Monday, July 16, 2007

Ezra's return

Cross-post from

1st of Av

Today, the 1st of Av, is the day that Ezra arrived in Yerushalayim from Bavel. The Israelites had been exiled in Babylon for many decades, had seen the Temple destroyed and lost many of their family members. The kingdom of Israel had been destroyed and Yehuda was in tatters. The few remaining Jews in Israel were leaderless, directionless and scattered across the country.

There had already been at least two attempts to rebuild the Temple, and by the time Ezra arrived Nechemiah had managed to complete the building (with the support of the Persian kings). However they lacked the charismatic leader who would be the focal point for world Jewry.

Ezra refused to leave Babylon as long has his teacher, Baruch ben Neriah, was alive. After Baruch passed away, Ezra realized where he was needed and organized the first ‘nefesh b’nefesh’ trip to Israel.

1,496 men chose to come with him (this was in the days before subsidies), and Ezra had to persuade 38 Levi’im with their 200 servants (the Levi’im didn’t want to come, and it was only because they were essential for the Temple service that Ezra managed to get them to join him. The Levi’im as a whole were penalized for their lack of support for Israel). – Getting people to make Aliya was as difficult back then as it is today!

Ezra and his group arrived in Yerushalayim 4 months after they set out, on the 1st of Av:

“This Ezra went up from Babylon; and he was a ready scribe in the law of Moshe, which the L-RD G-d of Israel had given: and the king granted him all his request, according to the hand of the L-RD his G-d upon him.
And there went up some of the children of Israel, and of the priests, and the Levites, and the singers, and the porters, and the Nesinim, unto Yerushalayim, in the seventh year of Daryavesh the king.
And he came to Yerushalayim in the fifth month, which was in the seventh year of the king.
For upon the first day of the first month began he to go up from Babylon, and on the first day of the fifth month came he to Yerushalayim, according to the good hand of his G-d upon him.
For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the law of the L-RD, and to do it, and to teach in Israel statutes and judgments.” (Ezra 7: 6-10)

In Israel Ezra found a group of people who were impoverished both financially and spiritually. They had forgotten many of the mitzvot, intermarried, and lacked any kind of spiritual leadership.

Ezra managed to re-establish a system of Halacha and learning, with the Sanhedrin at the center of Jewish life. He persuaded the people to divorce their non-Jewish wives (and made them take an oath not to intermarry, which is still binding today), and to follow the Torah. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 21b) goes so far as to say that if the Torah hadn’t been given to Moshe, Ezra would have been worthy of giving the Torah to Israel.

Ezra revitalized a dying nation and a religion on the verge of collapse. He brought the central authority of Judaism back from Babylon to Israel and Yerushalayim.

Today, as we begin the stricter mourning practices leading up to Tisha B’Av and the destruction of the Temple, we can also remember the founding and rebuilding of the Second Temple and the strengthening and growth of Torah Judaism. We know that G-d always brings the cure before the punishment. May we merit this year to see the rebuilding of the Temple and the strengthening and unity of Klal Yisrael with Yerushalayim once again as the central focus of the world.

“From Tzion shall go forth Torah and the word of G-d from Yerushalayim”

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