Parashat Vayehi: The Fall of the Hashmonaim
We read in Parashat Vayehi of Yaakob’s blessings to his sons just before his passing. In his blessing to Yehuda, he declares, “Yo Lasur Shebet Mi’Yehuda” – “The scepter shall not depart from Yehuda.” The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe Nahmanides, Spain, 1194-1270) explains this verse as establishing that the monarchy should remain exclusively in the tribe of Yehuda; members of other tribes should not assume the role of king of Israel, as this role is destined to be served by the tribe of Yehuda.
The Ramban adds that this is the reason why the legendary family of the Hashmonaim, the leaders of the revolt against the Greeks, disappeared. The Hashmonaim were righteous people who courageously resisted the religious persecution of the Greeks and, with pure faith in God, waged an unlikely war and earned God’s miraculous salvation. Yet, just several generations later, there was not a single survivor left from that family. In fact, the Talmud remarks that if anyone claims Hasmonean ancestry, he is not to be believed, because the family was entirely destroyed. The reason for this fate, the Ramban suggests, is because after ousting the Greeks, the Hashmonaim – a family of Kohanim, who descended from the tribe of Levi – served as kings. During the period of Hasmonean rule, the Kohen Gadol was also the Jewish monarch. The Hashmonaim thus violated Yaakob’s proclamation of “Lo Yasur Shebet Mi’Yehuda,” that the position of kingship should forever remain within the tribe of Yehuda, and for this they were punished.
Two important lessons emerge from the Ramban’s comments. Firstly, we see the importance of recognizing and accepting the notion of different roles assigned to different groups. When we look over Yaakob’s blessings to his sons, we see that he assigns different roles to different tribes – Yehuda was destined for royalty, Yissachar produced scholars, Zevulun were the businessmen, and so on. Jewish life can be compared to an orchestra, which consists of musicians playing very different instruments, that blend together to create a beautiful sound. If one musician tries to do somebody else’s job, the result is cacophony. The different instruments blend together in a perfect, harmonious melody only if each musician knows his role and does it well. Another example might be a football team. If everybody on the team wants to be the quarterback or running back, obviously the team won’t be able to play the game. The same is true of the Jewish people. We must each recognize the role we need to play, and not to try to do somebody else’s job. In fact, Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky (1891-1986) writes that this is precisely the reason why Yaakob delivered all these blessings publicly, in front of all the sons, rather than give each blessing to each son privately. It was important not only for each son to hear his assigned role, but also for all the sons to hear the roles assigned to the others, to ensure that nobody would encroach upon another tribe’s domain. In order for the nation to function properly and fulfill its role, we must all identify our individual roles and fulfill them to the best of our ability, without trying to usurp the roles of others. The Hashmonaim were eliminated because they encroached upon the territory of Yehuda, extending beyond their role as Kohanim and usurping the kingship.
Secondly, the downfall of the Hashmonaim teaches us that “the ends do not justify the means.” The Hashmonaiim assumed the monarchy not for selfish reasons, but in order to help the country. They felt that in order to rebuild Torah after the period of Greek persecution, it was important that specifically they, the spiritual leaders, should serve as kings and provide the leadership that was needed. And this was their mistake. We do not violate the Torah in order to achieve an important goal. If somebody earns lots of money by deceiving people and then uses that money to build a large yeshiva, the yeshiva must be closed down; it has no validity. Judaism teaches us to pursue noble goals through noble means; lofty intent does not justify illicit behavior. We learn from the mistake of the Hashmonanim to ensure the purity and legitimacy of both the ends and the means, that we endeavor to pursue ambitious spiritual goals only with the appropriate spiritual means.