“For we are slaves, and in our servitude our God as not forsaken us, and He has extended loving-kindness upon us before the kings of Persia, to give us life, to exalt the House of our God and to erect its ruins, and to give us a fence in Judea and in Jerusalem (Ezra 9:10).” We’re just over a week away from Passover, which is my favorite holiday of the year. I love the rituals of the seder, the whole family being together, and the mindfulness of living a whole week with different standards and practices than the rest of the year. But one part of the holiday that I always struggle with is the idea of seeing ourselves as though we had personally been freed from Egypt. I’ve participated in, and even facilitated activities that involve individuals describing what they feel enslaved by and how they can liberate themselves this year. But it always feels inappropriate, particularly when the answers are ‘homework,’ or ‘expectations,’ and there are so many actual tragedies in the world, including modern slavery. So I don’t know how to actually relate to this on any level, but this verse made me think a lot about how for so many generations, the Jewish people have experienced the true horrors of oppression, and as the Pesach holiday approaches, I want to hold all of that close to me as I appreciate the privilege that makes it only an exercise for me.
This chapter was interesting in that as I read through it, I immediately thought of several different verses I could pick out, and different directions I could take this reflection in. Usually, particularly lately, I have one reflective ‘aha moment’ per chapter, so it was a welcome challenge to have to debate over which one to choose. But luckily, I found the one that most resonated with me, and hopefully will with you as well.
“And I proclaimed there a fast by the river Ahava, to fast before our God, to beseech Him for a straight way for us and for our children and for all our belongings (Ezra 8:21).” There are so many layers to unpack in this verse! First, the people are gathered, waiting to cross a body of water, which gives me flashbacks of other collective water traversing moments. The Exodus and the parting of the sea is of course the most well-known and classic, but this also seems to parallel the crossing of the Jordan River when the people re-entered the Land of Israel last time. Second, water in general is fascinating because of the connotations it has as a source of life, cleansing, and even life. In Judaism, water is used to mark transitional time. We wash our hands before meals, complete with a blessing. We immerse in the mikvah, marking transitions from impure to pure, and in these different cases, when we as a people are transitioning back into the land of Israel, we often need to go through water in order to do so. Finally, the name of the river, Ahava, translates to love in Hebrew. It also happens to be my sister’s middle name, so I was very excited to see it pop up here. What does it mean for the river to be a river of love? I feel like this question could be answered countless different ways, but what comes to mind for me is that love is constantly flowing, shifting, with different currents, some of which may be chaotic, but with a constant direction under the surface. Our loves are what move us, keep us going, sometimes challenge us, or sweep us away, but ultimately are the constant rhythm that a moving body of water is as well.
We finally learn something about Ezra! “This Ezra ascended from Babylon, and he was a fluent scholar in the Law of Moses, which the Lord God of Israel had given, and the king granted him his entire request, according to the command of the Lord his God upon him (Ezra 7:6).” I’m incredibly happy that Ezra is finally being inserted into his own narrative. As an educator, it took me a long time to realize that my story was an important part of my teaching. At first, I held myself a step back from my learners. I saw myself as a vehicle to enhance their learning, but thought that it wasn’t my place to insert my own views or perspectives, and instead I kept those hidden. However, when I reflected on the educators who have impacted me the most, I realized that it’s because they shared of themselves, their own struggles with the material, and their passion for the content. So now, that’s what I do too. I’m part of my own teaching, and I own my biases and perspectives, and all of the experiences that color my engagement with Judaism and Jewish life. As the narrators, we need to be part of the story as well, so I love that we don’t just hear Ezra’s name, but finally get to know him in this chapter.
Back to our plot! “Then King Darius gave an order, and they searched in the library in which the archives were stored in Babylon (Ezra 6:1).” Whoever ‘they’ are found a memo from the first year of King Cyrus’s reign, which ordered the rebuilding of the Temple, including its dimensions, and the restoration of the treasures that Nebuchadnezzar had looted from the original Temple. So all of those who opposed this rebuilding project were ordered to leave. “And God, Who caused His name to rest there, will cast down any king or people that lays a hand to alter and destroy this House of God, which is in Jerusalem; I, Darius, have issued an edict; it shall be swiftly executed (Ezra 6:12).” I kind of love that Darius, who seems to be a very underrated king, made crucial decisions in his leadership based on research and history. Rather than relying on only the tunnel vision of the era in which he was born, he chose to look back, to see the foundation that his own reign was built upon, and to honor that past. In the end, it has lovely results. The people return to the Temple and make the Passover sacrifice, which is timely, since that’s the next holiday coming up in the Jewish calendar. They’re happy and rejoice, and it’s the paradox that I love history, but am also saddened by knowing it, because looking back, we know that their joy doesn’t last. But in this snapshot of time, things are good in Jerusalem.
