Monday, February 17, 2020

Reviewing: “From David to Destruction: Mining Essential Lessons from Sefer Melachim,” by Rabbi Chaim Jachter. Nachum Krasnopolsky, editor. Kol Torah Publications, 2019.

Learning Tanach is a pleasure at any phase of life; gleaning the layered lessons of our great books and interpreting the struggles, challenges and decisions of our nevi’im and melachim seemingly becomes more relevant to our own lives as we age. However, if at the age of 16 or 17 I had had the opportunity to learn Tanach with Rabbi Chaim Jachter, his teachings would certainly have carried me through these many years.

In his acknowledgements, Rabbi Jachter writes that he subscribes to the notion that successful Torah learning must always include novel approaches and ideas, and that in giving Tanach shiurim he has the additional challenge of balancing the aim of being both faithful to the text (authentic) while also working toward being inspiring to students (to be beautiful and elevating). In addition to his other classes at Torah Academy of Bergen County, he has been teaching a course on Sefer Melachim to high school seniors since 2009 while also serving as the faculty adviser to the stellar TABC-based yet community-wide publication Kol Torah. He also is the av beit din of the Beth Din of Elizabeth, and who knows how he finds the time to write his excellent weekly column, “Sephardic Corner,” for The Jewish Link?

How fortunate we are to now have the opportunity to both learn Tanach as adults, with all our varied life experiences in hand, and also sit, albeit vicariously, in Rabbi Jachter’s class at TABC. The latter is primarily due to the efforts of one of Rabbi Jachter’s talmidim, Nachum Krasnopolsky, who spent his senior year’s spring internship working to complete a 521-page book comprising the lessons, lectures and classroom discussions on Rabbi Jachter’s teachings of Sefer Melachim.

While I expected a work of excellent scholarship on this topic from Rabbi Jachter, and indeed have had the opportunity of seeing him publish about a book each year since I’ve known him, I was unprepared for a work of this length, depth and at this level of excellence to have been essentially prepared for publication by a senior in high school. Krasnopolsky is certainly to be praised for his excellent editing, and I am certain this is the first of many wonderful publishing achievements we will see from this young man.

The book goes through Sefer Melachim chapter by chapter, combining both the main ideas of the perakim with various questions, material points, commentaries and problems that came up during classroom discourse. In addition to quoting Chazal’s explanations, it includes his students’ thoughts and interpretations, as Rabbi Jachter has done in previous books. This book goes the extra step of adding Rabbi Jachter’s own classroom thoughts and vignettes, often including modern examples of leadership choices and challenges similar to the ones faced by the protagonists of the sefer.

For example, in discussing Eliyahu HaNavi’s setting up a difficult crossing of the Jordan with his attendant and eventual successor Elisha, Rabbi Jachter notes that the IDF deliberately sets up its officer training courses to include crisis situations as a way to teach them to better handle their missions. “We contend that Eliyahu HaNavi does the same for Elisha. Elisha grows from his experience at the Yarden and it helps him emerge as Eliyahu HaNavi’s successor. The chapter concludes with Rabbi Jachter bringing it home with a comparison to our own lives: Similarly, Hashem sets us up with all sorts of challenges in life to provide us with opportunities for growth. There is no growth without struggle. Just as Eliyahu HaNavi sets up Elisha for success, so too does Hashem set us up for success in life.”

Most notably, the sefer does not ignore, and in fact brings to the forefront, many of the most difficult and disturbing questions presented in Melachim, which include contentious issues such as whether Shlomo HaMelech’s wives actually converted, and whether or not his actions in regard to his wives caused the destruction of Am Yisrael and the missed chance of Shlomo becoming the messianic ideal, though they acknowledged his pure intentions. It also delves into a myriad of other issues relevant to today’s Jewish community, including the prospects of trading land for peace, the burdens of leadership, unintended outcomes of certain alliances, religious reformations, idolatry, crises of faith, murder, divine punishment, modesty, rebellion, how to be open to receive life’s blessings and much more.

In addition to addressing these themes in broad strokes and some in more significant detail (the chapter on Eliyahu HaNavi and his model of tzniut is not to be missed), the sefer also addresses some difficult passages, such as why Nevat’s garment was torn into 12 pieces yet distributed to only 11 tribes, leaving out Shevet Binyamin. In their explanation, it is notable that the students also do not shy away from careful criticism of Biblical figures.

“Why is Shevet Binyamin not addressed in Achiyah’s nevuah?” TABC students incorporated Radak and Rabbi Nissan Alpert’s explanations of Yehudah and Binyamin being treated as one tribe and created their own explanation of events, positing that nevuah can be a flexible concept, as learned in the story of Yonah and his warning of the residents of Nineveh. His warning to them that did not come true did not make him a false prophet; rather, their repentance enabled the nullification of the nevuah. “We suggest that Achiyah HaShiloni implies to Yeravam ben Nevat that the 12th shevet is a ‘swing’ shevet. Shevet Binyamin, depending on Yaravam and Rechavam’s actions, has the potential to become part of either kingdom. Achiyah deliberately leaves the fate of the 12th shevet vague since its fate is yet to be determined. In the end, Yeravam’s poor decision to introduce reforms to Torat Yisrael, and Rechavam’s righteous adherence to the navi Shemayah’s instruction to refrain from entering a civil war with Yaravam, causes Shevet Binyamin to become part of the southern kingdom” (Melachim I 29-39). This is but one example of TABC students putting forth their own conclusions based on their reading of the sources, Chazal and other materials.

Two other highlights: A particularly instructive chapter goes into detail about some of our current observances, such as the recital of “Hashem hu HaElokim” during the Yom Kippur service, and its roots from Melachim I 18:36 and the concept of tikkun, a later generation’s ability to correct the mistakes of an earlier one. Second, a deeper view of the life of Shlomo HaMelech underscores the complexities of faith even by someone classified as a great tzaddik, noting that it is Shlomo himself who teaches that “there is not one righteous man on earth who does what is best and does not err” (Kohelet 7:20). Conversely, the sefer also uses the example of Achav to teach that someone classified as a rasha (evil-doer) can also accomplish some measure of good in the world (Melachim I 21-23).

“From David to Destruction” is available on Amazon and in local bookstores. https://www.amazon.com/David-Destruction-Essential-Lessons-Melachim/dp/1086413911