by the bleak prognosis, Hezekiah demanded: "Son of Amotz, end your prophecy and leave! I have a tradition from the house of my father's father that even if a sharp sword rests upon a person's neck, he should not refrain from praying for mercy." And with those words of desperate hope, the king turned to the wall and wept before God (II Kings 20:2-3; Isaiah 38:2-3). Indeed, Hezekiah's life was extended. He married and his child - Manasseh - was an exceptionally wicked ruler (B. Sanhedrin 90a, 99b, 102b-104a). Manasseh's grandson, King Josiah, however, followed in the righteous footsteps of his great grandfather. Returning to Isaiah's harsh approach when admonishing Hezekiah: The sages illuminate that the initial prophecy - "you will die and not live" - was actually more callous than it initially appears: Not only was Isaiah prophesying that Hezekiah would die in this world, but Isaiah was further informing the king that he would not live in the world to come. Isaiah was, in effect, telling Hezekiah that his end was nigh, an end from which there was no promise of a future spiritual existence. Surely there was a more gentle way to share this portentous message? A similar cruel notice is recorded in a story about the famed 18th-century Hassidic master, Rabbi Aryeh Leib of Shpola in the Ukraine (retold by Rabbi Haim Elazar Shapira of Munkac, 1872-1937). This Rebbe was better known as the Shpoler Zeide, for his popular leadership of the common folk among whom he emphasized unsophisticated faith. The Shpoler Zeide once received a desperate knock at his door. Upon opening the door, he found two distraught girls who had come for his assistance. The girls' father, a well-respected God-fearing Jew, had died not long ago. Despite this hardship, their mother had managed to support the family by selling mead. The mother and her two daughters were saving sums from this small venture, so that each girl would eventually have a dowry. Tragedy, however, was about to strike, as their mother lay on her sickbed. Would they henceforth be forced to go door-to-door collecting charity? With no dowry, would they ever find a match? Anxiously and expectantly, the girls looked at the master, hoping for some help. The Shpoler Zeide responded to the pleas of the young girls: "Go and take a flagon of mead to the graveside of your deceased father, and tell him that you are bringing this in honor of the guest who will soon be arriving." Hearing this, the girls went pale and promptly fainted on the doorstep, as they comprehended that the intended guest was none other than their beloved mother. Disciples of the Shpoler Zeide who were present were flabbergasted; how could their master be so inconsiderate?! Cold water was quickly brought and the girls were revived. As they sat there catching their breath, the Shpoler Zeide kindly told them: "Go home, for your mother's situation has improved, and she will soon be making a full recovery." Indeed at that moment, the ailing mother began to recover. As the daughters left, the disciples turned to their master, seeking an explanation for his apparent insensitivity to the plight of these poor girls. The Shpoler Zeide replied: "Do not be surprised by this appalling display. The widow is indeed a righteous woman; her daughters, however, are not as praiseworthy. The mother's illness was decreed as a punishment for them, for, yes, they would have suffered greatly by her demise. When I saw how troubled they were, I gave them that acerbic instruction with the hope that they would fall to the ground and sample a taste of death. Indeed they fainted, and thus received their punishment, making way for the recuperation of their mother." The harsh message that the prophet Isaiah relayed to King Hezekiah stirred the monarch to tears and goaded him to marry and have children. Similarly, the insensitive response of the Shpoler Zeide brought a reversal in the fate of the would-be orphan girls. Elsewhere in our tractate the sages tell us that the anguish caused by a bad dream serves as a tonic for the ominous message of the nightmare (B. Berachot 55a; Rashi, ad loc). Who is to know what ends stinging remarks from our peers can bring? Words that pierce our hearts and ring in our ears may atone for some wrong. Though such comments are most certainly inappropriate and unjustified, perhaps the challenge is for this distress to spur us to improved behavior. The writer is director of Advanced Programs at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.