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    Gedaliah Ben Achikam And COVID-19

    Across America, and globally, academics and intellectuals are warning that all is not well.

    Many believe that there is a powerful “they” at work, and that nefarious happenings are afoot. “Their” designs and plans are not openly known. But bits and pieces of information available to us bear ominous and foreboding tidings. 

    Information comes to us from many sources, and we must filter and assess what we see and hear. But after all is said and done, many Jews—from all ranks; Rabbonim, community leaders, and the hamon am—feel that something is not right. Government overreach, in the name of protecting the public from Covid-19, is far more disconcerting than the virus itself.

    But when concerned Jews bring up the topic in their communities, they are oftentimes dismissed with the cry, “Conspiracy theory!”

    Gedaliah ben Achikam

    We all know something about Gedaliah ben Achikam, but his story is misunderstood by many.

    The story is recorded in Melachim Beis, ch. 24, and in much greater detail in Yirmiyahu, chs. 40-43. After the churban Bayis Rishon, Nevuchadnetzzar left over a remnant of the Jewish population, and Gedaliah ben Achikam was appointed governor over them. Yishmael ben Nesanyah planned to assassinate Gedaliah. Yochanan ben Kareiach warned Gedaliah of Yishmael’s plans, but Gedaliah did not believe him. Sure enough, Yishmael slew Gedaliah, which led to the destruction of the entire community.

    The incident of Gedalyah ben Achikam is discussed in halachah, because his death is marked by Tzom Gedalyah, one of the “four fasts.” The Mishnah Berurah writes:

    On the 3rd of Tishrei Gedaliah ben Achikam was murdered. After the churban, Gedaliah had been appointed as governor over a remnant of the survivors of the Jewish population. When he was killed, the last remaining spark of Israel was extinguished, because as a result of his death, the rest of the Jews were exiled and slaughtered by the thousands.

    There is also as well known passage in the classic musar work, Mesilas Yesharim, where the Ramchal discusses the need for a righteous man to carefully “weigh” and assess his righteousness, and to be wary of the wiles of the yetzer hara who can convince a man that a given action is an act of righteousness, when it is, in fact, a sin.

    Behold, the incident of Gedaliah ben Achikam is well known. In his great piety not to judge Yishmael unfavorably, or not to accept lashon hara, he said to Yochanan ben Kareiach, “You speak falsehoods!” But what did he cause? He caused his own death, and Israel was dispersed, and the remaining spark was extinguished. The verse attributes the deaths of the men who were killed along with Gedaliah, to Gedaliah himself, as the Gemara teaches us.

    A picture emerges from the above sources, but it is highly troubling.

    • Was Gedaliah out of touch with reality? Was he a kindly and saintly old man, but naïve? Are we to view him as an inept communal leader—whose personal piety was placed before the physical well-being of his community?
    • Can the finale of the worst destruction in Jewish history—a terrible destruction and tragedy in its own right—really have been caused by a tzaddik who miscalculated reality, and erred on the side of righteousness?
    • If so, what is the “takeaway” for us, as we contemplate this tragedy during the awesome days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—that we should never be “too frum?” This, after an entire Elul of adhering to chumros that we do not keep during the year! Certainly, misplaced piety is a sin, but is this what we need to call attention to during these days?

    One final question—addressed in the following section—is a matter of practical halachah. The answer to this question is a revelation of sorts, that will allow us to answer the above questions, and will also lead us to a proper understanding of the lesson of Tzom Gedaliah.

    Information and Lashon Hara

    The Gemara that the Mesilas Yesharim refers to is on Niddah 61a.

    In the Gemara’s times, an extremely large tract of land in Eretz Yisrael was known to be tamei with buried human remains, but the exact location of the tumah was unknown. In order to minimize the area that people had to avoid, the Chachamim searched for the exact location of the tumah, and discovered a large pit filled with corpses.

    That pit was the one that Yishmael ben Nesanyah filled up with corpses, as the pasuk (Yirmiyahu, 41) writes: And the pit wherein Yishmael cast all of the corpses of the men that were slain by the hand of Gedaliah… But did Gedaliah slay them? Why, Yishmael had slain them! Nevertheless, since Gedaliah should have been concerned over Yochanan ben Keireiach’s report, and he was not concerned, the pasuk considers Gedaliah to have killed them.

