Ezra-Nechemia - The Most Relevant Sefer in Tanach - Part One by Rabbi Chaim Jachter
This past June, the TABC annual Tanach Kollel studied Sefer Ezra-Nechemia. We stressed that Ezra-Nechemia may be seen as the most relevant Sefer in the entire Tanach, since it addresses situations and challenges that are very similar to the issues the Jewish community currently faces. In this series we shall present some of the major lessons taught by this vitally important Sefer. I wish to acknowledge the considerable influence of the teachings of Rav Yoel Bin-Nun, Rav Menachem Liebtag, and Rav Hayyim Angel in this presentation on Sefer Ezra-Nechemia.
We should note at the outset that Sefer Ezra-Nechemia appears to be an odd Sefer. There are numerous long lists, documents, and Tefillot that appear at best to interrupt the narrative, and at worst to make learning the Sefer a tedious chore. However, once we discover the purpose and goals of the Sefer, these phenomena can be understood and appreciated.
The Purpose of Ezra-Nechemia
Whenever a person studies a Sefer of Tanach, he or she should seek to find the message of that Sefer. One should think about why the Sefer was written, because when the often unstated goal of the Sefer is identified, many difficulties in the text can be resolved.
In general, the purpose of the various books of Tanach is not to teach history. Indeed, Chazal (Megilla 14a) teach that the Tanach only records lessons that are relevant for all generations, omitting that which is not relevant for all generations. It is easy to demonstrate that Sefer Ezra-Nechemia is not intended to teach history. According to the understanding of the Daat Mikra, Sefer Ezra jumps fifty-eight years between chapters six and seven. Chapter six concludes with the completion of the building of the Beit HaMikdash in the sixth year of the reign of the Persian Emperor Darius, which according to the Daat Mikra is the year 515 B.C.E. Chapter 7 speaks of Ezra’s Aliyah in the seventh year of the Persian Emperor Artaxerxes, which Daat Mikra asserts is the year 458 B.C.E. Additionally, chapters 7-10 describe the events of the seventh year of Artaxerxes’ reign. Immediately thereafter, Sefer Nechemia begins by describing the events that occurred in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes’ reign. Ezra-Nechemia does not inform us of what occurred in the intervening thirteen years. Accordingly, if the purpose of Sefer Ezra-Nechemia is not to serve as a history book, what are its goals?
We should clarify one point before we continue. Chazal (Bava Batra 14b-15a) regard Ezra-Nechemia as one Sefer. We can readily perceive the correctness of this assertion when identifying the themes of both sections, as we find identical themes in both Ezra and Nechemia, as we shall demonstrate in this series.
Sefer Ezra-Nechemia – An Age of Crisis
One may argue that a major goal of Ezra-Nechemia is to stress that the Jewish people can continue to function even in the absence of Nevuah (prophecy), which ceased during Ezra’s time. The Navi Malachi (who Chazal, Megillah 15a, identify as Ezra) concludes his Sefer (the last one in Tanach) with Hashem’s command to “Remember the Torah of Moshe my servant” (3:22). Mahari Kra and Malbim explain that Hashem is telling Bnei Yisrael that beginning at this point, they must look to the Torah for divine guidance, because He will no longer communicate with them via a Navi (see Yoma 9b). Malachi informs us that this state of affairs will continue until the arrival of Eliyahu HaNavi, who will herald the arrival of the Mashiach. This dramatic change in the manner in which Hashem relates to the world must have been quite traumatic. Indeed, Hashem had been communicating to mankind through Nevuah since the creation of Adam HaRishon (Adam). Ezra-Nechemia comes to teach us how to function as Jews even without Nevuah, despite the difficulty inherent in doing so.
Rav Yoel Bin Nun argues that there is another crisis that Sefer Ezra quietly and implicitly teaches us how to manage. This crisis revolves around the failure of Zerubavel to emerge as the Mashiach. The first six Perakim of Sefer Ezra speak of the years that Zerubavel served as governor of Eretz Yisrael on behalf of the Persian Empire. It seems that the Jews had great expectations of Zerubavel. First, it is important to note that Zerubavel was the great grandson of Yehoyachin (Yechanya), the last king of Judea during the period of Bayit Rishon (Divrei Hayamim 3:16-19). Thus, the Persians empowered a Jew who was part of the Davidic line (and thus potentially the Mashiach) to govern Eretz Yisrael. This presumably raised the hopes among Jews that the glory days of Bayit Rishon could be restored and even improved upon.
