Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Room for Innovation

The Gemara in Chullin (6b-7a) discusses King Chizkiyahu's praiseworthy actions in destroying the copper serpent that Moshe had made (in last week's parashah) because it had been worshipped as an idol. Asks the Gemara, how could Chizkiyahu have done that? The righteous kings Assa and Yehoshafat destroyed countless idols but did not destroy the serpent. Clearly, they felt that there was no need to destroy it. So how could Chizkiyahu contradict their conclusions and destroy it?

The Gemara answers that Chizkiyahu's predecessorshad left him an opportunity in which to assert himself. Rashi implies that they had done this intentionally, saying that if they don't leave him something like this then how will he become great? This is a very difficult approach. Commentators struggle with how these righteous kings could have neglected the obligation to destroy an idol in order to leave open the opportunity for a descendant.

Perhaps Rashi can be explained based on Radak's explanation (commentary to 2 Kings 18:4) of why Chizkiyahu destroyed the serpent. Radak explains that it wasn't until the generation prior to Chizkiyahu that people started to worship Moshe's serpent as an idol. This was not intended to contradict the Gemara because Radak quotes it in the flow of his comments. I would suggest that Radak understood the Gemara as asking why Assa and Yehoshafat did not see the potential danger in the serpent and therefore destroy it along with the idols. Rather, Chizkiyahu destroyed it once it became an actual idol. With this, Rashi's explanation of the answer is that they did see the potential change in circumstances but left it up to the leader of the future generation to rise to the occasion and solve the problem. That is the charge of each generation's leaders -- to become great by addressing the issues of the day.

(And perhaps Rebbe, in the other case in the Gemara, saw a change in circumstances -- the additional evidence of R. Meir -- and rose to the occasion and made a radical ruling based on it.)

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