    Says Rava, This sort of lashon hara, although one may not accept it [as absoulute truth], one must nevertheless harbor a suspicion [that it might be true].

    *   *   *

    Daily living entails constant decisions as to how to act, or react, in any given situation, within the reality in which one lives. An accurate picture of “the reality” is necessary in order to make a proper decision, but, very often, that picture entails observation, or first-hand knowledge, of things that the individual cannot observe, or know. Thus, “reality” is, very often, a matter of perspective, as individuals go about constructing a picture of realty. In the absence of first-hand knowledge, one’s primary source of information is the reports of other people.

    Unfortunately, people lie all the time. People can be negative and cynical. People also cheat and fight. When one is garnering information, and he receives a report, he assesses it by considering the information itself, and also by considering the trustworthiness of the reporter, both in a general sense (Is he smart and informed? Can he be presumed to know the reality? Where does he get his information from?), and in terms of the specific situation that one is currently facing (Does he have any reason to lie, or obfuscate the truth?) If a report seems incredible (i.e., unbelieveable, preposterous) and the reporter is un-credible, then the report, essentially, yields no information.

    Lashon hara[1] is a report that denigrates or defames another person, tarnishing the subject’s reputation in the eyes of the listeners.

    Our daily lives, and the decisions we constantly make, are greatly impacted by other people. Thus, a report with information that we need can also contain lashon hara. Listening to such a report may be permitted, because it has a to’eles, a constructive purpose.

    From the Chofetz Chaim:[2]

    The prohibition of accepting [i.e., believing] rechilus applies even if the listener considers the bearer of the report to be as credible as two witnesses, and even if there is no defensible reason [that] the subject [may have done, or said, what he did.]

    Nevertheless, [the prohibition] only applies if the listener has no constructive purpose in knowing this matter. But if he does have a constructive purpose, for example, if the bearer informs him that the subject is planning on harming his person, or his property, etc., and that he must take care to protect himself, it is permissible to accept this report, and to believe it.  

    Yochanan’s report to Gedaliah was such a report. It contained constructive—life-preserving!—information, together with lashon hara about Yishmael.

    But Rava rules that in the case of Gedaliah, he was not allowed to accept or believe the lashon hara,[3] he was only allowed the lesser reaction of “harboring a suspicion.”

    The Chofetz Chaim explains[4] that when one is only allowed to “harbor a suspicion,” he is not allowed to accept the report as true, nor even to accept that it might be true.

    We have explained that accepting lashon hara—in other words, deciding in one’s heart that this report is true—is forbidded by the Torah. Nevertheless, Chazal say “de’lachush miha ba’ei.” Meaning, that one must accept the matter as a mere suspicion, only in order to guard himself from this person, so that he should not come to any harm by his hand.

    Yet even so, the matter may not be viewed by the listener to even be in the realm of safeik (i.e., a possibility), because we always grant every man a chezkas kashrus—the assumption that he is a good and upright person. Therefore, the listener is still obligated to do good with the subject of the report, with all of the favors and kindnesses that the Torah obligates us to give any other Jew. His image cannot be tarnished in the listener’s eyes in any way, due to the lashon hara that he heard.

    The Torah only permitted the listener to harbor a suspicion in order to protect himself and others from the subject…but as far as anything else, it is forbidden to harbor a doubt that the report might be true, or to believe it at all.

    Why wasn’t Gedalya allowed to accept Yochanan’s report?

    Incredible and Un-credible

    It is simply untrue to state that Gedaliah rejected Yochanan’s report because he was more concerned about lashon hara than about safeguarding himself and his community. Gedalya was not allowed to accept Yochanan’s report because it lacked credibility.

    The Chafetz Chaim writes that one may only accept a report with constructive information from someone who is personally known to the listener to be of impeccable credibility, i.e., one who never says falsehoods. If the reporter is known to be possessed of a fine character, but is not personally known to the listener, the listener may not believe the report, unless he has his own information, that strongly indicates that the report is true.

    Yochanan, and his report, did not meet these criteria, as we will soon see.

    The halachah of le’meichash miba’ei—harboring a suspicion—is rooted in the mandate to preserve one’s life, and the lives of others, and is based on the pasuk, lo sa’amod al dam rei’echa. [5]

    The Chofetz Chaim, writes[6] that Gedaliah, who was a tzaddik, certainly was not lax in his obligation to act in consonance with the explicit Torah law of lo sa’amod al dam rei’echa. In other words, Yochanan’s report was not credible enough to establish that there was a danger to Gedaliah and his community.[7] Rather, Gedaliah’s accepting or rejecting the report was only a matter of lashon hara.

