Two Types of Commitment: Between the Mass Teshuva Movements of Yoshiyahu and Nechemia

Yesterday afternoon I was honored to read the Haftarah, which records the massive teshuvah movement spearheaded by the heroic young king Yoshiyahu, culminating in a Pesach sacrifice unprecedented "since the days of the Judges" (II Melakhim 23:22). Having recently written studied Shivat Tzion, the Second Temple biblical period, I immediately began thinking of the striking similarities between Yoshiyahu's story with the stunning events of Nechemia Chapter 8, in which the Jews discover "the Torah of Moses" (Nechemia 8:1) and rededicate themselves to observing the Torah's commandments. After celebrating Rosh Hashanah and approaching the holiday of Sukkot, they celebrate the holiday in a manner that they had not done "from the days of Joshua son of Nun to that day" (8:17).

The similarities are varied and unmistakable. Yoshiyahu and Ezra/Nechemia are the leaders of a sinful Israeli populace who have rediscovered the Torah and read its words in public. Marking their renewed commitment, each community celebrates a major Jewish holiday, one Pesach and the other Sukkot, and performs the associated ritual observance in close proximity to the Temple. More broadly, each episode represents a stunning turn of events at a time that the people's level of observance had reached a nadir. And both holidays, as noted, are nostalgically described as not having been observed in such grand fashion since the bygone time of a majestic moment in biblical history.

Yet hidden in plain sight are a few major differences. For instance, where the story in Melakhim may be described as top-down - the king and his advisors discover the Torah and have it expounded before the nation - that of Nechemia is bottom-up, in that the people unearth the Torah for themselves. This difference accounts for the wider impact of each event: whereas the initiative of Yoshiyahu begins with a bang but sputters rather quickly (the verse immediately following the Haftarah records that "the Lord did not turn away from His awesome wrath which had blazed up against Judah"), that of Nechemia seems to have enjoyed a longer-lasting impact.

But there is another key distinction: Yoshiyahu celebrates Pesach, Nechemia Sukkot. While we might just chalk this up to a coincidence of timing, the verses underscore another, larger divergence: Melakhim constantly emphasizes that the Jews have embraced the "Torat Ha-brit," the covenant, whereas Nechemia emphasizes the Torah of God ("Torat Elokim") and that of Moses ("Torat Moshe").

To account for these latter distinctions, we must differentiate between two fundamental categories of religious commitment: belief and behavior. The dichotomy is a simple one: the former is a matter of faith, the latter our willingness to see through the implications of those beliefs and act upon them. It is the difference between the first section of Shema, in which we accept the yoke of heaven, and the second, in which we embrace that of the commandments (see Mishnah Berakhot 13a). While there is, ideally, a complex, rich set of interactions between the two, they remain discrete, and reflect two different stages in the process of religious commitment.

This basic difference is reflected in countless contexts: The Ten Commandments begin with faith ("I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt") and move to practice; Rambam's halakhic magnum opus Mishneh Torah and Sefer Hamitzvot (enumeration of the commandments) open with faith and then come to concrete behaviors; and to some degree, this is the underlying distinction between the realms of agada (Jewish lore) and halakha (Jewish law) (see Sifri Devarim 49).

What is true of individual worship is true on the national plane. Picking up on a verse in Nechemia (9:4), the Talmud (Yoma 69b) teaches that the evil inclination for idolatry ceased to exist following the destruction of the Second Temple. This difference is manifest in our biblical episodes as well. The bulk of Yoshiyahu's activity centers on eliminating the pagan cultic worship, culminating with the Pesach. By contrast, Ezra and Nechemia focus their reform efforts on holidays, tithes, intermarriage, Temple donations and other concerns that were pertinent during their time period. This push includes the celebration of Sukkot. Yoshiyahu's generation, still under the spell of pagan worship, continued to struggle with matters of faith. That of Nechemia believed in God and had no inclination toward paganism, but fell woefully short in their education and observance. What they had in faith they lacked in commitment.

Given the discrepancy between the religious difficulties confronting each generation, the dichotomy of Pesach versus Sukkot emerges with clarity. Pesach is the sacrifice of the covenant; one who fails to offer the sacrifice is not considered a full partner in God's compact with the Jewish people. The fundamental question facing the Jewish people during Passover was not that of action but of faith: would they remain enslaved not only the Egyptian people but also to their gods, or might they embrace monotheism and become the nation of God? The Pesach, in which the Jews sacrificed a pagan deity in exchange an embrace of God, is emblematic of the faith commitment.

Sukkot, by contrast, is the holiday of the people of God. By the time they traveled in the desert the Jews, however begrudgingly and imperfectly, had committed themselves to ethical monotheism. Sukkot, then, represents the our belief that God is of immediate relevance to our everyday lives - He will provide for us, and we will in turn observe His commandments.

This two-stage process manifested itself not only at the time of the historical events of Pesach and Sukkot and again during the eras of Yoshiyahu and Nechemia. That we continue to read the story of Yoshiyahu on Pesach implies that the twin themes of faith and practice remain as relevant today as ever before.