This article is the next installment of The Jerusalem Herald's ongoing series excerpted from the author’s book, Go Up Like a Wall, which discusses the Ingathering of the Exiles and the Redemption. To read other selections from the series, click here.
Illustration: A father with his son by the Western Wall in Jerusalem, U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Mikhail Berlin [Public Domain]
The Book of Ezra sets the stage for the words of Chagai, Zecharya, and Malachi, the last of the prophets. Ezra witnessed unmistakable divine intervention in returning Diaspora Jewry to their homeland from Bavel with all the elements in place for their return to blossom into the ultimate redemption.
Yet from the very beginning there were disturbing signs that this was not to be — perhaps this would not even be a redemption at all. The vast majority of Diaspora Jewry passed up the opportunity to return to Eretz Yisrael, and the small group who did return encountered continuous resistance from the foreigners who occupied the land.
The laying of the foundation of the new Beit Hamikdash was small in the eyes of most of the returnees, who viewed the event as a heartbreaking disappointment. Shortly thereafter their enemies succeeded in convincing the king to impose a building freeze. Now the entire “redemption” seemed like a fetus about to be aborted.
Several vital questions emerge from this series of events:
1) What was G-d’s intention in all of this? Was this meant to be the ultimate redemption, or a partial redemption, or something else entirely?
2) What was the purpose of the Second Beit Hamikdash?
3) What was the spiritual condition of the Jews in Israel? Did they have faith in G-d? Were they righteous? Why were they more motivated to return than the millions who stayed behind in exile?
4) As we will see, Chagai’s prophecy is ambiguous. Is G-d criticizing the people or encouraging them? If the former, on what grounds? What more could be expected of them? If the latter, why did He wait so long, after all their frustrations and 18 years of a building freeze?
The Malbim has a mind-blowing introduction to the Book of Chagai, in which he addresses many of these questions. He writes as follows:
“Rav Yitzchak Abarbanel has already explained, and I have seen evidence of this in many places, that from the time of the initial exile [of the Ten Tribes] by Sancherev, the [potential] time of the ultimate redemption began. For from that time the prophets prophesied about the redemption, and it was held in the balance; if they merited they would have been redeemed immediately in the days of Hezekiah or the days of Yoshiyahu. But after they didn’t merit it they were exiled to Bavel to expiate their sins.
“However, G-d saw that if they remained in the Babylonian exile they would have assimilated among the goyim and would have completely left the religion — for they had already intermarried with the nations and forgotten their language and their Torah. Therefore He delivered them in a small way through Koresh, and brought them back with the Men of the Great Assembly, and they restored the Torah to its former glory.
“[He did this] even though that time was not yet the time of the ultimate redemption, as Daniel saw four empires ruling over the Jews, as did many other prophets, and he was informed in a vision that the time of the wondrous end of days was very distant. In spite of this there was the possibility that this would become the time of the redemption if they returned in full repentance to G-d and all made aliya like a wall [en masse]. As the Sages say, “The Jews should have had a miracle performed for them in the days of Ezra [as in the past] . . . but their sins prevented it,” and many midrashim indicate this as well.
“When the Second Beit Hamikdash was built there was still the possibility hanging in the balance. If they would have returned in repentance, Zerubavel would have been the King Messiah, and the Beit Hamikdash would have been G-d’s permanent dwelling. Therefore, He once again shone for them the light of prophecy through the latter prophets, Chagai, Zecharya, and Malachi, who stood at that time and awakened them regarding the building and repentance. They revealed to the people the secret that everything depended on them.
“After the people did not merit, the Second Beit Hamikdash became just a temporary mikdash for that time and was destined to be destroyed by the Romans and it lacked five things, as the Sages expound on the word v’eh’kavda.
“In the days of Koresh the first, a deliverance was given that they could return to Eretz Yisrael. They started to build the Beit Hamikdash, but were stopped by the enemies of Judah and Benjamin until the time of Darius, for this was not yet the time for it to be rebuilt. Therefore [not knowing this] they despaired of building it, because they did not receive further permission to build.
