Ezra-Nechemia - The Most Relevant Sefer in Tanach - Part Three by Rabbi Chaim Jachter
In the past two weeks we have discussed the purpose and goals of Sefer Ezra-Nechemia. We suggested that the primary goal is to demonstrate that Jewish life can continue to exist and flourish even in the absence of Nevuah. Sefer Ezra-Nechemia seeks to stress the primary elements of Jewish life that continue even in the absence of direct communication with Hashem, such as Torah, Am Yisrael, and Chachamim. We shall conclude our discussion with a focus on great leaders, Tefillah, and Hashem subtle guidance of world events.
Great Leaders – Ezra vs. Nechemia
Last week we mentioned that Sefer Ezra-Nechemia teaches that even in the absence of Neviim, Hashem nonetheless blesses us with great leaders. We explained that Nechemia is a shining example of an outstanding leader who led Am Yisrael to both material and spiritual accomplishments. This week we shall discuss the excellent leadership qualities of Ezra and contrast his style of leadership with that of Nechemia.
Ezra (chapter 7) records that Artaxerxes sent him to Eretz Yisrael to insure that Jews observe the Torah. (Persian pagan ideology believed that each region had its own god who had to be appeased – Artaxerxes wanted to appease Hashem, who he believed controlled only Eretz Yisrael.) Artaxerxes granted Ezra enormous authority to enforce Torah law. Ezra (7:26) records that Aratxerxes authorized him to fine, imprison, and even execute any Jew who failed to obey Hashem’s law.
It seems, however, that Ezra did not use any of these powers. In chapter nine, Ezra is informed of the scourge of intermarriage that was plaguing the Jewish community in Eretz Yisrael at that time. Instead of punishing those who intermarried, Ezra tears his clothes, rips out hair from his head and beard, and publicly recites a long Vidui (confessional) on behalf of the Jewish community. In doing so, Ezra inspired many (but not all, see Daat Mikra to Ezra 10:44) to separate from their Nochri spouses. The Jewish community seems to have internalized Ezra’s teaching that intermarriage with all nations is forbidden (see last week’s discussion).
Ezra wisely chose the path of inspiration to combat the scourge of intermarriage instead of seeking to end it by force. Had Ezra chosen to use force, he might have encountered severe resistance and perhaps even civil war. A gentle approach was much more effective with a downtrodden and traumatized Jewish community of that time (as we discussed in the past two weeks).
Ezra gentle leadership of thirteen years paved the path for Nechemia to arrive in Eretz Yisrael and adopt a much tougher stand. Nechemia threatened to kill those who did business on Shabbat (Nechemia 13:21). When confronted with Jews who intermarried, Nechemia beat and cursed them and, in stark contrast with Ezra, pulled their hair out. As opposed to Ezra’s method of inspiring and empowering others to join him in directing the nation on the proper path (see Ezra 8:16, 9:4, 10:1,8, and 15, Nechemia 8:1 and 4), Nechemia’s style was much more autocratic (see Nechemia 2:12, 4:7, 5:7, 7:5, and 13).
Both leadership styles were necessary to improve Am Yisrael at that time. In fact, the necessity to combine the leadership styles of Ezra and Nechemia seems to be expressed in the processional march around the walls of Jerusalem that is described in Nechemia 12:31-40. In the dedication ceremony of the rebuilt walls of Jerusalem, Nechemia split the assembled into two groups. Ezra led one group and Nechemia himself led the other. Each group circled half of Jerusalem’s walls and met at the Temple Mount (Har Habayit). One may interpret the procession (see the book entitled “The Age of Prose”) as symbolic of Ezra’s and Nechemia’s different paths of leadership, which were both necessary and headed toward the same goal. Am Yisrael was indeed blessed to have Ezra and Nechemia working together to improve them both materially and spiritually.
Sefer Ezra-Nechemia also stresses the role of Tefillah, quoting at length from many of the Tefillot of Ezra, Nechemia, and others. Ezra leads his group of Olim in Tefillah and fasting (which is an expression of Tefillah, as explained by Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, Shiurim LeZeicher Abba Mori Z”L 1:58), Ezra’s Vidui is quoted at length in Ezra chapter nine, Nechemia’s Tefillah (again combined with fasting) regarding his plans to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem is quoted extensively in Nechemia chapter one, and chapter nine of Nechemia quotes at length from the Vidui and Tefillah led by the Leviim at the Teshuva assembly convened after Jerusalem’s walls were rebuilt.
