It was the 9th of Iyar, in the year 2870, and the Nation of Israel was preparing for war. The Pelishtim (Philistines) had been amassing their armies for an attack, and the Jews were preparing to launch a preemptive strike on their encampment. Although the Pelishtim’s previous hold over Israel had been broken by the great Shimshon (Samson), they had been steadily regaining their strength and now again posed an existential threat to Israel. Under the direction of the prophet Shemuel, the Israelite army marched out to face their enemies.

But victory was not forthcoming. On the first day of battle, the Pelishtim successfully repelled the Jewish attack, killing around 4,000 soldiers in the process.[1]Dismayed, the Jewish army retreated to camp to assess the situation, to determine what had caused this almost unprecedented defeat.[2]They cried out to Hashem and examined their deeds, suspecting that they were perhaps unworthy of Hashem’s salvation. After much introspection and discussion, the elders of the nation came up with a drastic plan of action. An unprecedented defeat warranted an unprecedented response, and the decision was made, for the first time since the conquest of the land, to bring the Aron Haberit (Ark of the Covenant) out to battle. This was the “doomsday weapon” of the Jews, bringing the invincible power of the Master of the Universe to fight for their cause.

The Sanctuary at Shilo

The center of Jewish life at the time, the focal point of the service of Hashem, was the town of Shilo, in the land of Binyamin. It was there that Yehoshua, along with the rest of the nation, had established a Mishkan (temporary sanctuary) at the beginning of the settlement of the land.[3]This site featured a unique manifestation of Hashem’s presence, in that the walls were permanent, made of stone, as they were in the Bet Hamikdash (Temple in Jerusalem), while the roof was made from the yeriot (tapestries) which had comprised the roof of the Tabernacle built by Moshe in the desert. This duality reflected the nature of the relationship between the Jews and Hashem during that era. “In those days there was no king in Israel, each man did as was right in his eyes.”[4]This does not mean, as it may seem to the casual reader, that the nation was in a state of anarchy. To the contrary, the nation was at such a degree of virtuousness that no king was needed. Everyone could be trusted to serve Hashem in the way that he understood to be best for his personal growth, and this system allowed each individual to maximize his unique potential.[5]In this sense, the status of the nation during this period resembled that of the generation of the wilderness. There was no central governing body; Hashem was their only, and direct, ruler. On the other hand, unlike in the wilderness, Bene Yisrael were unable to be occupied solely with the study of Torah. After entering the Land, they were expected to build a community of hard-working people, fully involved in matters of this world while remaining fully dedicated to Hashem. This was the ideal situation, and the reason for the existence of the Nation of Israel.

However, due to their negligence in clearing the land of its wicked inhabitants, the nation came under the influence of their pagan neighbors, which caused them to occasionally slip from the lofty standards expected of them by Hashem. At such times, Hashem allowed other nations to gain dominance for a short while, until His people returned to Him, at which point He sent deliverance through a shofet (judge), and the nation would return to its position of greatness.[6]

This cycle repeated itself throughout the 369 years that the sanctuary stood at Shilo. At first there would be peace in the land, and then, when the people slipped, Hashem would bring an enemy to oppress them. When the people repented, a leader would emerge to defeat their enemies, and the cycle would reset.

But now the story was different. Hashem was sending a message that the time had come to eradicate all traces of avoda zara (idol worship) from the land. During the entire period of the Shofetim, there was a statue known as pesel Micha (the idol of Micha) which, though not actually worshipped as an idol, nevertheless constituted a clear violation of Torah law. Unfortunately, the nation’s attempts to eradicate this travesty were lacking.[7]Additionally, there were some who adopted the idolatrous practices of their heathen neighbors, as well as those who continued to disrespect the sanctuary at Shiloh by offering korbanot (sacrifices) at bamot (private altars).[8]So although the sanctuary may have reached its zenith under the leadership of the kohen gadol, Eli, and his two sons, Hofni and Pinhas, the era of Mishkan Shilo was coming to an end.

The Battle of Shiloh

Back at the battlefield, the elders of the nation prepared to implement their plan to bring the holy Aron, borne by Honi and Pinhas, to the front lines, trusting in its power to vanquish the enemy. And indeed, when the Pelishtim saw the new developments, they lost their courage and appeared prepared to surrender. Before they did, morale among the Pelishtim began to improve as the soldiers reminded each other that it was preferable to die on the field of battle than to surrender meekly without a fight. Soon, the pagan army believed that victory could be achieved despite the presence of the Ark.[9]And so, the second day of battle commenced. What resulted was a devastating blow to the Israelites, which quickly deteriorated into a full-scale rout. The enemy chased the Jewish fighters back through their own camp, killing over 30,000 in the process. Among the dead were the two sons of the kohen gadol[10], and the holy Aron was captured by the Pelishtim.[11]When the 98-year-old Eli, who was sitting at the gates of the city of Shilo, heard the tragic news, he collapsed and broke his neck, dying on the spot. On that day, the Mishkan at Shilo was destroyed, ending a glorious chapter in our nation’s history.

