Many of the neighboring populations that hear about the reconstruction of Jerusalem get upset, and they join together to go to war against Jerusalem. Thinking about the Middle East, it’s clear that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Luckily in this case, the eventual war doesn’t actually manifest, but the Jews take a defensive stance regardless. “And we prayed to our God, and we stationed a watch over them day and night because of them (Nehemia 4:3).” Earlier this week, I taught a class on Israeli history and politics, and like much of history, that story is often told through wars. These various successful military campaigns are the way we construct the saga of the ongoing creation of Israel, as is the case in much of the world. And while it’s easy to list the armies that aligned themselves against the country, and the key battle sites and stats, what I like about the verse that I chose is that it seems to go beyond those bare-bones details. True defense is the constant awareness and vigilance that is expressed in this verse. It’s an ongoing watch, carried out with the hope that it’ll never come to anything. The people who watch the borders aren’t in it for glory. They’re just hoping for another quiet night, and to be able to go home. As we go into the Pesach holiday, I’m hoping that this year, freedom will be experienced in many ways, most of all by all of those who work for the defense of others around the world.
The vast majority of this chapter is comprised of verses the note who was responsible for rebuilding various parts of Jerusalem. For example, “Next to him Uziel the son of Haraiah, [of the] goldsmiths, repaired, and next to him, Hananiah the son of the perfumers repaired, and they filled Jerusalem until the broad wall (Nehemia 3:8).” What I love about this chapter, repetitive though the verses may be, is that it would be so easy for Nehemia to take all of the credit. In many iterations of history, the person at the helm is the only one who’s remembered, and Nehemia is the royal governor, so he could easily be the only one mentioned, as the one spearheading the initiative. But instead, all of these small contributions to the larger whole are enumerated. At my job, whenever a major event is concluded, the custom is to send out a staff-wide email, which, instead of being self-congratulatory to the program director or manager, is one of gratitude to all of the people who were responsible for the moving pieces – marketing, catering, setup, content, recruitment, and all of the other elements that make an event successful. Nehemia is doing the same thing, by giving credit where credit is due to all of the builders of Jerusalem.
“Now it came to pass in the month of Nissan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, [that they brought] wine before him, and I carried the wine and gave [it] to the king. And I had never been sad in his presence (Nehemia 2:1).” Nehemia brings his problems to work, and the king immediately notices his sadness, and proceeds to call him out on it. They clearly have a good relationship, because Nehemia shares his troubles with the king, and asks to be sent to Judea to rebuild and return home. The king supports this journey, and gives him letters of credit. Nehemia travels to Jerusalem, and what strikes me most about his actions while he’s there is that everything is destroyed, so at night, he wanders through the Old City. He goes to the Dung Gate, and the Fountain Gate, and a few other places that he marks by name, and I know them all. What’s amazing to me about Jerusalem is that while, of course, it changes through the ages, it’s also eternal in some way. So many people have passed through it, softly and harshly, with the intent to build and the intent to destroy. But we all walk through the same gates, adding new chapters onto the story of the city. I miss it so much sometimes, and can’t wait until I get to go back and to rejoin the narrative again.
Today starts the book of Nehemia, one that I’m pretty certain I’ve never really done anything with before, so I’m excited to see what this guy is all about. First, we meet him. “The words of Nehemia the son of Hacaliah. And it came to pass in the month of Kislev [in] the twentieth year that I was in Shushan the capital (Nehemia 1:1).” This opening verse gives us the context for his lineage, time period, and location. Check, check, check. He meets a man from Judea, and he asks about the state of Jerusalem, and is informed that the walls were breached and the gates burned. This drives Nehemia into a state of mourning. He prays to God in a way that strikes me as beautiful in that it’s spontaneous, authentic, and deeply personal. So often people tell me how hard they find it to connect with traditional prayers and liturgy, and while I don’t always feel the same way, I understand where they’re coming from. But Nehemia’s prayer is straight from the heart. “I beseech You, O Lord, may Your ear now be attentive to the prayer of Your servant and to the praer of Your servants, who wish to fear Your name, and cause Your servant to succeed today, adn grant him mercy before this man (Nehemia 1:11).”
“Rise, for the matter is incumbent upon you, and we are with you; be strong and do (Ezra 10:4)!” First, full disclosure time: I’m taking this verse out of the context of the chapter as a whole. The chapter is in general all about getting rid of the foreign wives that the men partnered up with during the time in Babylon. However, when I saw this verse in particular, it resonated with me deeply in light of yesterday. Yesterday was the March For Our Lives, and I had the honor of bringing a group to the National Mall to stand in solidarity with the incredible student leaders who are changing the world with their words, actions, and steps. From the moment I heard about the march, I knew that I needed to be there, as an educator, as a Jew, and simply as a human being who is terrified of the regularity with which we hear about kids dying in school shootings. So, as this verse tells us to, I, along with a staggering 800,000 others in DC alone, rose. Because it is incumbent on us, all of us, to stand up and speak out, and to not be complacent in the face of the indifference of lawmakers and others who seem content to wait for the next attack. So in keeping with the advice of Ezra, we all need to be strong, and to move beyond thoughts and into actions.
And with that, Ezra is done! Tomorrow I’ll be starting on the book of Nechemia, and the project is really on the path of winding down. I only have three books, and seventy-eight chapters left to go. That’s essentially four more months of this epic project, and I’m committed to appreciating each one of them before this project comes to a close.
“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.