Avraham ben Yaakov


Our chapter relates the thickening trouble that now struck the builders of Jerusalem from their adversaries. The opening verse gives us an indication of who these adversaries were. As mentioned in the commentary on Nehemiah ch 2, Sanvalat appears to have been one of the leaders of the inhabitants of Shomron (see Nehemiah 3:34). Tuviah was apparently a renegade Israelite who was intermarried with some of the leading Judeans, with whom he had excellent connections (see Nehemiah 6:18). The AREVIM are likely to have been Ishmaelite tribes who had spread into Eretz Israel from east of the River Jordan, where the Ammonites were also based. The ASHDODIM were Philistines living in the Mediterranean coastal areas of Israel . All of these elements now gathered together to make war on the Judeans who by rebuilding Jerusalem were threatening the comfortable status quo the adversaries had been enjoying since the exile of the Ten Tribes under Sennacherib and of Judah and Benjamin under Nebuchadnezzar.

Nehemiah's building of the walls of Jerusalem "under fire" or, at the very least, under the constant threat of attack from enemies all around has its parallel in the building of the modern Jewish Yishuv in Eretz Israel, which since its inception has been attended by unremitting belligerence and aggression from Arab and other enemies on every border of the tiny country. The greater the influx of Jews into Israel and the greater their success in building up the country, the greater their enemies' hostility has become, making a mockery of every peace plan that has been devised to try to diffuse it.

The previous chapter gave a general account of the rebuilding of the walls and various gates of Jerusalem . This enterprise, which was executed through each of the different families in the city building their own section of the wall, could not be accomplished in one day. It was a protracted project that left the Jews highly vulnerable to attack in what turned into an enervating war of attrition to the point that " Judah said, the strength of the bearers of the burdens is failing." (v 4). The repeated helpless sighs heaved daily by the pressured citizens of contemporary Israel echo the same feeling.

The adversaries' plan was to infiltrate Judea in order to spring a surprise attack (v 5). [This is reminiscent of the original Oslo strategy of the "Palestinians" to infiltrate Israel in order to strike with the sudden terror attacks that became the hallmark of the last decade. This is one of the reasons why the Palestinians have always advocated "open borders" into Israel (but not the other way round), opposing the Israeli separation fence that is a de facto admission of the complete failure of the "peace process".]

In verse 6 we find that Nehemiah receives a warning of the hostile intentions of the adversaries from "the Jews dwelling with them". This is evidence that the returnees were not only concentrated in and around Jerusalem and Judea but were spreading considerably further afield. Indeed, by the time of the later Second Temple period, the Yishuv extended over most of the areas occupied by the earlier kingdoms of Judah and Israel , including the whole Galilee, Mt Ephraim, the Negev and east of the Jordan . The main exceptions were certain coastal areas and the strip of land around Shomron, which was occupied by the KOOTIM ("Samaritans").

The belligerence of modern Israel 's enemies has forced her to become a militarized nation in which most members of the workforce, having already performed compulsory full-time army service for a number of years, then have to serve every year in MILUIM, "reserve duty", sometimes for periods of up to several months. Somewhat similarly, Nehemiah was forced to build the walls of Jerusalem with a civilian workforce half of whom worked on the building while the other half had to carry out guard duty in order to defend them (v 10). Even those who were engaged in the actual labor had to do so while heavily armed. They were forced to do their work with one hand while holding a sword in the other! Nehemiah himself had to keep a shofar-blower at his side in case there was a need to summon everybody to one place to stave off a sudden attack (vv 11-12).

"So we labored in the work, and half of them held the spears from the time of the breaking dawn until the stars appeared. Likewise at the same time I said to the people, Let everyone lodge with his attendant within Jerusalem so that in the night they may be a guard to us and labor in the day" (vv 15-16). These verses are likely to be familiar to anyone who has studied the Talmud where it begins in Tractate Berachos, because these are the very first verses quoted by the ShaS from the NaCh (though not from the Five Books of Moses, from which three verses are quoted earlier on the page). These verses from Nehemiah are introduced as proof texts in a discussion about the time when the obligation to recite the evening SHEMA begins - when the stars first appear (Berachos 2b).

Despite the fact that the Jewish laborers were engaged in physically demanding and doubtless very sweaty work during the Israeli summer, they were so busy working and trying to defend themselves that they did not even have time to strip off their clothes and wash!!! (v 17).


Nehemiah did not only have to deal with threats from Israel 's external enemies. He was also faced with internal social friction and resentment caused by the great disparity between the "upper crust" of the returnees, who were or had become very wealthy, and the less successful ones, who were not. The latter were small farmers who were trying to scrape a living out of ancestral allotments that had been neglected for over seventy years. Not only did they have to produce sufficient to be able to subsist and cover their basic needs; they also had to pay heavy tributes to the Persian king.

The opening of the present chapter paints a sorry picture of how the poor had fallen into debt and were reduced to selling not only their fields and vineyards but even their very sons and daughters as slaves to the rich just in order to survive (vv 1-5).

The descent of the weaker classes into chronic debt is another feature of the time of Nehemiah that also characterizes modern Israel , where the huge gap between the rich and the poor continues to widen despite major economic growth. The country's enormous security budget sucks money out of the economy, necessitating heavy taxation of the working population and high import duties, pushing up the prices of homes, consumer goods, services and everything else, leaving most sections of the population mortgaged up to the hilt while financing car purchase and other projects with heavy-interest loans at the same time as living off credit cards and expensive bank overdrafts.

Contemporary political leaders tend to be fully implicated in the ongoing exploitation of the weaker sections of the population and the attendant government corruption. Israel 's last four prime ministers as well as countless other ministers and high officials have been subject to police investigations for serious wrongdoing.

Nehemiah, on the other hand, stood up as a true leader of the people, championing the poor and oppressed against the wealthy and powerful. ".And I rebuked the nobles and the rulers." (v 7). Nehemiah asked them questions to which they could give no answer: "We have redeemed our brothers the Jews who were sold to the heathen; and will you nevertheless sell your brothers, or shall they be sold to us?" (v 8).

Nehemiah initiated a collective remittance of debts, seeing that all the fields, vineyards, olive trees and houses that had been seized as collateral against bad debts were returned (v 11). Nehemiah was not merely acting as the champion of mundane social justice. At every step he made it clear that helping our brothers and sisters rather than exploiting and oppressing them is an integral part of FEAR OF GOD (vv 9, 13).

The chapter ends with Nehemiah's testimony about his own integrity. We learn from v 14 that the Persian king Darius had appointed Nehemiah as GOVERNOR of Judah , yet he never used his position for personal gain. He did not even consume the food which the population were obliged to provide for the governor, let alone enjoy the expensive "perks" that previous governors had permitted themselves. On the contrary, Nehemiah supported a sizeable entourage - including many converts - at his own table at his own expense. "Remember me, my God, for good, according to all that I have done for this people" (v 19).



By Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
© AZAMRA INSTITUTE 5767 - 2006-7 All rights reserved