Avraham ben Yaakov
KNOW YOUR BIBLE
EZRA CHAPTER 8
"Now these are the heads of their fathers' houses and this is the genealogy of those who went up with me from Babylon " (v 1).
When Israel had come up out of Egypt , "and also a mixed multitude went up with them" (Exodus 12:38). The admixture of non-Israelite stock had again and again brought disaster upon the nation. In order to avoid further disasters, Ezra made sure that only those who could establish their Israelite status and lineage would go up with him from Babylon . It is said that one of his main activities there in the years in which he stayed behind before going up to Jerusalem to join the returnees who went in the first wave was to investigate and clarify the status and lineage of all those who were still in exile.
Ezra's journey from Babylon and his arrival in Jerusalem were briefly described in the previous chapter (Ezra 7:7-9). In the present chapter the text takes us back to the beginning of this journey just before Ezra set off (vv 15ff). The first step was to assemble all the new Olim who would be traveling together across the dangerous territory between Babylon and Israel . They came together at the River Ahavah (which in this case cannot be interpreted as having the connotation of "love" as AHAVAH here is spelled with a VAV and not a BEIS).
"And we encamped there for three days" (v 15). An interesting law that the Talmud derives from this verse is that someone returning from a journey is exempt from the obligation of prayer for three days (Eiruvin 65a). In the days before jets and super-smooth cars, coaches and the like, travel could be extremely exhausting and debilitating, particularly for these Olim who had just come from the Babylonian villages of their exile together with their wives, children, livestock and possessions. As a general rule, in order to bring ourselves into the right frame of mind for prayer, it is necessary to "camp", unwind and meditate for a while before we open our mouths!
"And I inspected the people and the priests but I found none of the sons of Levi" (v 15). Rashi on Kiddushin 69a, where this verse is darshened, brings down the tradition that Ezra searched for Levites who would be fit to serve in the Temple but could find only Levites who had bitten off their thumbs with their teeth in the time of Nebuchadnezzar so that when he demanded that they sing him the Temple music, they could honestly reply, "'How can we sing the song of God in a foreign land?' (Psalms 137:4) - we are unable to play our harps". Thus Ezra found no Levites fit for service - because those who were fit were sitting peacefully and comfortably in Babylon while the OLIM who went up to Jerusalem were impoverished and burdened with the rebuilding work and in fear of all those around them".
Rashi's evocation of the sharp contrast between the peace and comfort of the exiles in Babylon as opposed to the trials of the OLIM in Jerusalem could apply equally well today, when the material lives of many Jews in the lusher areas of the present-day Diaspora are often very much more cushioned than those of many Israelis.
A halachic consequence of the absence of fit Levites from Ezra's ALIYAH was that he penalized the Levites for their failure to return to Israel by awarding the 10% MA'ASER tithe on produce that farmers were supposed to give them (Numbers 18:24) to the Cohanim (priests) instead (Yevamos 86b; Rambam Hilchos Ma'aser 1:4).
The Talmud states that it would have been fit for the Israelites to return to their Land in the days of Ezra to the accompaniment of miracles and with the same "high hand" with which they entered under Joshua, except that sin had its effects and they now needed permission from Cyrus and Darius to do so (Berachos 4a). The route from Babylon to Israel passed through lands whose inhabitants had shown extreme cruelty to the Israelites when they went into exile in the days of Sennacherib and Nebuchadnezzar. Moreover, as we have seen from the previous chapters, the territories west of the Euphrates harbored all kinds of adversaries who were very anxious to thwart the returnees. Thus Ezra's large, straggling cross-country caravan of men, women and children and livestock had the potential for being exposed to great danger. Yet Ezra confesses that he had been "ashamed to ask the king for a band of soldiers and horsemen to help us against the enemy on the road, because we had spoken to the king saying, The hand of our God is upon all those who seek Him for good, but His power and His wrath are against all those who forsake Him" (v 22).