    Yochanan’s report was, as far as Gedaliah could tell, a nonsense report, from a non-credible source. As such, it provided no information.

    Gedaliah’s error, on the surface, was a wrong choice to entirely reject the lashon hara at the expense of being extra vigilant—lifnim mishuras hadin—to act in a cautious manner. Thus, his chumra in lashon hara turned out to be a kula in lo sa’amod al dam rei’echa (even though there was not even a tzad safeik that there existed an actual danger).[8]

    But when we take a closer look, Gedaliah’s sin—his error, on his madreigah—runs much deeper. For why was he so sure that Yochanan’s report was nonsense after all?

    A Closer Look

    A simple reading of the navi, and some further sources, afford us a picture of the story of Gedaliah ben Achikam, and the correct lesson to learn from it.

    Josephus’ account of the story follows the Navi’s narrative, and our traditional meforshim. He writes that after Nevuzaraden installed Gedaliah, he allowed Yirmiyahu to join Gedaliah at Mitzpah, and at Yirmiyahu’s request, he freed Baruch ben Neiriyah as well.

    When Nebuzaradan had done thus, he made haste to Babylon. But as to those that fled away during the siege of Jerusalem, and had been scattered over the country, when they heard that the Babylonians were gone away, and had left a remnant in the land of Jerusalem, and those such as were to cultivate the same, they came together from all parts to Gedaliah to Mispah.

    During the upheaval and slaughter of the churban, as one can imagine, groups of people ran in all directions. Yochanan ben Kareiach led one such group. Yishmael ben Nesaniah, with another group, ran as far as the Land of Amon, and took refuge with Ba’alis, King of Amon. Yishmael was of royal lineage; this may be how a fleeing Jewish survivor was allowed entry in the court of a foreign king. Yochanan came to Gedaliah, as did Yishmael.

    Now the rulers that were over them were Johanan, the son of Kareah, and Jezaniah, and Seraiah, and others beside them. Now there was of the royal family one Ishmael, a wicked man, and very crafty, who, during the siege of Jerusalem, fled to Baalis, the king of the Ammonites, and abode with him during that time; and Gedaliah persuaded them, now they were there, to stay with him, and to have no fear of the Babylonians, for that if they would cultivate the country, they should suffer no harm. This he assured them of by oath; and said that they should have him for their patron, and that if any disturbance should arise, they should find him ready to defend them. He also advised them to dwell in any city, as every one of them pleased; and that they would send men along with his own servants, and rebuild their houses upon the old foundations, and dwell there; and he admonished them beforehand, that they should make preparation, while the season lasted, of corn, and wine, and oil, that they might have whereon to feed during the winter.

    When he had thus discoursed to them, he dismissed them, that every one might dwell in what place of the country he pleased.

    Gedaliah set up a “DP camp,” encouraging the traumatized masses, giving them food and shelter, and allowing them to rest. Gedaliah instructed the people to spread out, and repopulate the cities. The people, including Yochanan and Yishmael, left Mitzpah to do so. 

    But Yishmael was not finished with Ba’alis King of Amon. These two hatched an evil plot. Yishmael, unbelievably, begrudged the righteous Gedaliah his “shteller”! Being of royal blood, he felt that he should have been appointed governor, and he was so blinded by jealousy that he agreed to Ba’alis’ proposition—to assassinate Gedaliah. Ba’alis, for his part, wanted to take control of the Land of Israel. His plan was to destroy the Jewish community from within, in the hopes that when that happened, Nevuchadnetzar would have no further interest in the land and would leave.

    An Implausible Report

    When Yochanan came with his report to Gedaliah, he offered his services—he would slay Yishmael secretly, so that Gedaliah would be saved, and none would be the wiser. Gedaliah told him that he may not slay Yishmael, “Ki sheker attah doveir el Yishmael…” You speak falsehoods!”

    As we have seen, the Chofetz Chaim writes that Gedaliah was not guilty of transgressing lo sa’amod al dam rei’echa, the Torah obligation to safeguard the lives of others, and, for that matter, one’s own life. In other words, Yochanan’s report had no substance to it. Gedaliah had no reason to believe that he and his people were in any danger.