“Chagai prophesied in the name of G-d that they should begin to build and not wait for permission, for the time had come. These words were said to Zerubavel, since if they merited and this became the true redemption, the horn of the House of David would blossom and Zerubavel would be the Messiah.
“But when they failed to merit, Zerubavel returned to Bavel and died there. This blossoming is destined to come from his descendants at the end of days. . .”
The Malbim makes several astounding points: The period of exile did not begin with the destruction of the First Beit Hamikdash, but with the exile of the ten tribes by Assyria. From that moment in time the clock began ticking for the ultimate redemption to occur. Indeed, at least two exceedingly righteous kings were in line to be the Messiah if the nation was sufficiently worthy.
The period of Hezekiah, when this exile occurred, was particularly ripe for the ultimate redemption, as all the necessary elements were in place. Potential Messiah? Check. Beit Hamikdash? Check. Much of the Jewish population in Israel? Check. Cataclysmic event that could qualify as the war of Gog and Magog? Check. (Indeed, a great deal of the Book of Isaiah is devoted to the siege of Jerusalem by the massive Assyrian army and their miraculous destruction in a single night. This could have been “it”.)
But the people failed to seize the opportunity, and the moment was lost. History continued on a different, downward track, the ultimate redemption was deferred, and the clock continued to tick until the next opportunity would be presented. Ultimately, it became necessary for the remaining Jews to be exiled to Bavel (which also occurred in stages, each of which could have been averted).
The key point is that prolonged exile was never a necessity. The steady downward spiral of Jewish history could have been turned around at numerous key junctures and blossomed into the end of days right then and there.
Once the exile was complete following the destruction of the First Beit Hamikdash, most of the key ingredients for the ultimate redemption were no longer in place. Consequently, opportunities to get “back on track” would be less frequent and more difficult to come by.
G-d’s plan at this point was for the exile to expiate the enormous sins of the nation compiled over hundreds of years, shake them up, and inspire repentance, all of which would slowly lead to a new opportunity for redemption.
But something went horribly wrong. Instead of repenting, the Jews began to assimilate — and fast! In the short span of 70 years, intermarriage became rampant, much of the nation no longer spoke their ancestral language, and the Torah was in danger of being utterly lost.
G-d had no choice but to deviate from the original plan and take an emergency measure: return the Jews to their homeland and restore the spiritual lifeblood of the people through the Beit Hamikdash and the Men of the Great Assembly. This was not intended to be the ultimate redemption, as the people certainly did not merit it, but an emergency interruption of the exile to recharge their spiritual batteries.
However, this created a unique opportunity for the Jews to achieve redemption through the back door. After all, the necessary ingredients for the ultimate redemption were once again in place! Beit Hamikdash? Check. Potential Messiah? Check. Cataclysmic events? Certainly possible at any time.
If the Jews roused themselves at this critical juncture and returned to Israel en masse, they could have essentially cheated the exile process and ushered in the Messianic period — even though this was not G-d’s intention at the outset! G-d even restored prophets to the nation, who exhorted them to seize this special opportunity.
Even after the initial disappointing wave of aliya, the Jews could have returned following the completion of the Second Beit Hamikdash and ushered in the Messianic period. It was all dependent on them.
But when the Jews failed to seize the opportunity, the opportunity finally expired, and the period of the Second Beit Hamikdash reverted to what it was originally intended to be: a recharging of the spiritual batteries to prepare the nation for a prolonged exile. The potential Messiah himself died in exile, and the potential redemption was kicked down the road yet again.
The reader should already feel goose bumps from the numerous, eerie parallels to modern times. If we stopped right here there would be enough food for thought to make one’s head spin.
But this is only an introduction to the Book of Chagai. We will examine the book itself next time.
(To be continued....)
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Rabbi Chananya Weissman is the founder of EndTheMadness and the author of seven books, including “Go Up Like a Wall” and "How to Not Get Married: Break These Rules and You Have a Chance," an illustrated book that is humorous yet serious in its examination of the issues facing singles.
Many of his writings are available here. He is also the director and producer of a documentary on the shidduch world, “Single Jewish Male,” and “The Shidduch Chronicles” available on YouTube by clicking here. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org