The small kingdom of Judah had just been through a major upheaval. It all basically began in the era of King Menashe (Manasseh), whose reign began in 533 BCE. During his rule, which spanned over half a century, Menashe succeeded in reversing all of the spiritual good his father, Chizkiyahu (Hezekiah), had introduced, leading the entire state into the depths of corruption and evil.

Menashe’s son, Amon, was no improvement, and after Menashe’s death, Amon continued in his father's sinful path. Amon’s reign came to an abrupt end when he was assassinated by his own ministers. The heir to the throne was the eight-year-old son of Amon, Yoshiyahu (Josiah). Despite his young age, Yoshiyahu was nevertheless officially crowned as king of Judea.

Unlike his father and grandfather, Yoshiyahu turned out to be a righteous and pious man. A turning point in his reign was the time when a great discovery was made in the Temple. The background to this discovery was as follows:

Achaz, Yoshiyahu’s great-great-grandfather, had also been an exceedingly wicked individual. In his zeal to eradicate the Torah way of life from his kingdom, Achaz had ceremonially burned a Torah scroll.1 The kohanim who managed the Temple feared that he would get his hands on the original Torah scroll written by Moses and kept in the Holy of Holies, the innermost part of the sanctuary, by (or inside) the Ark. As a precaution, they took this Torah and hid it inside the stone walls of the Temple. After Achaz died, the kohanim sought to disinter the Torah, but could not locate it.

After ascending the throne, Yoshiyahu instructed that extensive renovations be conducted on the Temple. In the course of the renovation work, the sacred Torah scroll was discovered by Chilkiyahu (Hilkiah), the high priest. Chilkiyahu related the news to Shaphan, the king’s scribe who had been commissioned by the king to oversee the renovation work. Shaphan took the scroll and opened it before the king.

Our sages tell us that usually the Torah that Moses wrote was rolled to the beginning. Here, however, the Torah was mysteriously rolled almost to the very end, to the potion of Ki Tavo, where Moses enumerates the frightful horrors which will befall the Jewish people if the Torah is not kept. In fact, the top of the column to which the Torah scroll opened began with with the verse “G‑d will lead you and the king whom you will set up over yourself to a nation you never knew…”2

Yoshiyahu took this as a direct Divine message. He was so deeply shaken that he tore his garments. He immediately dispatched Shaphan, Chilkiyahu and other delegates to seek a prophet and ask if he and his people indeed had to worry about Divine retribution. The delegation approached the prophetess Chuldah, and she indeed confirmed the king’s concerns. The fulfillment of the terrible curses predicted by Moses was looming upon the Jewish state. The lifestyle that Menashe and Amon had introduced to the land still persisted, and its consequences of this were now on the horizon.

Covenant and Cleanup

The haftarah begins when, upon receiving word of Chuldah’s response, the king called for a national gathering in the Temple. Everyone from old to young was to be present. The king ascended a platform and made a solemn covenant with the people that from that moment and on they would commit to living in accordance with all the commandments of the Torah.

The verses describe at length how Yoshiyahu spearheaded a major cleanup campaign of all the spiritual filth his predecessors had brought into the Temple and the rest of the land. The haftarah includes just some of this lengthy description, which allows us a glimpse of just how much the state was saturated with everything alien to G‑d and Judaism.

Within the precincts of the Temple itself there were many artifacts and images for the Baal and Asherah deities. There were lodgings for prostitutes who were part and parcel of the worship of these gods (particularly Asherah). Many pagan priests were active throughout the kingdom, available for offering tribute to any of the celestial spirits.

Yoshiyahu made it crystal clear that all these and everything related to them were going to be thrown out for good. All the idolatrous artifacts were burned outside Jerusalem and their ashes transported to Beit El (the place where Jeroboam, the first king of Israel, constructed his national place of idol worship). The Asherah itself was burned and crushed, its dust spread over the graves of those who worshipped it in their lifetime. Thus went the extensive campaign of ridicule, belittlement and obliteration of all aspects and artifacts of the pagan culture in which the land was so steeped.

The unfortunate reality was that many of the kohanim, the descendants of Aaron, had taken roles as pagan priests. Now, many of these men took part in the return to G‑d led by the king. These former idol-worshippers were now to re-enter the Temple of G‑d, but not in full status: they were permitted to eat of sacrificial foods, but were not readmitted to the Temple service itself.

The Great Passover

The time was just before the Passover holiday. After the land had been entirely purified, the king sent word to the entire kingdom, initiating the greatest national Passover celebration in centuries.

The verse tells that “such a Passover sacrifice had not been performed since the time of the judges who judged Israel, and all the days of the kings of Israel and the kings of Judah.” The unique nature of this Passover celebration is described by the commentaries in a number of ways:

  1. This was the first time that every vestige of alien sacrifice had been eradicated from the land. Not only idol worship, but all bamot (private and public altars outside of the Temple) had been suppressed. In general, the Torah was never in favor of bamot; there were brief periods when they were permitted, but once the Temple was built, all bamot were forever forbidden by Torah law. One simple reason for this was that with sacrifices to the gods and spirits so prevalent, bamot could be easily misused in a way that would entirely counter G‑dly worship. This indeed was the case in all too many instances. This was the first occasion that no bamot were to be found in the entire country, as Yoshiyahu had literally destroyed every last one.3
  2. The verse states that this had never occurred since “the time of the judges who judged Israel.” This specifically refers to the prophet Samuel, whose time demarcated the end of the period of the judges and the beginning of the kings (Samuel appointed the first king of Israel, Saul). The last time a collective national teshuvah movement had occurred was indeed in the days of Samuel; then too, the Jews rid themselves of all forms of idol worship and re-committed themselves to G‑d.4
  3. The sad reality was that for the preceding three centuries, only a minority of the Jewish people celebrated Passover in the proper manner. When the kingdom split into the states of “Israel” (ten tribes) and “Judah” (two tribes), the kings of Israel made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem illegal. The time of Yoshiyahu was about a century after the exile and dissolution of the kingdom of Israel, and the Talmud5 tells us that right around this time the prophet Jeremiah ventured out to return some of the exiled members of the ten tribes and bring them back to Judea. This was, in essence, the first time since the secession that the Jewish people as a whole were able to celebrate Passover together.6

The haftarah concludes with a verse attesting that no king before or after Yoshiyahu ever returned to G‑d in such a magnificent way, “with all his heart, with all his soul and with all his might.”