    Why?

    The remnants of Israel were the “low class of the land.” Yochanan himself was an unsavory character, as we will see below, when we hear the end of the story. The Abarbanel explains that Gedaliah felt that Yochanan was enmeshed in some intrigue with Yishmael, and wanted the governor’s license to kill his enemy.

    Yochanan ben Kareiach and the other officers informed Gedaliah that the King of Amon, whose name was Baalis, had dispatched Yishmael to come and attach himself to Gedaliah, as a treacherous scheme to find an opening to harm him. Gedaliah did not believe them, for he felt that they fabricated this false report out of kinah [i.e., jealousy, or, perhaps zealous hatred].

    Furthermore, the report alleged that Yishmael was so debased that he was planning to kill a fellow Jew against whom he could not possibly have any complaints. Such an act would be one of depraved evil, for Gedaliah had just recently shown Yishmael care and kindness, and had pledged to do his utmost to help and advocate for him. Again, from the Abarbanel:

    Gedaliah did not believe those that came to warn him, because he trusted Yishmael, who [indeed, later] killed him…

    Gedaliah was well aware of the lay of the land, and with whom he was dealing. He saw Yochanan for who he was, he calculated that Yochanan had an ulterior motive, and he was justified in being unwilling to believe the worst of a fellow Jew, Yishmael. Gedaliah was willing to believe that Yochanan, a rough warrior, would kill an enemy, but unwilling to believe that Yishmael would kill him, Gedaliah. 

    Josephus writes it thus:

    …[they] told him that Baalis, the king of the Ammonites, had sent Ishmael to kill him by treachery, and secretly, that he might have the dominion over the Israelites, as being of the royal family; and they said that he might deliver himself from this treacherous design, if he would give them leave to slay Ishmael, and nobody should know it…

    But he professed that he did not believe what they said, when they told him of such a treacherous design, in a man that had been well treated by him; because it was not probable that one who, under such a want of all things, had failed of nothing that was necessary for him, should be found so wicked and ungrateful towards his benefactor…

    If Yochanan’s report had been reasonable, the issur of lashon hara would not have been a factor; Gedaliah would have been obligated to accept and believe the report in order to save his own life, and those of the people with him. But the report was unreasonable.

    Thus, Yochanan’s report reverted back to a matter of lashon hara (or, technically, rechilus); Yochanan was simply badmouthing Yishmael.

    Lemeichash Miba’ei

    As we have learned, the rule of lemeichash mibaei, that we must harbor a suspicion, applies only in the case when the report was one that warned of a potential harm, and the “suspicion” can only take the form of precautionary measures that do not compromise any show of love, or kindness, towards the subject of the report.

    The pasuk teaches us that Yishmael murdered Gedaliah while they were eating together. According to the Radak, the murder took place on Rosh Hashanah—they were, most probably, eating the seudas yom tov! (This adds to the depravity of the act—and the implausibility of a cause for concern!)

    If we are to envision the historical context, it is more than probable that many people came to Mitzpah to spend the holiday with the gadol hador. It was the first Rosh Hashanah after the churban, a time of pain and confusion; perhaps they were even unsure how to celebrate in the absence of the Beis Hamikdash!

    Gedaliah was justified in not allowing Yochanan to kill Yishmael, for he was not allowed to accept Yochanan’s report as true.

    Gedaliah was also justified in allowing Yishmael to join him, undoubtedly together with a large community, to spend Rosh Hashanah with him, and to join him at his table. To exclude Yishmael would have been hurtful and unfair, and would have shown that Gedaliah was mekabel misafeik, that he accepted that Yochanan’s report might be true. So what was the problem?

    A Fine Line

    Although the pesukim in the Navi and the traditional meforshim do not mention this, Josephus affords us the addition of an important historical fact—at the seudah, after drinking wine, Gedaliah became drowsy and dozed at the table, whereupon Yishmael killed him! 

    According to the Mesilas Yesharim, this was premeditated. Gedaliah was only human. Perhaps he was fearful that Yochanan’s report made some slight impression on him, and, in his heart of hearts, Yishmael’s image was tarnished in his eyes. Perhaps he went to this length, to put himself totally at the mercy of Yishmael, to remove any vestige of the report’s influence. He did this in a display of extreme piety.