Indeed, we find that Nechemia often engaged in Tefillah and had Hashem’s name in his mouth (see Rashi to Bereishit 27:21 and 39:3). Examples include Nechemia 2:4,18, and 20, 3:36, 4:3,8,and 14, 5:10 and 19, 6:16, 7:5, 13:14,18,22,27, and 31. It is important to stress Nechemia’s Tefillah as he does not occupy a “religious” leadership position. Instead he is one of the world’s most powerful men, the Sar HaMashkim (butler) to Artaxerxes (Nechemia 1:11 and 2:1), which might be seen as equivalent to being the Secretary of State. When someone who occupies such a powerful position stresses his connection with and dependence on Hashem, it sends an incredibly powerful message to the rest of us. If Nechemia realizes that despite his great power, Hashem is in charge of the world, the rest of us certainly should recognize that Hashem is the Almighty God.
The emphasis on Tefillah in Ezra-Nechemia seems to fit into the Sefer’s goal of encouraging Am Yisrael during an age when Nevuah was ending. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik in his celebrated “The Lonely Man of Faith” asserts that Tefillah replaces Nevuah. We emphasize the importance of Tefillah (where we speak to Hashem) when Hashem stopped speaking directly to us. Thus, the emphasis on Tefillah reminds us that our connection to Hashem is not severed when Nevuah ceases. Even though He does not speak to us, we still speak to Him.
In fact, Sefer Ezra-Nechemia stresses that Hashem does in fact listen to Tefillot. An example of Hashem’s response to Tefillah is found in Sefer Ezra, when the people making Aliyah with Ezra beseech Hashem to should protect them during their long and dangerous trip, which Ezra chose to undertake without Persian army escort. Ezra emphasizes that Hashem responded to our Tefillot and allowed the group to arrive safely in Eretz Yisrael (Ezra 8:23).
Incidentally, students in the Tanach Kollel suggested that Ezra refused Persian army escort because he feared reprisals from soldiers whose relatives might have been killed by Jews on the thirteenth and fourteenth of Adar after Haman was hanged. The students based this on the Daat Mikra’s assertion that Artaxerxes was the son of Achashveirosh (Xerxes).
A particularly powerful example of Hashem responding to Tefillah is found in Nechemia chapter two. Nechemia was in a particularly melancholy mood, disturbed by the state of affairs in Jerusalem. When he nonetheless served wine to the king, Artaxerxes interpreted Nechemia’s uncharacteristic bad mood as a sign that Nechemia was about to serve him poisoned wine (see Rashi to Nechemia 2:2). Artaxerxes challenged Nechemia to explain his mood, and Nechemia was gripped with fear that Artaxerxes would execute him immediately. Recall from Megillat Ester that Achashveirosh, the father of Artaxerxes (according to the Daat Mikra) would quickly kill even those who were closest to him if he harbored suspicions about them. Artaxerxes may have inherited this trait from his father.
Nechemia expressed a quick Tefillah to Hashem, and then used this terrifying moment to inform Artaxerxes how disturbed he was that Jerusalem remained in ruins and to request his permission to rebuild the walls. Shockingly, Artaxerxes agreed to Nechemia’s request, reversing his earlier opinion (expressed in a letter) forbidding the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls. In this situation, it appeared that Nechemia was going to die very soon and in desperation he made a request that would most likely be rejected. However, Hashem responded to Nechemia’s Tefillah, and Artaxerxes not only spared Nechemia’s life, but also acceded to Nechemia’s request. Hashem literally transformed Nechemia’s darkest moment into a triumph (Hafachta Mispedi LeMachol Li – Tehillim 30:12). This serves to encourage us, as we see that Hashem has not abandoned us even though he no longer communicates to us through a Navi.
