IN JACOB'S MERIT
Rabbi Shimon Wiggins
In our prayers, we often beseech Hashem to grant our requests in the merit of our righteous Patriarchs and Matriarchs, known as zechut avot.
In our prayers, we often beseech Hashem to grant our requests in the merit of our righteous Patriarchs and Matriarchs, known as zechut avot. For example, in the Prayer for Rain recited on the holiday of Shemini Atzeret every fall, we ask Hashem for rain in the merit of Abraham who provided water to countless travelers.
A startling incident regarding a request for zechut avot occurred during the reign of King Zedekiah. The Talmud (Tractate Nedarim 65a) relates that King Zedekiah once saw Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylon, eating a live rabbit. Nebuchadnezzar feared he would be publicly humiliated for such crude behavior, so he made Zedekiah swear to never reveal it. Some time later, Zedekiah felt a need to reveal the secret and asked the Sanhedrin (high court in Jerusalem) to annul the oath. The Sanhedrin found grounds to do so, and within a short time Nebuchadnezzar heard people ridiculing his crude behavior. Enraged, he summoned Zedekiah and the Sanhedrin, and challenged their actions. The Sanhedrin had no response and sank in silence to the ground.
The Midrash tells us that, at that moment, the Sanhedrin beseeched Hashem for mercy in the merit of Jacob who mourned for Joseph for so many years. Why did the Sanhedrin choose this particular merit of Jacob? Weren't there other, more significant, merits of Jacob to mention? What does Jacob's mourning for Joseph have to do with the plight of Zedekiah and the Sanhedrin?
To answer this question, points out the Beis HaLevi, a great 19th century Torah scholar, we must first understand the long and bitter mourning of Jacob for Joseph. Indeed, it is tragic to lose a child. But to intensely mourn for twenty-two years? To refuse to be comforted? Why?
The Beis HaLevi explains that Jacob's grief was not only for the beloved son he had lost, but for the fact that one of the twelve tribes was now gone. Jacob prophetically knew that the complete and holy nation of Israel could only come from twelve tribes, and he understood that it was his mission in life to establish these tribes. The apparent death of Joseph meant that Jacob had failed in his mission and that the nation of Israel could not come to be. Furthermore, Jacob had viewed every difficulty in his life as an opportunity to build the nation of Israel, and now his life's work was for naught.
But wasn't there a solution? Even if we assume Jacob's wives were no longer able to bear children, couldn't Jacob marry a new wife and have another son to replace Joseph?
There was no solution because of an oath. Before Jacob and Laban parted ways, Laban made Jacob swear not to marry anybody else as long as Laban's daughters were alive. As such, he could have no more children. But couldn't Jacob have the oath annulled? Certainly Jacob never would have sworn had he known that it would be necessary to marry again in order to establish the nation of Israel!
The ultimate answer is chilul Hashem - desecration of G-d's name. Surely there were grounds to annul the oath; but Jacob would never do so, for in Laban's eyes, Jacob would be violating the oath and that would be a desecration of G-d's name. Incredibly enough, because of the mere possibility of chilul Hashem, Jacob was willing to relinquish his mission in life - the establishment of the nation of Israel.
Now we can return to the incident of Zedekiah and Nebuchadnezzar. Regardless of any justification the Sanhedrin had for annulling the oath, there was an element of chilul Hashem. Nebuchadnezzar could not comprehend how the Sanhedrin annulled an oath taken in the name of G-d. This incident was a painful disgrace to the Jewish people, the Sanhedrin, and Hashem.
As the members of the Sanhedrin fell to the ground, they realized the tremendous chilul Hashem they had caused. They pleaded with Hashem for mercy in the merit of Jacob who mourned so bitterly and so long for Joseph; Jacob who could have eased his pain by annulling the oath; Jacob who refused to do so because of chilul Hashem.
Rabbi Shimon Wiggins is a teacher at Yeshiva Atlanta.
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