The parshah of Masei always occurs at the heart of the Three Weeks. This is the time when we engage in an act of collective recall of our two greatest defeats as a nation. The symbol of the nation was the Temple in Jerusalem. So the symbol of the nation’s defeat was the destruction of the Temple. It happened twice, once in the sixth century BCE, the second time in the first century of the common era. In both cases it happened because of poor leadership.
The first defeat was set in motion some three centuries before it happened by a disastrous decision on the part of king Solomon’s son Rehoboam. The people were restless during the latter part of Solomon’s reign. They felt he had placed too heavy a burden on the people, particularly during the building of the Temple. When he died they came to his son and successor and asked him to lighten the load. His father’s counselors told him to accede to their request. They gave him one of the finest pieces of advice ever given to a leader. If you serve the people they will serve you (1 Kings 12:7). Rehoboam did not listen. The kingdom split. Defeat of both halves – the northern and southern kingdoms – was inevitable and only a matter of time. As Abraham Lincoln said: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
The second defeat in the days of the Romans was the result of a complete collapse of leadership during the late Second Temple period. The Hasmonean kings, having defeated Hellenism, then succumbed to it. The priesthood became politicized and corrupt. Maimonides wrote, in his Letter to the Sages of Marseilles, that the Second Temple fell because Jews had not learned military strategy and the laws of conquest. The Talmud says it fell because of gratuitous hatred. Josephus tells us it fell because of conflicts within the forces defending Jerusalem. All three explanations are true and part of the same phenomenon. When there is no effective leadership, divisions open up within the group. There is internal conflict, energy is wasted, and no coherent strategy emerges. Again defeat becomes inevitable.
In Judaism, leadership is not a luxury but a necessity. Ours is a small and intensely vulnerable people. Inspired, we rise to greatness. Uninspired, we fall.
But there is, oddly enough, a deeply positive message about the three weeks. For the fact is that the Jewish people survived those defeats. They did not merely survive. They recovered and grew stronger. They became in the most positive sense a nation of survivors. Who gave them that strength and courage?
The answer is: three leaders whose names are indelibly associated with the three weeks: Moses, whose message to the generations at the beginning of Devarim is always read on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, Isaiah whose vision gives that day its name as Shabbat Chazon, and Jeremiah, the prophet who foresaw the destruction and whose words form the haftarot for two of the Three Weeks.
What made these men great leaders? They were all critical of their contemporaries – but then, so are most people. It takes no skill to be a critic. All three predicted doom. But Jeremiah himself pointed out that predicting doom is a no-risk option. If bad things happen, you are proved right. If they don’t – well, clearly God decided to have compassion. (See Jeremiah 28; Maimonides, Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 10: 4.)
So what made Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah different? What made them great leaders? Specifically, what made them leaders in hard times, and thus leaders for all time? Three things set them apart.