“Now the prophets, Haggai the prophet and Zechariah, the son of Iddo, prophesied to the Jews who were in Judea and Jerusalem, in the Name of the God of Israel to them (Ezra 5:1).” So clearly there’s a crossover between different books of Tanakh, as both Haggai and Zechariah are blasts from the past, meaning that there are multiple perspectives to the story that are unfolding over time. When I teach my students about the idea of multiple narratives, I like to use optical illusions to demonstrate the concept of two realities existing in the same space. In this picture, for example, there’s a woman. Some might see an old woman, some a young woman, and some have the capacity to see both. All of these realities are true, but each of us brings our own baggage that impacts which reality we’re able to recognize. So even in Tanakh, we need to hear the story from multiple angles in order to get the full story of this era of history.
The people encounter obstacles in their building, including hinderance from the other residents of the land. They attempt to sabotage the Jewish building project by writing to the king with slanderous information about the Temple project, and allegations that it’ll be bad for the kingdom. “Now, in view of this, that we wish to destroy the Temple, and it is improper for us to witness the king’s disgrace, we have therefore sent and notified the king (Ezra 4:14).” This kind of thing infuriates me, because I hate when people present themselves falsely. I respect people who can own their biases, for better or worse, as opposed to those who don’t acknowledge their own baggage and interests. While I know that I, like everyone else, have certain hangups about certain things, and absolutely have preferences on most, I do my best to recognize what and where they are so that I can accept that going in to whatever situations I find myself in.
In this chapter, the Temple begins to take shape once again. “And Jeshua the son of Jehozadak arose, and his brethren the priests, and Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, and his brethren, and they built the altar of the God of Israel, upon which to offer up burnt offerings, as it is written in the Torah of Moses, the man of God (Ezra 3:2).” The altar is complete and the sacrifices return to Jerusalem. We hear about their observation of Sukkot, and of Rosh Chodesh, the new moon. But while the altar is complete and the sacrifices back in action, the Temple still isn’t rebuilt. It takes over two years to get to that stage, and we hear about the celebration that it brings about. “And the people did not recognize the voice of the shout of joy because of the voice of the people’s weeping, for the people were shouting a great shout, and the voice was heard from afar (Ezra 3:13).” This is both a beautiful and a sad concept. It’s amazing that there’s such a manifestation of abject joy like this, but it’s also sad that it’s something so unfamiliar to the people that they don’t recognize it. I can’t imagine being in such a dark place that I forget what joy sounds like and how it manifests, and hope that I never have to know that kind of isolation from my own happiness.
In a throwback to many of the earlier books, most of this chapter is a list. “And these are the people of the province who went up from the captivity of the exile, whom Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, had exiled to Babylon, and they returned to Jerusalem and Judea, each one to his city (Ezra 2:1).” We get a whole list of the names of these people, and how many children/descendants each one claims. Since that’s literally all that happens in this chapter, it leads me to think about how we as a society mark ourselves by our families. For most of us, for better or worse, our families are the groups that shape us the most, and their influence defines us throughout our lives. We derive pride and pleasure from them, hopefully, or the opposite, in some cases. Our families give us our place in the world, and it’s interesting to think about how much of who we are is shaped by others, both those we are born into and those we choose for ourselves. I like that each person here is marked by their extended clans, because I know that for me personally, I could never separate my own identity out from that of my family, and this strikes me as one in the same.
The book of Ezra opens with another timestamp. “And in the first year of Cyrus, the king of Persia, at the completion of the word of the Lord from the mouth of Jeremiah, the Lord aroused the Spirit of Cyrus, the king of Persia, and he issued a proclamation throughout his kingdom, and also in writing (Ezra 1:1).” So Jeremiah is in the past, Cyrus is the present king, and his first act, in this book at least, is to invite all of the Jews living in Persia to go back to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple. Many take up the call, including the leadership of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin and the priests and the Levites. We are told of all of the riches that they brought with them, some of which had come from the first Temple, and some of which was apparently donated, and we’re on the way back to Jerusalem! It’s a short introductory chapter, so I’m sure there’s much more to come, including, hopefully, an explanation of who Ezra is and why he’s the latest to have the gift of prophecy. For now though, things seem positive, so let’s hope it lasts!
The book of Daniel concludes with more words about the end of days and the eventual world to come. There’s a lot in it, both positive and negative, but one verse stood out to me as something truly beautiful. “And the wise will shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who bring the multitudes to righteousness like the stars forever and ever (Daniel 12:3).” There are two layers of love that drew me to this verse. The first is that I like that both those who are wise and those who positively influence others are acknowledged. There’s a merit to being wise, of course, but if all of that wisdom is kept in the theoretical realm, a disservice to humanity is being done. Rather, it’s incumbent on those who are wise (in any category/definition of the term) to share that with the world and to create a positive impact and change in others. The second layer is that when I see the juxtaposition of bright sky and stars, I think about two favorites: Number the Stars, a book I loved as a kid, and Music of the Night, my favorite song from Phantom of the Opera. Yes, I am an unapologetic nerd, in multiple ways. All of this is to say that the blanket definitions of day as bright/good and night as dark/bad don’t sit well with me, and this made me think about the beauty of a night sky and the mysteries that it holds.
And with that, we’re done with Daniel! This book has been very interesting – it was largely unfamiliar to me, which I’ve seen as both good and bad, and I liked the esoteric texts within. Next up is Ezra, a book that I’m even less familiar with – I honestly don’t know if I’ve ever read even any excerpts from it before. 841 chapters down, 88 to go!