Ezra-Nechemia - The Most Relevant Sefer in Tanach - Part Two by Rabbi Chaim Jachter
Last week we began our discussion of Sefer Ezra-Nechemia, which was studied in last June’s annual Tanach Kollel. We began explaining the significance and meaning of some seemingly odd phenomena in this Sefer. We sought to begin to resolve this problem by first identifying the goals of this Sefer.
We explained that Ezra-Nechemia seeks to ameliorate the major trauma brought about by the termination of prophecy during Ezra’s time. Rav Yoel Bin Nun adds that it also addresses the profound disappointment experienced by the Jews of Eretz Yisrael when their hopes (which were perhaps even Messianic in nature) for Zerubavel did not materialize. We explained that Sefer Ezra-Nechemia seeks to stress that many major aspects of Jewish life remain even in the absence of Nevuah and Mashiach. It teaches that Jewish life can continue despite the difficulties of the major transition that we had to endure at that time. We shall continue to outline the major aspects of Jewish life that Ezra-Nechemia seeks to emphasize.
Am Yisrael – Major Heroes of Sefer Ezra-Nechemia
The Jewish People certainly constitute another major aspect of Jewish life that remains even in the absence of Nevuah and Mashiach. This explains why many long lists of people appear in Sefer Ezra-Nechemia. Indeed, the people listed are genuine Jewish heroes whom the Tanach wishes to celebrate and record for posterity. These lists include those who made Aliyah with Zerubavel (Ezra 2) and Ezra (Ezra 8:1-13), separated from their foreign wives (Ezra 10:18-44), rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem (Nechemia 3:1-32), signed the Amana (Nechemia 10:1-29), and chose to reside in Jerusalem after the rebuilding of its walls.
A careful reading of Ezra-Nechemia reveals the heroics of the Jewish people listed in this Sefer. For example, Ezra 2:66-67 lists the number of animals brought by the Jews who made Aliyah from Bavel (Iraq) during the time of Zerubavel. The approximately forty-two thousand Jews brought roughly eight thousand animals for transportation (horses, camels, mules, and donkeys). It seems obvious that the majority of those who made Aliyah traveled by foot rather than animal (see Daat Mikra to Ezra 2:66). This phenomenon is even more pronounced according to Rav Yoel Bin Nun’s assertion that the number 42,360 mentioned in Ezra 2:64 refers only to males between the ages of twenty and sixty (similar to the counting in the Torah).
Another example of heroics is apparent in Nechemia (3), where the Jews who helped build Jerusalem’s walls are listed. It is clear from this list that only a minority of those capable of contributing to this project actually participated (see Daat Mikra to Nechemia 3:38). Moreover, certain volunteers even worked double shifts (see Nechemia 3:11,19,20,21,24, and 30) in order to accomplish this very difficult task (see Nechemia 4).
In order to appreciate these volunteers (especially those who worked double shifts), we need to understand why it was critical for Nechemia to begin the rebuilding of the walls almost immediately after arriving in Jerusalem from Persia (Nechemia 2:11-18) and to complete the task in only fifty-two days (Nechemia 6:15). The fact that Nechemia (in chapter two) secured permission from the Persian emperor Artaxerxes to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem was rather remarkable in light of the fact that Ezra chapter four records that Artaxerxes explicitly prohibited the rebuilding of these walls in response to the objections of the Shomronim (Samaritans). Nechemia was also met with fierce Shomroni opposition to his efforts to rebuild the wall, and probably felt that he had to finish the rebuilding very quickly lest the fickle Artaxerxes change his mind. Thus, without the incredible dedication of those who rebuilt the walls, the task would likely not have been accomplished.
Incidentally, Yitzchak Richmond (a TABC Talmid who participated in the 5765 Tanach Kollel) suggests that it is understandable that Artaxerxes changed his mind regarding the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls in light of Daat Mikra’s assumption that (according to Peshuto Shel Mikra) Artaxerxes was the son of Achaveirosh (this approach assumes that Achaveirosh is the Persian emperor referred to by the Greeks as Xerxes, the father of Artaxerxes). We know from Megillat Ester that Achashveirosh was easily swayed to change his mind by Ester and Mordechai, and Artaxerxes seems to have shared this personality trait with his father.
Accordingly, Sefer Ezra-Nechemia teaches that even in the absence of Nevuah, Am Yisrael remains and can accomplish enormously difficult tasks. The long lists teach that even “ordinary” people are capable of accomplishing great things. This idea fits with Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik’s assertion (Al HaTeshuva pp.93-98) that it is essential for the future redemption for Jews to maintain faith in the Jewish People. The long lists of Jews in Ezra-Nechemia, serve to reaffirm our faith in the Jewish People.