    But it was actually a sin. Lemeichash miba’ei is a fine line. Gedaliah was not allowed to believe the report to be true, and he was not allowed to act in a manner that would indicate that he thought it might be true. But to act in a manner that made it clear that he was convinced that it could not be true was a sin.

    Yochanan’s report, to be sure, was implausible. But Gedaliah’s error was to misjudge the precariousness of the new reality—golus. Gedaliah’s error—his sin, on his level—was not simply misplaced piety. That is a sideline; an important lesson, but not the primary sin. The primary sin was misplaced trust.

    Gedaliah’s vehemence in rejecting Yochanan’s report, his cry, “sheker attah doveir!,” bespoke a sense of security and reliance on some natural order. This response was driven by the fact that he viewed the report not only as implausible, but preposterous.

    History of the Pit

    Aside for trusting Yishmael, there was, undoubtedly, another reason why Yochanan’s report made no sense to Gedaliah.

    And the pit wherein Yishmael cast all of the corpses of the men that were slain by the hand of Gedaliah, that was the pit that King Asa dug, in the face of Baasha, King of Israel—it was that [very pit] that Yishmael filled with corpses.

    Yirmiyahu 41:9

    The Radak comments that in Melachim when the story of Asa and Basha is recorded, no mention is made of this pit. What was its history?

    Asa was a scion of Dovid Hamelech, and was righteous. Basha succeeded Yeravam ben Nevat, and continued the evil work of Yeravam by building a high tower, or fortress, opposite the gates of Yerushalayim, to block Jews from being oleh regel. The righteous Asa went to war. He did so by enlisting the aid of Ben Hadad, King of Aram. Ben Hadad came and decimated Basha’s forces. Basha retreated. Asa dismantled the tower, and used the wood and stones to build up Mitzpah.

    The Chida, in Chomas Anach, writes:

    The initial creation of this pit was for puraniyus—destruction and misfortune. Asa, King of Yehudah dug this pit when he waged war on Basha and on the Kingdom of Israel, and many from Israel were slain by Yehudah. Thus, now, Yishmael came—a scion of the Kingdom of Yehudah—and filled the pit with corpses from Israel.

    Do not be misled by the Chida’s comment—the pit played no role in the war; it served an entirely different role after the war.

    The Kingdom of Israel held the north of Eretz Yisrael, and the Kingdom of Yehudah held the south. The line of demarcation was in the middle of the country, north of Yerushalayim.

    Mitzpah is in the Kingdom of Israel, but lower down, closer to the line of demarcation.

    Ben Hadad was King of Aram, a country well north of Eretz Yisroel. He invaded from the north, and did battle with Basha’s forces in the upper northern region of Eretz Yisroel, far away from Mitzpah. Basha was frightened and broken by this turn of events, because, heretofore, Ben Hadad had been his ally. Basha knew that the attack in the North was because of his campaign to occupy his fortress. He simply gave up this campaign and retreated.  

    The Malbim on the above pasuk explains when and why the pit was dug:

    It is the [pit] that was dug by King Asa against Basha King of Israel: The pasuk makes known, by adding this, the outcome of sin. Basha built the siege tower in order to restrict the comings and goings of Asa, King of Yehudah, in other words, to prevent the Jews from being oleh regel. The primary route that Jews would take in order to be oleh regel was by way of Mitzpah… Asa had a garrison of soldiers at Mitzpah to protect the olei regel, and to do battle with Basha’s soldiers [who would harass them]. Asa dug the pit to supply water to his soldiers. So this pit, which was dug to aid Jews who were going up to the House of Hashem, due to the sins of the generation, was now used for the corpses of Jews who were going up to the House of Hashem.[9]      

    But if so, how can the Chida say that the initial digging of the pit was a bad thing?

    The Sefer Chasidim[10] clears up the mystery:

    A man should always pray that no misfortune would come through his actions. Take, for example, King Asa. He dug a pit at Ramah,[11] and [years later] Yishmael filled it with corpses, because Asa sinned by relying on Ben Hadad, King of Aram. Heaven “rolled down” the latter event [i.e., actuated it] through the former event, because megalgalin zechus al yedei zakai—good comes about through the agency of the worthy,and megalgalin chov al yedei chayav— bad comes about through the agency of the guilty.