The Month of Iyar

The trait of the month of Iyar, as represented by the heavenly sign, is the power of the ox. The tribe which corresponds to Iyar, though, is Yissachar, the tribe which Yaakov Abinu praised for having the positive attribute of the donkey.[12]How may we reconcile these two different characteristics? Indeed, the ox and the donkey seem to be completely incompatible, as evidenced by the Torah’s prohibition against plowing with a donkey and an ox at the same time.[13]

Rav Shimshon Refael Hirsch, in his commentary to the Torah, offers a novel interpretation to the blessing of Yissachar. The verse describes Yissachar as a “hamor garem.” The word garem, Rav Hirsch writes, refers to a joint, specifically, a joint which helps facilitate forward movement. This attribute is more applicable to an ox than to a donkey, as the ox is used primarily for pulling (ploughs or carts), while a donkey’s labor involves supporting heavy loads. Yissachar combines the two traits, the ability to carry heavy loads while at the same time moving forward with speed and vigor. Additionally, donkeys do not need creature comforts; they can subsist on a minimal diet and can sleep wherever they happen to be, without requiring any special arrangements. This is what is meant by the description of Yissachar “resting among the pots.”[14]Moreover, Yissachar knows how to take pleasure in life itself, as the blessing continues, “He saw that it is good to rest and that the land is pleasant; he therefore bent his shoulder to carry a load.”[15]As opposed to those who spend their entire lives pursuing power or amassing wealth, Yissachar works until he has enough to support himself and then rests, for he realizes that there is more to life than accumulating material assets. These qualities make the tribe of Yissachar perfectly suited for the role of teaching Torah. With a focus on forward growth, like the ox, and a disregard for material wealth, like the donkey, Yissachar can carry and advance the heavy responsibility that comes with teaching Torah. This concept is reinforced in the Gemara, which says that all those who teach halacha to the masses descend from Levi or Yissachar.[16]

Commenting on this description of Yissachar, the Zohar[17]writes that Yissachar – and the nation in general – was given the gift of peace so they would be able to advance their Torah knowledge unimpeded. But as with all opportunities, if not utilized properly, it can become a curse.

In the final era of Shiloh, the Israelite nation was failing in the mission of Yissachar. At the time of their defeat at the hands of Pelishtim during the auspicious month of Iyar, the people “turned their shoulder away” (an allusion to the literal meaning of “vayet,” the term used by Yaakov in describing Yissachar’s bearing the burden of Torah) from serving Hashem. As a result, instead of bearing the yolk of Torah, the nation became saddled with the weight of foreign occupation.

The sanctuary at Shilo is described as a menuha (resting place)[18]– exactly the same word used in the blessing of Yissachar. The Mishkan always reflected the spiritual state of the nation and offered Bene Yisrael the opportunity to show their sole allegiance to Hashem and His rule, and they gloriously realized this goal for nearly four centuries. But when this opportunity was squandered, the state of “menuha” was supplanted by a state of oppression and unrest.

The time for the change to a more permanent and structured system of government was nearing[19]– King David had already been born – and the only question was the nature of the transition. If the generation had been worthy, the change could perhaps have been a peaceful one, but the events played out otherwise in the month of Iyar, due to the nation’s failure to carry forward the Torah in the spirit of Yissachar and the ox. Thus the 10th of Iyar became a day of mourning for our nation.[20]May Hashem restore His honor speedily, in our days, amen.

[1]Shemuel I 4:2.

[2]This was the first time since the first battle of Ai, nearly 400 years earlier (see Yehoshua 7:2-6), that a Jewish army was defeated in battle against another nation.

[3]Yehoshua 18.

[4]Shofetim 21:25.

[5]Behold A People by Rabbi Avigdor Miller z.s.l  paragraph 289

[6]The most glaring case which underscores this point is that of the sShofet Shimshon who, on his own, decided to marry a Philistine woman and live among the enemy in order to wreak havoc among them. In this manner he managed to single-handedly bring the Philistines to heel, causing them to cease their molestation oppression of the Jews for 40 years.

[7]For a full account of this story, see the January, 2011 edition of “Cosmic Mazal.”

[8]Although the Bet Hamikdash was not yet built, the sanctuary at Shilo was considered a “resting place” for the Presence of Hashem, putting into effect, temporarily, the prohibition to sacrifice in other locations (Zevahim 112b and 118a).

[9]In the Malbim’s commentary to Shemuel I 4:9, he explains that the Pelishtim considered “the gods of the Jews” (r.l.) to be a number of powerful heavenly forces which were not invincible, as evidenced by Yaakov’s stalemate with Esav’s angel.

[10]Shemuel I 2:27-36. They died as a result of a lack of respect, according to their lofty spiritual level, for the sacrifices. Additionally, they did not sufficiently expedite sacrifices for women who were bringing their purifying offerings after childbirth, thus delaying their return to their husbands. Hashem admonished them and cast a curse upon the entire family of Eli which caused the men of the family to die at a young age for more than a millennium. (This curse is cited as the source of the surname “Tawil,” which means “long,” as in long life, for the Tawil family is said to be descended from Eli Hakohen.)

[11]The commentators cite a Midrash which describes how Goliath, who was the one to grab the Aron, was confronted by Shaul, the man who would later become the first king of Israel, and Shaul succeeded in removing the luhot (tablets) from the Aron before Goliath ran off with it.

[12]Bereshit 49:14.

[13]Devarim 22:10

[14]Bereshit 49:14. See also Zohar, Ki Tetze 275b.

[15]Bereshit 49:15.

[16]Yoma 26a.

[17]Vayehi 242b.

[18]Devarim 12:9.

[19]The Gemara Zevahim 118b states that “when Eli passed away, Shiloh was destroyed,” implying that he was to be the last leader at that sanctuary, regardless of the other events which occurred at the time of Shilo’s destruction.

[20]Tur O.C. 580.