Sefer Ezra-Nechemia also stresses that even in the absence of Nevuah we still have Chachamim. In fact, the Gemara (Bava Batra 12a) asserts that a Chacham is superior to a Navi. Ezra is the prime example of this phenomenon, as he is known as “Ezra HaSofer,” “Ezra the Scribe” (see Ezra 7:6, 11,12 and Nechemia 12:26 and 36). In fact, Ezra is the first major leader whose title is HaSofer instead of Melech, Navi, or Kohen Gadol. It is apparent from Ezra 7:10 and 12 that this refers to his status as a great Torah scholar whose authority stems from his learning, not simply to his scribal skills.
In fact, the vital role of Chachamim finds additional expression in Ezra-Nechemia. Ezra clarifies that the prohibition of intermarriage refers not only to the members of the seven nations that inhabited Canaan (listed in Devarim 7:1-3), but also to all Gentiles. Ezra 9:2 records that the leaders of the Jewish People in Eretz Yisrael were among the first to intermarry. Apparently, they felt that the prohibition of intermarriage applies only to members of the seven Canaanite nations. Ezra had to expend great efforts to clarify that the prohibition applies to all Nochrim (as specifically emphasized by the Rambam Hilchot Issurei Biah 12:1).
This is an example of the role of the Chacham. He is an authoritative interpreter of the authoritative text – the Torah – which is essential in an age when there is no longer any Nevuah. Moreover, Ezra’s teachings are even more significant according to the Tur (Even HaEzer 16), who asserts that the intermarriage prohibition applies, on a Biblical level, only to members of the seven Canaanite nations. According to the Tur, Ezra specifically enacted the prohibition to marry Nochrim who are not members of the seven Canaanite nations. This is certainly a consoling message for those distraught over the absence of Nevuah in light of the fact that a Navi is forbidden to create new Halachic legislation (Megillah 2b). This role is reserved exclusively for a Chacham such as Ezra. A Chacham can achieve certain things that even a Navi is unable to accomplish.
Parenthetically, we should note that the Rambam (Hilchot Issurei Biah chapter twelve) disagrees with the Tur and believes that it is Biblically prohibited to marry or consort with a Nochri. The Rambam strongly emphasizes the severity of this sin.
Another consoling factor stressed by Sefer Ezra-Nechemia is that even in the absence of a Navi and explicit divine guidance, Am Yisrael is nonetheless blessed with leaders of great courage and judgment. Nechemia is certainly an outstanding leader who was blessed with faith in Hashem, sound judgment, dedication, and courage. His ability to build the walls of Jerusalem is nothing less than astonishing. This is especially true in light of the Daat Mikra’s assertion (in accordance with Peshuto Shel Mikra) that Nechemia accomplished this task in 445 B.C.E. and that the Aliyah with Zerubavel occurred in 539 B.C.E. Nechemia accomplished in fifty-two days what the Jewish People were unable to accomplish in nearly a century of residence in Eretz Yisrael.
In fact, Nechemia’s great leadership abilities extended beyond rebuilding walls. This is apparent in Nechemia chapter five, when in the midst of the Herculean task of rebuilding the walls, Nechemia is approached by poor individuals who have been treated harshly by those who extended loans to them. Nechemia did not tell these poor individuals that he would attend to their needs after the completion of the wall. Rather, Nechemia temporarily left the walls to organize an assembly of wealthy people and pressure them to act kindly with poor individuals.
Nechemia understood that rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem would be accomplished only if he heeded the words of the Navi Yeshayahu (chapter 1) that “Zion will be redeemed with charity and justice.” Nechemia sought not only to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem but to make Jerusalem into the Ir HaKodesh (Nechemia 11:1 and 18). He sought to capitalize on the momentum created by the successful rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls to motivate Jews to deepen their dedication to Torah (Nechemia chapters 8-12). Finally, in chapter thirteen we find that even after the completion of the walls, Nechemia expends enormous efforts to insure that Jews do not deviate from Torah law.
The actions of Nechemia reassure us that even after the passing of the age of prophecy, the Jewish People will be blessed with great leaders who can take us to great heights (if we cooperate with them).
Next week, we shall (IY”H and B”N) conclude this series by completing our discussion of great leaders. We shall also discuss Hashem’s subtle hand guiding the world and the impact of Tefillah even in a world where there is no Nevuah.