    Asa was righteous, and he was fighting the good fight. He dug the pit to provide good water to his good soldiers, who were providing protection to the good Jews traveling to Yerushalayim. But he should have appealed to Hashem, and prayed for His direct intervention when he first went out to battle. Asa is faulted for turning to a non-Jewish king for help. Asa’s sin was the sin of supplanting trust in Hashem with trust in a foreign power. Ben Hadad’s campaign was victorious, and it culminated in the building of Mitzpah, and the digging of the pit. The pit was a good thing, but it was spiritually blemished, for it came by way of misplaced trust.

    This may be why, as the Radak points out, no mention is made of the pit in the narrative of the war in Melachim. At the time, the pit was a good thing; a welcome addition to the way station at Mitzpah. The hidden spiritual blemish only surfaced years later, when the tragedy of Gedaliah occurred.

    Midah Keneged Midah

    Asa’s sin of misplaced trust had disastrous ramifications:

    Abarbanel notes that II Chronicles ch. 14 speaks of a major war with Ethiopia in which the vastly outnumbered Asa prayed passionately for G-d’s help…and Asa’s army triumphed through an astounding miracle.

    The Sages expound that the split between the Kingdom of Judah and the Ten Tribes should have lasted for only thirty-six years, the number of years that Solomon was wrongly wed to the Egyptian princess. At the end of that period, the righteous Asa would have defeated King Baasa of Israel in the war described in this passage, and reunited all twelve tribes under the banner of the Davidic dynasty (Tosefta, Sotah, 12:1; Seder Olam). The miraculous victory over Ethiopia should have been enough to show Asa that he could rely on G-d’s help. Instead, when he was attacked by Baasa, Asa sought other, mortal means to defend his kingdom and lost the opportunity to heal the rift within Israel.[12]

    It seems that the disastrous ramifications of Gedaliah’s murder was also due to the sin of misplaced trust.

    • Apparently, Gedaliah rejected Yochanan’s report categorically. Even if he was not willing to suspect Yishmael, why was he not concerned about Ba’alis?
    • Whereas the Sefer Chasidim mentions the rule megalgalin, there is also a rule of midah keneged midah. If the tragedy of the pit in Gedaliah’s times was simply due to misplaced piety, what is the midah keneged midah here?

    Ba’alis was a minor king, and Nevuchadnetzar was the most terrifying autocrat on earth, who ruled the globe. Gedaliah could not believe that Baalis would try to harm him, a governor who has the protection of the mighty Nevuchadnetzar! This further reinforced Gedaliah’s belief that Yochanan’s report was preposterous.

    Asa was a tzaddik, who sinned—erred, on his madreigah—by enlisting Ben Hadad’s help. Years later, Mitzpah is the scene of bloodshed, and the pit is filled with corpses, because Gedaliah, also a righteous tzaddik, was guilty of the same sin—misplaced trust in a foreign king.

    Leader of the Generation

    Commonly, it is assumed that not only is Gedaliah faulted with the deaths of a small retinue of Jews at Mitzpah, he is also faulted with the deaths of the thousands of Jews who subsequently died when the “spark of Israel was extinguished.”

    But when we look once again at the historical narrative in the Navi, this is problematic.

    After Yishmael slew Gedaliah, Yochanan came on the scene and attacked. Yishmael escaped back to Amon, never to be heard from again, and Yochanan became the de facto leader of the Jewish remnant. He and the people feared that Nevuchadnetzar would would view Gedaliah’s murder as a Jewish revolt, and would now wipe everyone out. Yochanan wanted to take the people down to Mitzrayim. Before doing so, however, he went to Yirmiyahu Hanavi, who was alive all this time, and living in Mitzpah with Gedaliah. Yochanan asked Yirmiyahu to pray to Hashem, and to ask Hashem where they should go.

    Yirmiyahu’s nevuah was unequivocal—by no means should the people go down to Mitzrayim. If they did, the sword that they feared in Eretz Yisrael would follow them there, and they would be slaughtered, one and all.

    Yochanan turns to Yirmiyahu and accuses him of presenting a false prophecy. Yochanan reasons that Baruch ben Neiriyah was swaying the old prophet, because he, Baruch, had his own agenda; he wanted the people to stay in Israel so that he could become the leader. Yochanah rejects the navi’s words, and leads the people to Mitzrayim.

