Gedaliah’s story, which we commemorate each year on Tzom Gedaliah (the Fast of Gedaliah - 3 Tishrei), is one of suddenness and finality. His rise to prominence was rapid and unexpected. So were his brief, fifty-two day reign and untimely death, which put the finishing, tragic touches on our first exile from Eretz Yisroel.
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In his numerous conquests which culminated with the destruction of the First Temple (423 BCE), the Babylonian king Nevuchadnezzar never intended to fully destroy the southern territory of Judea. His goal in exiling the Jewish kings and large segments of the populace was primarily to avert any further attempts at rebellion against his throne.
In the months following the Temple's destruction, the sting of the Jews’ defiance was still fresh in the mind of the Babylonian monarch. Nevuchadnezzar set out to identify a loyal Jew who would oversee the affairs of the small, remaining Jewish community. The man that he selected as governor was Gedaliah son of Achikam.
Gedaliah’s appointment brought a glimmer of hope to those Jews who had been left behind. Others who had fled to neighboring areas during the war saw in his promotion an opportunity to resettle once again in their land.
Gedaliah belonged to a prominent Judean family. His father, Achikam, had been one of King Josaiah’s righteous aides, and a disciple of Jeremiah. His grandfather, Shafan, was instrumental in leading the Jewish people towards repentance, also during the reign of Josiah. Gedaliah himself was an earnest and righteous man. He resided in the town of Mitzpah, which was located directly to the north of Jerusalem, in the territory of Benjamin.
The people of Judea who were left behind included army officers who had escaped capture and deportation by the Babylonians. They came to Mitzpah in an attempt to start over. Gedaliah encouraged these Jews to build new lives for themselves in their homeland. The people reaped abundant crops and enjoyed the political protection that he provided. Things appeared to be on the rise for this small but stabilizing Jewish community.
Sadly, not everyone was pleased with Gedaliah’s appointment. Yishmael ben Nesaniah (from the royal Davidic family), conspired with the Ammonite King Baalis against Gedaliah. Yishmael, viewed himself as the rightful recipient of the position. Baalis wanted to extend his control over the area, and saw in Yishmael someone who would help to carry out his scheming designs. Together, they regarded the appointment of Gedaliah as an obstruction to their individual goals.
A number of people in Gedaliah’s camp received information of Yishmael’s plans and relayed that information to the governor. In his tremendous innocence, Gedaliah refused to believe that anyone would attempt to carry out such a treacherous plot. He even went so far as to invite Yishamel and his accomplices to his home. His trust, however, was misplaced, and on the following Rosh Hashana he was assassinated.
The men who survived the killing fled to Egypt, fearing Babylonian reprisals for yet another act of Jewish insurgence.
Gedaliah’s death at the hands of Yishmael ben Nesaniah changed everything. With one act, the Jews lost any hope of an immediate revival in their homeland. Many even fled the country out of fear. They also lost the slight extent of autonomy that they had enjoyed under Gedaliah’s reign. The Babylonians, out of obvious distrust, did not appoint any other Jewish personality to a position of leadership and power.
Gedaliah’s death is observed as a fast day on the day after Rosh Hashana, 3 Tishrei. It has taken on a broader sense of communal tragedy, as it provided closure to the destruction and exile. The precious little autonomy that these Jews possessed was now gone. There were no political leaders to govern over them, nor prophets to guide them. Gentile nations were beginning to encroach onto Jewish territory. The future for these Jews looked bleak. Who would protect them? What was going to prevent the Jews of the former southern kingdom from following in the assimilatory ways of their northern brethren?
We know very little of the Jews’ fate in the land of Israel after Gedaliah’s murder. To be sure, the community, if it existed at all, was small and largely disorganized. Perhaps some remained in the land and would later join up with their returning brethren under the leadership of Zerubavel. Conceivably, their numerical and spiritual weakness led them to abandon the land, or to assimilate within the neighboring nations. One thing is certain. Whatever potential of rebirth had existed within this community was stolen from it with an irrevocable swiftness.
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What is perhaps most sad about the entire episode was the fact that it could have easily been avoided, had Gedaliah better appreciated his role as leader. The Talmud (Niddah 61a) presents the issue as follows:
“Now the pit where Yishmael cast all the dead bodies of the men whom he had slain by the hand of Gedaliah…” (Yirmiyahu 41:9) But did Gedaliah kill them? Did not Yishmael kill them? Gedaliah should have taken note of the advice of Yochanan the son of Kareach and did not do so, therefore, scripture regards him as though he had killed them.
In what appears at first as a clerical error, the verse attributes the deaths of those murdered by Yishmael to Gedaliah. Our sages understood this peculiar attribution as a harsh criticism of Gedaliah. Despite his personal righteousness and positive contributions to the Jewish community, he was blamed for additional Jewish deaths and suffering by virtue of his deliberate inaction against those who had plotted against him.
Though his intentions were certainly most noble – he judged another, even a bitter enemy, favorably – Gedaliah was punished for not being more vigilant regarding his life, as well as with the lives of those under his charge. It was precisely this falsely placed saintliness that became his undoing, as well as that of the entire Jewish community.
At times an action in itself may seem worthy of performance, but because its results are evil, one is obligated to abandon it, and if he does not, he will be judged as a sinner rather than a saint. The episode of Gedaliah ben Achikam provides us with a clear illustration of this fact. Because of his abundant saintliness, which would not permit him to judge Yishmael adversely, or which would not permit him to receive slander, he said to Yochanan ben Kareach, “You are speaking falsely of Yishmael.” What was the result? He died, the Jews were scattered, and their last hope was extinguished. And scripture attributes to him the death of those men who were killed, as if he was the murderer. (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, Path of the Just, Chapter 20)
The story of Gedaliah is tragic on many levels. First, it highlights our struggle to live at peace with one another and forego personal aspirations, even at a time of great turbulence. It also focuses us on the final step of the destruction of the First Temple , a particularly tragic chapter in our nation's history.
Lastly, is underscores the potential damage which could occur following failures in the realm of Jewish leadership. Surely, it is necessary to be forgiving and self-effacing on a personal level, so as to ensure that one never even approach a level of moral decadence (a lesson often lost on the political leaders of today). However, when the community’s needs are at stake, it is imperative for a leader to put aside personal motivations and focus exclusively on the community’s needs. Gedaliah’s inability to see the big picture spelled doom for the fledgling Jewish community of Judea.