This article is the next installment of The Jerusalem Herald's ongoing series excerpted from the author’s book, Go Up Like a Wall, which discusses the Ingathering of the Exiles and the Redemption. To read other selections from the series, click here.
A group of paratroopers marvels at the Temple Mount on June 7, 1967, during the Six Day War (Credit: Micha Bar-Am, Ministry of Defense, IDF Archive)
The beginning chapters in the Book of Ezra seem positive on the surface, describing the aliyah from the Diaspora of Babylon and the gradual rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash (the Temple).
However, there is a disturbing undercurrent throughout the narrative that indicates fault lines from the earliest stages of this seemingly triumphant return to the Land of Israel. We noted in the previous installment how merely five verses into the narrative there are indications of a lack of enthusiasm among most of Diaspora Jewry at this incredible opportunity.
These indications are validated in the second chapter of Ezra, which enumerates those who took advantage of this opportunity for redemption — down to the camels and donkeys they brought along with them. From a nation that is supposed to be more difficult to count than the stars of the sky, only a small percentage was interested in leaving an exile that was no longer forced upon them. The grand total: 42,360.
That is far less than the average number of residents in one square mile of Manhattan. That is far less than the number of residents in a medium sized city in modern Israel.
Who were these 42,360 pioneers? What motivated them to return to Israel above all those who stayed behind? What was their spiritual makeup? How much faith did they have in G-d? The answers to these questions provides tremendous insight into this remarkable chapter in Jewish history — and into our own.
While the celebratory description of the return to Zion continues, disturbing indications also continue that things are not unfolding the way they should be. At the start of the new year the Jews gather to Jerusalem in complete unity — reminiscent of the way we gathered at Har Sinai to receive the Torah.
At this point two important figures are introduced: Yehoshua, the kohen gadol, and Zerubavel, the governor of Jerusalem. These two represent the spiritual and political leaders of the new settlement. In fact, Zerubavel is a direct descendant of King David, making him eligible to be promoted to a far higher political position if circumstances develop favorably.
Yehoshua and Zerubavel, together with their fellow kohanim and other leaders, arise and rebuild the altar to offer sacrifices in accordance with the Torah of Moses. The text notes the participation of their subordinates to emphasize the consensus in taking what might seem like a daring and controversial action. The verse also emphasizes that they acted in accordance with Torat Moshe (the Torah of Moses) — an objective stamp of approval. Indeed, Ralbag notes that we learn from here that we may offer sacrifices on the altar even in absence of a Beit Hamikdash, as it had yet to be rebuilt.
This must call into question the indifference — and even opposition — of the overwhelming majority of the world’s Jews toward the notion of rebuilding the altar in modern Jerusalem. Those who favor the idea are dismissed as religious extremists and dangerous zealots to be held at bay by more “moderate” and “responsible” folks. Further — even without the hand-wringing over slaughtering an animal to be offered as a sacrifice — it is almost universally accepted by the Jews that we cannot entertain the idea of offering a sacrifice when doing so would elicit condemnation from the non-Jews.
Of course, the fact that everything we do or do not do is liable to elicit condemnation from the non-Jews is rejected as a reason to dismiss these concerns. Taking such a bold, proud, authentic Jewish action as rebuilding the altar today would really elicit condemnation, and therefore the idea must be shelved until some unforeseen time, which is approximately never. Whatever the Jews did back then — well, good for them.
But the mentality of the people at that time and the fragility of their entire enterprise is clear. The Book of Ezra states that the people built the altar “because the fear of the nations of the lands was upon them.” Ibn Ezra and Metzudat David explain that they hurried to build the altar so that the spiritual merit of the sacrifices would aid them against their enemies.
Rashi provides an even more remarkable interpretation. He says that the Jews were afraid that their neighbors, i.e., those who were occupying the Land of Israel and did not welcome the return of the Jews, would slander them to the King. Therefore they rushed to build the altar to demonstrate that they were acting under royal authority — after all, how else would they dare take such an action? Essentially, they rebuilt the altar not due to some spiritual inspiration, but to create facts on the ground!
Both explanations throw cold water on the contemporary argument that taking similar actions will infuriate our enemies and our “friends.” Our ancestors understood quite well that they were not welcome by those occupying the Land of Israel and that they needed to seize the initiative.
Whether their primary goal was to achieve greater heavenly assistance (Ibn Ezra and Metzudat David) or to send a strong message to their enemies (Rashi), they understood that making a decisive claim to their land would strengthen the settlement enterprise, not weaken it. Compare and contrast once again to modern times, when taking bold, authentic Jewish action is portrayed as harmful to Israel’s interests — while cowardice is perversely declared to be strength.
Anyone who claims that the challenges faced by Israel today are more difficult and complex than we have ever faced before has never studied the Book of Ezra. Or perhaps he simply lacks faith that the same G-d who supported them stands behind us today, waiting for us to once again seize the initiative.
(To be continued....)
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Rabbi Chananya Weissman is the founder of EndTheMadness and the author of seven books, including “Go Up Like a Wall” and "How to Not Get Married: Break These Rules and You Have a Chance," an illustrated book that is humorous yet serious in its examination of the issues facing singles.
Many of his writings are available here. He is also the director and producer of a documentary on the shidduch world, “Single Jewish Male,” and “The Shidduch Chronicles” available on YouTube by clicking here. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org