"And Moses ascended to God." (Exodus 19:3). "This Ezra ascended from Babylon ." (Ezra 7:6). Citing these two verses and the word they have in common, "ascended", the rabbis compared the stature of Ezra to that of Moses, saying that Ezra too was fit to be the one through whom the Torah was given to Israel (Sanhedrin 21b).

The achievements of Ezra will be discussed later on. His book is a direct continuation of the book of Daniel - the opening verse of Ezra begins with a VAV, "AND in the first year of Cyrus." (v 1), connecting the narrative in Ezra with what went before in Daniel (Rashi on Ezra 1:1). The book of Ezra tells the story of the return of the exiles from Babylon to Judea and other parts of the Land of Israel and how the Second Temple was built. This book is therefore a most important paradigm for our time, since our task too is to return out of exile and to restore and rebuild our heritage and our Temple . The greatness of the achievement of Ezra and his generation is enhanced by the fact that so far they had experienced only destruction but as yet no redemption. Even so, they defied all of the many the accusers who sought to thwart and discourage them, and with great courage they went up to their land. For us their achievement should serve as a precedent that can guide us in the restoration that we must accomplish.

The return from the exile in Babylon took place IN STAGES, the FIRST of which is recorded in our present chapter and those that follow it. Although this book was written by Ezra and is called by his name, Ezra himself does not enter the narrative until Chapter 7, which describes the SECOND stage of the return.

We have already seen how with the fall of Babylon to Darius the Mede, Daniel "contemplated in books." in order to calculate the number of years that had passed since God's word to Jeremiah "to accomplish seventy years in the desolations of Jerusalem"(Daniel 9:2). As discussed in our commentary there, Darius' capture of Babylon took place exactly seventy years after Nebuchadnezzar had taken Yeho-yakim king of Judah into exile - that was EIGHTEEN years before the destruction of the First Temple in the reign of King Tzidkiyahu.

The narrative in the book of Ezra begins "in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia " (v 1), whose reign began within a year of Darius the Mede's conquest of Babylon . With the fall of the Babylonian empire after seventy years, the FIRST WAVE of returnees now went back to Judea and they started laying the foundations of the Second Temple , but - as we will read in the ensuing chapters - their enemies denounced them to Cyrus and he ordered the work to be suspended. There were no further building activities during the whole of the remainder of the reign of Cyrus and throughout that of Ahashverosh, and the building of the Temple was resumed only in the reign of his son, Darius ("the Persian") son of Queen Esther. Thus from the time of the aliyah of the first wave of returnees under Cyrus as recounted in our present chapter, it took another EIGHTEEN YEARS until the Temple was finally rebuilt, exactly seventy years after the destruction of the First Temple.

The leadership of the first wave of returnees will be discussed in the next chapter (Ezra 2). Ezra himself did not go up to Jerusalem with the first wave of returnees because the teacher from whom he received the Torah tradition - Baruch ben Neriyah, who had received it from the prophet Jeremiah - was still alive in Babylon, and Ezra wanted to receive everything possible from his teacher. It was only after seven years, with the death of Baruch, that Ezra went up to Jerusalem with the SECOND WAVE of returnees.

After all the years of exile under the weighty yoke of Babylon, its fall at the hands of Darius the Mede and the subsequent ascent of Cyrus to the throne of Persia were a great relief. "So says Cyrus king of Persia : all the kingdoms of the earth has HaShem the God of Heaven given to me, and He has commanded me to build Him a House in Jerusalem that is in Judah " (v 2).

God's "command" to Cyrus is contained in the prophecy of Isaiah, who had lived generations earlier yet foretold that Cyrus would restore Israel to their land and have the Temple rebuilt (Isaiah 44:28; see 45:1).

The campaign of Aliyah from Babylon and the other cities of exile to the Land of Israel is somewhat reminiscent of the magnificent enterprise of Aliyah of Jews to Israel over the past centuries rising exponentially since 1948. Like the Aliyah sanctioned by Cyrus, the modern Aliyah has also been supported by many contributions from those who for one reason or another have had to remain in the Diaspora, who have formed local support groups to sustain those going up to the land (see our chapter vv 4; 6).

Cyrus' release of the Temple vessels looted by the Babylonians held forth the promise that redemption was near at hand. They were entrusted to "SHESHBATZAR the prince over Judah ", v 8; the rabbis identified him with Daniel, who stood firm six (SHESH) times when he was in trouble (BA-TZAR; see Rashi ad loc.).

The thrill and excitement of the return of the exiles from Babylon is captured in the Song of Ascents (SHIR HA-MA'ALOS) that is traditionally recited on Shabbos and other festive occasions immediately prior to BIRKHAS HA-MAZON, Grace after eating bread. "When HaShem restored the captivity of Zion , we were like dreamers. Then was our mouth filled with laughter and our tongue with song. He who goes weeping in his way, bearing a bag of seed, shall come back with joy, carrying his sheaves" (Psalms 126:2 & 6).



By Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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