    It took several years, but Nevuchadnetzar, in a later campaign, marches on Mitzrayimn and slays all of the Jews, in the midst of the carnage that he brings there. The Gemara Yerushalmi informs us that Yochanan and his people have no portion in the World to Come.

    How can Gedaliah be faulted with the deaths of these thousands of Jews, the last remnant of the Jewish community in Eretz Yisrael, when it was Yochanan who directly caused their deaths?! Why is Gedaliah faulted for the actions of an evil man, who openly defied Hashem and led the people to slaughter?

    Yochanan’s decision to lead the people down to Mitzrayim was based on the calculation that the King of Egypt will be more accommodating than Nevuchadnetzar. It was, once again, a case of misplaced trust—Yochanan rejects the word of Hashem (!) and decides that he will be in a better position if he relies on the king of Mitzrayim and seeks asylum in his land.

    A tzaddik is faulted when his deficiency has a negative influence on the nation. When Yirmiyahu told Yochanan that Hashem said not to go, Yochanan replies using the very same words that Gedaliah used— “sheker attah doveir!”

    Never Again

    It is untrue that Gedaliah rejected Yochanan’s report because he was inappropriately concerned about lashon hara. He rejected it because it was implausible. He did not sin by rejecting the report.

    Nor was Gedaliah irresponsible. He was not wrong in his assessment of the situation, and was not required to view himself as if he, and his people, were in danger.

    What Gedaliah did wrong was to let his guard totally down. This was a sin because it indicated that not only did Gedaliah reject Yochnan’s report as implausible, he believed it to be preposterous, and did not need to take even minimal precautions. 

    Gedaliah’s error—his sin, on his madreigah—was harboring a sense of misplaced trust, instead of “harboring a suspicion.” He trusted that a fellow Jew would not fall victim to evil and depravity, and he trusted that he had the protection and support of Nevuchadnetzar.

    Gedalya’s error brought on the final hammer blow of the churban. In golus, a Jew’s sense of misplaced security heralds disaster. In golus, the bizarre can happen, and evil and depravity can wreak unbridled destruction. In golus, we have to know that we have no one to turn to, or to trust in, except Hashem.

    Will we, as well, be faulted, if we categorically reject frightening information that we need to hear?

    Very possibly—if our refusal to listen is because we view the reports as preposterous, due to a baseless sense of security that “these things cannot happen…”

    *   *   *

    In the wake of the Holocaust, the slogan “Never Again!” was heard all across the land. Many older Jews, who had a clear picture of what happened in Europe, were always quick to point out to their young American children and students, “Zei nit kein naaronim. It can happen again and again. In America, and anywhere else.”

    If, chas vesholom, it happens again, do we think it will be an exact rerun, with Brownshirts and Nazis? With yellow armbands? With ghettos and concentration camps?

    Police and government authorities, acting in the name of public health, can quickly turn America into a nightmare.

    • Medical care for the sick was completely in the hands of the authorities, who barred families from attending to their loved ones…
    • A therapy proven to work was withheld from being introduced to the public…
    • We have had our businesses shuttered…
    • We have seen our yeshivos and shuls and mikva’os closed….
    • We have had our communities locked down…
    • Curfews have been set in place, quarantines and isolation have been enforced…
    • Public health “checkpoints” have been emplaced, and travel has been restricted…

    Such protection can quickly turn into persecution. Many believe that it already has, with the majority of the community drawn in without realizing it. What is even more frightening is that the protection/persecution is global, as almost all of the world’s governments are following a similar public health protocol. 

    *   *   *

    The lesson of misplaced trust is well placed bein kesseh le’osor, after the kabolas Malchus of Rosh Hashanah.

    The lesson of Gedaliah’s story is also important as we enter into the Yom Hadin of 5780, leaving behind a frightening year, and facing an uncertain one. We have no shofar this year on the first day of Rosh Hashanah; this should give us pause when we consider the history of years past when the shofar was similarly missing.

    Is there enough evidence that we should feel ourselves to be in a state of danger? Every individual must gather his own information, and make his own assessments. But one thing is for certain: when concerned Jews present reports that offer theories along those lines, lemeichash miba’ei. To trust in the natural order of things, in America, in world governments, in human goodness—even in Jewish goodness—is itself a sin, and invites destruction. The dismissive cry of “conspiracy theory!” is the modern day equivalent of “sheker attah doveir!”

