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Jewish World Review
Week of 7 Iyar
Dedicating the new walls of Jerusalem
Rabbi Yonason Goldson
The same month in which Jews commemorate Yom Yerushalayim, the day upon
which the modern state of Israel regained sovereignty over Jerusalem's
Western Wall, also offers us the opportunity to observe the anniversary of
another event even more significant in the history of that great city.
Two years after the first celebration of the Purim festival in the year 3405, the Persian king Achashverosh died, leaving his throne to his young
son, Darius. Although he considered himself a Persian, Darius inherited
from his mother, the Jewish Queen Esther, a great benevolence toward the
Jews. In 3408, the second year of his reign, Darius not only gave
permission to the Jews to rebuild their Temple in Jerusalem but helped
finance the project, sent building materials, and threatened the governor in
Samaria that he would deal most harshly with any interference.
Under the direction of Zerubavel, the prince of Yehudah, together with
the prophets Chaggai and Zechariah, Jewish workers completed the second
Temple in the year 3412. On the third day of the Hebrew month of Adar, the
Jews in Israel inaugurated the new Temple amidst great rejoicing, bringing
peace offerings of 100 bulls, 200 rams, 400 sheep, in addition to 12 goats
as sin offerings for each of the tribes of Israel.
At the time Zerubavel and the other leaders returned to rebuild the
Temple, one of the greatest Jewish sages, Ezra the Scribe, had remained in
Babylon to assist his rabbi, Baruch ben Neriyahu. When Baruch died the year
following the completion of the Temple, however, Ezra traveled to join his
colleagues in Israel. What Ezra found there distressed him so profoundly
that he ripped his garments and tore out his hair.
Although Zerubavel and his colleagues had succeeded in organizing the
people to rebuild the Temple, they were not successful in turning the mostly
impoverished, fractious, and disaffected Jews back to Torah observance.
Many prominent Jews, including sons of the High Priest himself, had become
indifferent to Jewish tradition and practice.
Where the leaders who preceded him had proven unable to form any
strategy, Ezra took immediate action, declaring a fast, calling a public
assembly, and exhorting the people with such passion that, with only minimal
resistance, the Jewish populous proclaimed their loyalty to G-d, confessed
their transgressions, and committed themselves to renewing the holy
covenant of the Jewish nation.
Rather than castigating the people for their transgressions, which might
well have driven them even farther away, it was the genius of Ezra to arouse
their sense of shame and their desire to return to the path of Godliness.
By expressing and displaying his own personal grief at how far the people
had descended, by declaring the urgency with which they must distance
themselves from their sins, Ezra brought about repentance on a national
Despite the impressiveness of Ezra's success reversing so much of the
damage of decades after only a few months, enormous obstacles remained to a
Jewish renaissance in Israel. The people were for the most part uneducated,
and the fire of Ezra's exhortation could not ignite an entire country to
devote itself to the slow and arduous task of reestablishing the foundations
of Jewish scholarship and literacy. The people remained poor and
uneducated, the internal danger from dissenters and the external danger from
hostile Samaritans remained a threat, and Jerusalem remained a sparsely
Ezra had labored to solve these problems, but the tide only turned when,
after a decade, he was joined by the prophet Nechemiah in the year 3418.
One of Darius's most influential advisors, Nechemiah succeeded in gaining
permission to join Ezra after he received a deeply distressing letter
describing the state of affairs in his homeland. Nechemiah arrived to find
the walls of Jerusalem still torn down from the Babylonian invasion almost a
century earlier and the gates of the city still charred and ashen. He
recognized that as long as Jerusalem stood in ruins, the Jewish people would
continue to see it as a reminder of their shame and their degradation. Only
by restoring the city to a portion of its former glory could the people
rouse themselves from the mindset they were still an exiled and vanquished
Nechemiah swiftly organized a labor force and directed it toward the
reconstruction of the walls surrounding the Jewish capitol city . Led by an
apostate named Sanvalat HaChoroni, the enemies of the Jews first tried to
demoralize Nechemiah's workers, mocking their efforts by calling out to them
that the job was too great, that even if they could rebuild the walls their
construction would crumble the instant that even a fox ran upon it. When
they saw that the workers were nearing completion despite their taunts,
Sanvalat's company conspired to attack the workers and tear down the walls
themselves, but Nechemiah learned of their plan and stationed guards with
bows and spears to protect the city. Having lost the element of surprise,
Sanvalat attempted to lure Nechemiah to a meeting where he could be
assassinated, but this plan also failed.
Neither Nechemiah nor any of his workers allowed themselves the luxury of
changing their clothes or bathing during this project, and in only 52 days
they completed work on the walls that had laid in crumbled ruins for 90
years, dedicating their completed project on the 7th day of the month of
Iyar. The Samaritans and the surrounding gentile nations looked upon the
Jews of Israel with a new awe, giving the Jews themselves a much needed
sense of their own power and potential.
But it was not only enemies from without that caused trouble for the
Jews. The few Jews who had acquired wealth and prestige for themselves had
used their good fortune to make loans to their poorer brethren, loans whose
value were recovered first from the fields and properties of the borrowers
and then by indenturing their sons and daughters into personal service.
When Nechemiah learned of this he gathered the wealthy Jews and publicly
berated them, asking them sarcastically if their next step would be to sell
their poor brothers as slaves to the gentiles. So stinging was Nechemiah's
rebuke that the wealthy Jews promptly forgave the loans and returned the
children to the parents and the properties to their owners. By thus
restoring a new measure of security and economic stability to the Land of
Israel, Nechemiah set the restoration of the Second Commonwealth of the
Jewish nation on a secure course into the future.
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JWR contributor Rabbi Yonason Goldson teaches at Block Yeshiva High School in St. Louis. Comment by clicking here.
© 2006, Rabbi Yonason Goldson