Hashem’s Subtle Hand
Another means for Sefer Ezra-Nechemia to communicate to us that Hashem has not abandoned us even though He no longer communicates to us via Nevuah is by stressing Hashem’s subtle involvement with this world. For example, Sefer Ezra-Nechemia begins by stating that Hashem motivated Cyrus to issue his famed declaration permitting the Jews to return to Eretz Yisrael and rebuild the Beit HaMikdash. One might have thought (especially in light of recent archaeological discoveries such as the Cyrus Cylinder) that Cyrus was motivated by what he regarded as prudent foreign policy (being a benevolent dictator) or by his pagan beliefs that he had to appease each region’s god. Therefore, Sefer Ezra-Nechemia stresses that it was Hashem who was responsible for orchestrating Cyrus’s celebrated declaration.
Indeed, Ezra-Nechemia stresses that Hashem’s subtle hand was responsible for Darius’s permission for the rebuilding of the Beit HaMikdash to continue while he reviewed the legitimacy of the endeavor (Ezra 5:5). Hashem’s hand was also responsible for Darius’s permission to complete the Beit HaMikdash (6:14), Artaxerxes’s permission for Ezra’s Aliyah (Ezra 7:27), and Nechemia’s success in rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem (Nechemia 6:16).
It is important to note that Sefer Ezra-Nechemia also teaches that although Hashem wants certain events to happen, we still have to strive mightily to achieve these goals. For example, Hashem wanted Jerusalem’s walls to be rebuilt. Nonetheless, we had to expend an enormous effort in order to achieve this objective. Furthermore, although Hashem was involved, the process of rebuilding of the Beit HaMikdash took nearly a century to complete. (The Beit Hamikdash is not truly completed until the city of Jerusalem is rebuilt, as Jerusalem is an integral part of the Beit HaMikdash. For example, Kodashim Kalim may be consumed in the entire city of Jerusalem.) According to Daat Mikra, Cyrus issued his declaration in 539 B.C.E., and Nechemia completed Jerusalem’s walls in 445 B.C.E. This is an encouraging lesson for us. Just because we do not see immediate positive results from our endeavors and face opposition and great struggles does not mean that Hashem has abandoned us and is not involved in the process.
We have seen that Sefer Ezra-Nechemia seeks to convey the message that although Hashem has ceased to communicate with us through a Navi, He has not abandoned us. The Torah, Am Yisrael, Chachamim, great leaders, Tefillah, and Hashem’s subtle hand guiding world events remain despite the absence of Nevuah.
The titles of the essays of this series state that Ezra-Nechemia is the most relevant book in Tanach. Indeed, we face many of the same challenges today as we did during the time of Ezra-Nechemia. Jews have returned to Eretz Yisrael in large numbers and have been met with great success and many challenges. Intermarriage and Jewish continuity are major issues of concern for our people. In Ezra-Nechemia, the Beit Hamikdash was rebuilt, but we did not attain sovereign control over Eretz Yisrael. Today, we enjoy sovereign control over much of Eretz Yisrael, but do not fully control Har Habayit. Foreign influence detracts from our control over Eretz Yisrael.
We also do not have the benefit of a Navi to guide us during these challenging times. Nonetheless, Sefer Ezra-Nechemia teaches us that Hashem is still with us, and we have His Torah, His people (us), His Chachamim, His leaders, Tefillah, and His subtle hand. Sefer Ezra-Nechemia teaches us that if we are persistent and loyal to Hashem, then we will succeed in the long term.
Finally, it is vital to note that all of the heroics of Zerubavel, Ezra, Nechemia, and the many other “minor heroes” of Sefer Ezra-Nechemia still impact us today. Their efforts helped us retain our claim to Eretz Yisrael, as it demonstrates that when given the opportunity, Jews lived in Eretz Yisrael. Furthermore, from the day that Zerubavel arrived in Eretz Yisrael, there was never a time that Jews did not live in Eretz Yisrael, despite all difficulties. Thus, the Shivat Tzion (return to Zion) begun by Zerubavel and continued by Ezra and Nechemia continues until this very day (this point also has Halachic ramifications; see Rambam Sefer Hamitzvot number 153 and Hilchot Beit HaBechira 6:16). After Churban Bayit Rishon in 586 B.C.E, on the other hand, no Jews were permitted to remain in Eretz Yisrael (see Yerushalmi Taanit 4:5). The Shivat Tzion of Bayit Sheini, though, has never terminated and, with Hashem’s help, it will continue to grow and flourish.