    In place of the shofar’s blast, let our hearts do the shofar’s job: let us cleanse our hearts of false security, and let our hearts cry out the clarion call—

    אין לנו להשען אלא על אבינו שבשמים!

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    [1] For simplicity’s sake, the term lashon hara is used in a general sense to include both lashon hara and rechilus.

    [2] Hilchos Rechilus, klal 6, seif 5. The Chofetz Chaim references two Gemaros that are the source for this halacaha: Pesachim 113b, and Kidushin, 66a. (This latter Gemara is discussed by the Maharik, which the Chafetz Chaim cites in Be’er Mayim Chaim, §12.)

    [3] See Maharsha. Rava gave forth his ruling after considering the story of Gedaliah; the Maharsha writes clearly that Rava’s ruling actually applied to Gedaliah’s story. 

    [4] Hilchos Issurei Lashon Hara, klal 6, §10.

    [5] See Rosh to Niddah, 61a. Lo sa’amod might also apply to a financial loss. For our purposes, and given the context of the incident of Gedaliah, we will discuss this Torah injunction as it applies to loss of life.

    [6] Hilchos Issurei Rechilus, klal 9, Be’er Matim Chayim, note 9.

    [7] The Chafetz Chaim notes that this was true even though the report was presented not only by an individual, Yochanan, but by a group; i.e., Yochanan together with his men.

    [8] If there was a safeik, a doubt, or a hint, of danger on a practical level, the rule of safeik pikuach nefesh docheh kol haTorah kulah would apply.

    [9] The Malbim is referring to another part of the narrative: The day after murdering Gedaliah, while the murder was still unknown, a group of 80 men came past Mitzpah. They were wearing sackcloth and ashes, and were on their way to bring a korbon at the site of the destroyed Beis Hamikdash. They were wailing and in mourning. Yishmael slew them as well. He wanted to spread the lie that it was Gedaliah who killed them because he does not allow anyone to mourn Jerusalem! Yishmael wanted to enrage the population, and turn them against Gedaliah, so that when it became known that Yishmael had killed Gedaliah, Yishmael would be a hero, and would be able to take over Gedaliah’s position. It was these corpses that Yishmael threw into the pit.

    [10] Siman 45.

    [11] It is unclear what the Sefer Chasidim means; the pit was dug at Mitzpah. Ramah refers to the fortress, or “high tower,” but is also a place name. The fortress might have been some way away from the city of Yerushalayim, with a command of the roads leading there. Possibly, Sefer Chasidim means that Asa dug the pit “at the time of the battle over Ramah.” 

    [12] Mesorah Publications’ Rubin Edition of The Prophets, comm.. to Melachim Aleph, ch. 15.


    [1] Lo sa’amod might also apply to a financial loss. For our purposes, and given the context of the incident of Gedaliah, we will discuss this Torah injunction as it applies to loss of life.

    [2] Hilchos Issurei Rechilus, klal 9, Be’er Matim Chayim, note 9.

    [3] The Chafetz Chaim notes that this was true even though the report was presented not only by an individual, Yochanan, but by a group; i.e., Yochanan together with his men.

    [4] Hilchos Issurei Lashon Hara, klal 6, §10.

    [5] The Malbim is referring to an explanation that he presented earlier in the narrative: The day after murdering Gedaliah, while the murder was still unknown, a group of 80 men came past Mitzpah. They were wearing sackcloth and ashes, and were on their way to bring a korbon at the site of the destroyed Beis Hamikdash. They were wailing and in mourning. Yishmael slew them as well. He wanted to spread the lie that it was Gedaliah who killed them because he does not allow anyone to mourn Jerusalem! Yishmael wanted to enrage the population, and turn them against Gedaliah, so that when it became known that Yishmael had killed Gedaliah, Yishmael would be a hero, and would be able to take over Gedaliah’s position. It was these corpses that Yishmael threw into the pit.

    [6] Siman 45

    [7] It is unclear what the Sefer Chasidim means; the pit was dug at Mitzpah. Ramah refers to the fortress, or “high tower,” but is also a place name. The fortress might have been some way away from the city of Yerushalayim, with a command of the roads leading there. Possibly, Sefer Chasidim means that Asa dug the pit “at the time of the battle over Ramah.” 

    [8] Mesorah Publications’ Rubin Edition of The Prophets, comm.. to Melachim Aleph, ch. 15.

    Rabbi Zev Epstein
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