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Kings for today

Rabbi Chaim Jachter of Teaneck explores the Book of Kings

“One who quotes a teaching in the name of he who said it brings redemption to the world,” the Talmud famously says.

But the fact that someone who is familiar with the saying still needed Google to attribute it correctly to Rabbi Elazar speaking in the name of Rabbi Hananya indicates that in this unredeemed world, acknowledging where we get our ideas is more honored in the breach than in reality.

Which is why it was so notable that when Rabbi Chaim Jachter of Teaneck talks about his new book on the biblical Book of Kings, “From David to Destruction: Mining Essential Lessons from Sefer Melachim,” he repeatedly attributed ideas and insights to students he taught at the Torah Academy of Bergen Count.

This reflects his goal in the classroom: “We invest enormous efforts to think deeply and achieve breakthrough insights,” Rabbi Jachter said. “A lot of good ideas come up.”

And it reflects the nature of Rabbi Jachter’s book, which explores the issues raised by the Book of Kings by quoting both 2,000 years of rabbinic commentary and nine years of TABC students.

The questions raised by the Book of Kings are important, Rabbi Jachter said, since “as an Orthodox Jew, I view it as a divine document. It’s a book that’s eternally relevant.” And as an ongoing student of the book, he has found that “its relevance for us as a community and individuals is stunning.”

The Book of Kings starts with the final days of King David. It ends with the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. In between, it has highs and lows — both in the moral character of the kings (thumbs up for Hezekiah, thumbs down for Ahab) and the excitement of the narrative, which ranges from the miracle stories of Elijah and Elisha to entire decades and dynasties covered in short, boring sentences.

“It can be the most boring book ever, but it can be the most dramatic,” Rabbi Jachter said. In his own book, “we try to bring this to the reader, to join us in the deep drama of Sefer Melachim” — the Book of Kings — “and to emerge from each chapter hopefully a little bit improved in our lives as individuals and as a community.”

When it comes to the moral judgment, Rabbi Jachter credits his approach to a comment from Shai Berman of Teaneck, a student back in 2009. In discussing Ahab that year, “I presented the good things and the bad things about Ahab,” Rabbi Jachter said. “I wanted to show that there are positive things about him too. Shai asked, ‘How come both the Tanach and the Mishnah come down so hard on him? Why was I whitewashing him?’ Shai felt my balanced portrayal of Ahab was almost a betrayal of the way we’re supposed to look at him.

“He propelled me to rethink it. What I say now is that Ahab was still considered to be an evil figure despite that good that he did. Which is a sobering lesson: Someone can be branded as an evildoer at the end of the day even though he did some good things.”

So what’s the message of the Book of Kings? Pressed to provide five main lessons, Rabbi Jachter offered the following:

1. You have to be open to criticism. “The successful kings are the ones who were open to criticism,” Rabbi Jachter said.

2. We need flexibility and agility. “What works for one generation does not necessarily work for the next,” Rabbi Jachter said. “You can’t just keep on running the same plays as the previous generations. You have to be nimble. Even a king in the middle of his reign has to be nimble.”

3. We shouldn’t be too ambitions. “One has to always want to advance, but within reason,” he said.

4. To be successful and thriving Jews, we have to adjust with the times but not compromise with them. “Speaking as an Orthodox rabbi, we face challenges from all sorts of cultures, but assimilating into that culture is never the answer. Assimilating into a foreign culture is self-destructive.

5. Be a servant leader. “All of us are leaders at some point. It has to be about service. If it’s about servings ourselves and not others, it’s not going to succeed,” Rabbi Jachter said.

That’s the big picture. But the big picture is drawn from looking closely at the text.

One of the explorations that Rabbi Jachter is most proud of if of the stories of the prophets Elijah and Elisha.

“There’s a whole collection of miracles,” Rabbi Jachter said. “As you read each story, you have to wonder: What do you need each miracle for? As I cannot emphasize enough, everything in Tanach is a lesson for each generation. Each time we encounter a story in Tanach at TABC, we ask what’s in it for us.”

So in the book, as in the classroom, Rabbi Jachter tried to explain the point of each individual miracle story, as well as the whole series. “What really strikes me in some of the miracle stories is the poverty Elijah and his students lived in. Elijah could have made miracles to relieve their poverty. I think he chose to live in poverty because he wanted to make it absolutely clear that prophecy and authentic spiritual leadership isn’t self-serving. It’s about serving others.”

And in the one case where Elisha uses his magic to make money — where he enchants a jar of oil so it never empties, on behalf of the widow of one of his disciples, whose children are about to be enslaved by her creditors — Rabbi Jachter sees a lesson in the details.

“She had to generate the miracle,” he said. “She had to bring the empty jars that would be filled by the oil. When she ran out of the empty jars that she brought, the little jar ceased pouring oil.”

The lesson: “In order to to initiate an action from Hashem, you have to do your part to trigger the divine response. God prefers to react rather than to act. She has to provide the empty jars because she has to show that she’s ready to accept a miracle. Not everybody is ready to accept a blessing.”

For all that the Book of Kings is two and a half millennia old, Rabbi Jachter is glad that has classrooms have smartboards, enabling him to show his students videos of some of the archaeological finds from the book’s era, such as the Jerusalem wall and water tunnel built during the reign of King Hezekiah of Judea.

“Kings has more archeology than any other book in the Bible,” Rabbi Jachter said. “Hezekiah is somebody who is very real, very dramatic for us. When we learn about the Assyrian siege” — which threatened Jerusalem during his reign and then, according to Kings, miraculously ended — “we can feel it.

“This summer, archaeologists discovered a watchtower from Hezekiah’s time. It’s just so exciting how many artifacts he has. Hezekiah leads the league ahead of all the other biblical characters in terms of artifacts.

“I have a chapter where I try to figure out why that it is. It could be that when you come back in a hundred years or even five years, we’ll have found a ton more from other characters. It’s not the most stable determination. But my own intuition is that this was God’s reward to him for destroying a precious artifact.”

That’s the metal serpent that Moses had created to cure the Israelites in the desert from a plague of snakes. The Book of Kings reports that Hezekiah, as part of his destruction of idolatrous worship, “broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it.”

Rabbi Jachter suggests: “Because he destroyed a precious artifact for the right reason, many of his artifacts have been preserved as Hashem’s rewarding him.”

So what’s Rabbi Jachter’s take on the most troubling stories in Kings? That’s when children insulted the prophet Elisha by calling him Baldie, to which the prophet of God responds by cursing the kids, after which bears come and kill 42 children.

Rabbi Jachter attributes his favorite explanation of this passage to his son Binyamin.

“Elisha was in emotionally overwrought state when he reacted that way, and for the rest of his life he went to the other extreme,” Rabbi Jachter said in the name of his son. “He had just lost his mentor, was distraught, and had all these new leadership responsibilities, and he overreacted.

“We see later in the rest of the book he goes to the other extreme to avoid violence at almost any cost. For example, when he captures Aramean soldiers, he feeds them and releases them.”

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