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.
Illustration: Temple Mount in Jerusalem by cms-archiv [CC0] via Pixabay
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). But two astounding verses conclude chapter three, revealing the sudden eruption of a disturbing undercurrent which suddenly breaks to the surface like lava from a volcano.
The preceding verses describe the laying of the foundation of the Beit Hamikdash — the apex of the new yishuv (settlement) to date. The Kohanim are appointed with their holy garments, the Leviim lead a celebratory rendition of Hallel, and the rest of the nation responds with joyous praise to G-d.
This was it. This was the first flowering of the ultimate redemption, which would be followed by the complete restoration of the Beit Hamikdash, the belated return of those who remained in exile, a miraculous, decisive defeat of those who would necessarily try to thwart us, followed by happily ever after. Surely this was the vision of many at this glorious ceremony who sang Hallel and shouted with joy.
Yet the final two verses of this chapter immediately shatter this vision, and it is never the same after that:
And many of the elder Kohanim, Leviim, and heads of families who saw the first Beit Hamikdash cried with a great voice when they saw the founding of this Beit Hamikdash, while many raised their voices with shouts of joy.
And the people could not discern the sound of the shouts of joy due to the sound of the crying of the people, for although they shouted a great shout [of joy] the sound [of the crying] was heard at a great distance. [Ezra 3:12-13]
It is a uniquely Jewish response that when the foundation of the Beit Hamikdash was placed they could not decide whether this was a moment of euphoria or heartbreak!
The young people celebrated, for this was indeed the greatest moment of their lives, and, as far as they could tell, the beginning of the fulfillment of their greatest dreams. The return from exile was never more real. How could they not celebrate?
Yet the elders had seen the first Beit Hamikdash, survived 70 years of bitter exile, and made the arduous journey back home. These wizened Jews gazed at the foundation of this new structure and already sensed that it would not compare to the Beit Hamikdash of their youth. They had returned to Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) expecting a complete redemption, but they were suddenly hit with the realization that this would be, at least to them, a cheap substitute. Their hearts were ripped out from them while the young people sang Hallel.
The text in the Book of Ezra does not decide for us which perspective, if any, is “right” or “wrong.” But it does make an objective statement that at this point seems impossible: the mourning of the elders drowns out the celebration of everyone else and is heard at a great distance.
We can readily accept that some old grumps find something to complain about as a new generation begins to rebuild the Beit Hamikdash — what else is new?
But for their cries of mourning to overwhelm, to completely drown out the celebration of the return to Zion? How is that possible??
The answer will shed a new light on this critical chapter of Jewish history… and a glaring spotlight on ours.
A Fake Redemption?
The redemptive glory lasts for three verses, a fleeting taste of what might have been, before the narrative veers sideways on a different path. At the start of Chapter 4 the enemies of the Jews come dressed as friends and approach Zerubavel, asking to participate in the building of the Beit Hamikdash. Of course this is nothing more than a sinister attempt to thwart the project one way or another from within.
Zerubavel deflects their request, whereupon they openly harass and intimidate the Jews. They even hire “advisors” to assist in their efforts. Metzudat David explains that these were paid lobbyists to swing the king’s policies against the Jews. (Today’s version of the play would refer to them as lobbyists, anyway.)
The enemies escalate their propaganda war by sending a letter to the new king, Artachshasta, accusing the Jews of plotting to revolt against Persia once Jerusalem is rebuilt. Artachshasta accepts this slander and orders the rebuilding to be ceased.
An indefinite building freeze is imposed. Thereby the resettlement of the Land of Israel that had seemed so promising, so glorious, just a short time ago was now in danger of collapsing altogether. For eighteen years the situation remains unchanged, and the Jews who made aliya while most of the nation stayed behind start to rethink those dreams of redemption. They turn their attention to building the nascent medina (land) of sorts instead, planting fields and starting businesses. They get used to the idea of plodding on without those perhaps childish dreams of rebuilding the Beit Hamikdash and ushering in the redemption.
In short, reality sets in. Then G-d speaks to them.
(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