Second, both Chaggai (2:21-23) and Zechariah (6:12-15) seem to prophesize that Zerubavel had the potential to become Mashiach, or at least to restore Jewish sovereignty over Eretz Yisrael. Unfortunately, these promises did not materialize (their fulfillment was delayed until the time of Hasmoneans and beyond) and must have left the Jews in Eretz Yisrael profoundly demoralized. Indeed, a sense of crisis is expressed in Nechemia 9:37 (see the broader context), where it is stated, “UVeTzarah Gedolah Anachnu,” “We are in great distress.” Also see Ezra 9:8-9 where similar emotions are expressed.
Other sources of anguish during the time of Ezra-Nechemia were that the age of Nissim Geluyim (blatant miracles) was concluded (see Yoma 21b) and that Bayit Sheini was woefully inadequate compared to Bayit Rishon (Ezra 3:12-13). Accordingly, Sefer Ezra-Nechemia is needed to teach us that Jewish life continues even in the absence of Nevuah, the expected Mashiach, Jewish sovereign control over Eretz Yisrael, and a glorious Beit HaMikdash. Indeed, it is possible that the phenomenon of intermarriage in Eretz Yisrael that Ezra (9:1-2) and Nechemia (13:23-24) grappled with might have resulted from the sense of despair in some Jews.
Sefer Ezra – Nechemia: Restoring Hope
Sefer Ezra-Nechemia strives to relieve this sense of despair by emphasizing the great aspects of Jewish life, including Torah, Am Yisrael, Chachamim, strong leaders and Tefilla that remained in place even in the absence of Nevuah and other phenomena.
The Sefer greatly emphasizes the authority of the Torah. It often stresses that procedures were carried out in accordance with what is written in the Torah (see Ezra 3:2, 3:4, 6:18; Nechemia 10:35 and 13:1). We find public readings of the Torah (Nechemia chapters eight and nine), whose purpose seems to have been educational as well as to emphasize the authority of the Torah. This point was crucial to emphasize at this juncture in history, as it conveys the message that although Hashem no longer communicates with Bnei Yisrael via Nevuah, they still have the words that He spoke to his prophets of old which have so much to teach even today. Thus, we understand why Ezra strengthened the practice of Keriat HaTorah (Bava Kamma 82a) – to stress that Bnei Yisrael’s acceptance of the authority of the Torah affirms that their connection to Hashem remains intact.
This approach sheds light on a rather odd phenomenon of Sefer Ezra-Nechemia. This Sefer incorporates numerous vital documents and letters, quoting some of them at great length. These include Cyrus’s declaration permitting Jews to return to Eretz Yisrael and rebuild the Beit HaMikdash (Ezra 1:2-4), Darius’ permission to complete the rebuilding of the Beit HaMikdash (Ezra 6:6-12), Artaxerxes’ mandate to Ezra to go to Israel and enforce Torah Law upon the Jewish people (Ezra 7:12-26), and the contract (Amana) signed by the Jewish leaders expressing their commitment to abide by the Torah’s precepts (Nechemia 10:31-40). By citing these crucial documents, Sefer Ezra-Nechemia stresses the authority of written documents, which in turn reinforces the authority of the Torah as the word of Hashem.
Just as we treat royal documents as an expression of the king’s will and accept their authoritative interpretation, so too the Torah expresses the requirements of the King (Hashem), and Jews function based on the authoritative interpretation of this text. Indeed, the Mishnah Berurah (61:4 citing the Tur in the name of Rav Amram Gaon) writes that Jews should consider the twice-daily recital of Keriat Shema just as a person would regard the reading of a newly issued royal decree. Just as a person would read the royal decree with great reverence and care, so too one must certainly read the Shema, the royal decree of the King of Kings, with great reverence and care. Accordingly, Ezra-Nechemia seeks to communicate that just as Bnei Yisrael do not need a prophet to convey an ordinary king’s word, they can similarly function as Jews even without hearing a prophet express Hashem’s word, since they possess His royal documents that are eternally relevant.
This approach can help explain a most unusual occurrence in Nechemia chapter 7, in which Nechemia plans how many Jews he should try to convince to reside in Jerusalem (after its walls have been rebuilt). He uses the list of Jews who made Aliyah in the time of Zerubavel as a source to help determine the identity and number of the Jews who reside in Eretz Yisrael. This list is recorded at full length in Ezra chapter 2. We would expect Nechemia to simply state that Nechemia used this document. However, the Tanach records this document in its entirety for a second time (with some minor discrepancies). The fact that it is recorded again at full length is nothing short of astonishing!
According to our approach we can readily explain this phenomenon. Sefer Ezra-Nechemia seeks to emphasize the authority of written texts. Thus, in chapter seven of Nechemia we find one of the earlier documents of Sefer Ezra-Nechemia developing into an authoritative text. This document is recorded at full length in order to emphasize its authority.
Next week, we shall (IY”H and B”N) continue to outline the major aspects of Jewish life that remain even in the absence of Nevuah and Mashiach that are stressed by Sefer Ezra-Nechemia.