The same positive "spin" that Ezra had used in order to persuade the Persian ruler that God was with the Israelites actually put him in a corner, making it impossible for him to now ask for military protection. An armed escort would have been very reassuring, but the Israelites were forced to put their trust in God alone, and Ezra called for fasting and repentance before they set off (vv 21 & 23). Ezra entrusted the treasures sent by the Persian king and the Israelites who remained in Babylon into the hands of leading priests to carry during the journey (vv 24-29).
"And I said to them, You are holy to HaShem; the vessels are holy also" (v 28). From the comparison in this verse between the holiness of the priests and that of the Temple vessels, which are not allowed to be used for personal benefit, the rabbis learned out that it is forbidden to "use" a Cohen-priest as a waiter or attendant or to perform mundane tasks for one's own benefit (Yerushalmi Nedarim).
Verse 35 tells us that among the offerings offered by the returnees after their arrival in Jerusalem were "twelve he-goats for a sin offering (HATAS)" but goes on to say that "all this was a BURNT (OLAH) offering". Since the meat of sin offerings is normally consumed by the priests, why are these sin offerings specifically described as an OLAH, all of which is consumed on the Altar? The Talmud explains that the twelve goat sin offerings were brought on behalf of the Twelve Tribes in order to expiate the sin of idolatry in the days of King Tzidkiyahu - and the meat of the goat sin-offering for idolatry is NOT eaten by the priests but burned outside the camp (Temurah 15b; see Numbers 15:24 and Rambam Hilchos Shegagah 12:1). In offering sacrifices for all the Twelve Tribes, we see once again how Ezra and the returnees saw themselves as representatives of the entire people of Israel .
The return to Jerusalem and the reinstitution of the Temple rites encouraged a great wave of repentance among the people. The leaders immediately approached Ezra and confessed that the entire nation - Israelites, priests and Levites - had been guilty in Babylon of the same sin of intermarriage that their fathers had committed before the exile with the Canaanite nations and the surrounding Ammonites, Moabites and Egyptians (vv 1-2). Moreover, they admitted that "the hand of the princes and rulers has been chief in this crime" (v 2) [just as it was in the great wave of Jewish assimilation in the last few centuries, which was led by the Rothschilds and similar leading families].
Ezra was surely not unaware of this national flaw, which undermines the very foundations of the people, but the mere mention of it was sufficient to drive him to tear his garments and pull out the hairs of his head and beard in anguish (v 3).
"And at the time of the afternoon sacrifice [shortly after midday] I arose from my fasting" (v 5). From here the Talmud (Megillah 30b) learns that the proper procedure on a public fast day is for the leaders to spend the entire morning investigating the affairs of the community. [A lot could be accomplished if rabbis and community leaders would actually practice this today.]
Ezra's prayer (vv 6ff) puts words of confession, contrition and repentance into the mouths of all Israel . He admits that "we are slaves" (v 9). [In Ezra's day it was to the Persians, while today it seems to be to the Americans, who appear to dictate most if not all of what Israel does.] "But He gave us grace in the eyes of the king of Persia " (ibid.) This is interpreted by the Talmud as a reference to the overthrow of Haman in the days of Ahashverosh (Megillah 10b).
At the very outset of the new settlement, Ezra delivered a forthright lesson on the Torah condition for successful Israelite possession of the Holy Land : complete separation from the impurity of the idolatrous nations, which means NO INTERMARRIAGE (vv 11-14).
In our times there is hardly a family in all Israel that has been unaffected by the enormous wave of intermarriage in recent centuries, and in many cases the bold steps taken by the returnees in the time of Ezra to cleanse the nation as described in the coming chapter are in practical terms all but impossible in most families. What we can do is to try to do everything possible to cleanse our minds of any foreign ideologies that have knowingly or unknowing allowed to intermarry into the native Torah way of thinking that is our national heritage.
BACK TO KNOW YOUR BIBLE HOMEPAGE
By Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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