Avraham ben Yaakov
KNOW YOUR BIBLE
NEHEMIAH CHAPTER 8
Now that the returnees from Babylon to Judea had settled again in their ancestral towns and villages, they were ready to return to the Torah path of life that is the purpose of Israel 's existence.
With the arrival of the first day of the seventh month - Rosh HaShanah, the Head and beginning of the spiritual year - everyone, including both the men and the women, flocked to the Temple .
The account of this unique national assembly - central to which was the public reading from the Torah scroll - is one of our main sources for the laws and customs of: (1) the public Torah reading in the synagogue (2) Rosh Hashanah (3) the Succah.
THE READING OF THE LAW
The central figure in this section is Ezra the Scribe and High Priest. While Moses had instituted the public reading of the Torah on Shabbos, Mondays and Thursdays (so that three days should never go by without the people hearing the Torah), it was Ezra who instituted other customs relating to the Torah reading that are observed until today. Among them are the reading of the Torah during the Shabbos afternoon Minchah service; the calling of THREE people for ALIYAH ("going up" to the reader's desk to bless and read from the Torah) at the Shabbos afternoon and weekday readings, and the reading of no less than ten verses from the Torah on those days (Rambam, Hilchos Tefilah 12:1). Ezra either instituted or renewed the custom of reading the Torah week by week from the beginning Genesis to the end of Deuteronomy in an annual cycle that starts and ends on Shemini Atzeres (one-day festival following Succos), reaching the reproof at the end of Leviticus just before Shavuos and the reproof towards the end of Deuteronomy just before Rosh Hashanah (Rambam, ibid. 13:2).
Ezra's Torah reading took place "in front of the wide space that is before the Gate of the Water" (v 2). In Talmud Yoma 69b there are different opinions as to whether this was in the main Temple courtyard in front of the House (the Azara), the Ezras Nashim ("Women's Courtyard" before the Azara) or elsewhere on the Temple Mount . In any event, this assembly is emblematic of the assembly of all the people in the Synagogue, to which everyone must come to hear the Torah.
In the light of the widespread feeling today that women have somehow been excluded from Jewish religious life, it is important to note that our text repeats that Ezra's gathering included men AND women (vv 2 & 3) and that EVERYONE was listening to the Torah and receiving a running translation into the vernacular explaining what it is saying (v 3 and see Rashi on v 7). Everyone had their ears tuned only to the Sefer Torah (v 3) - not to the kinds of frivolous conversations that go on during the Torah reading in certain synagogues that are frequented by irreverent ignoramuses who unfortunately have never been sufficiently inspired by their rabbis and teachers to make them want to wake up from their spiritual sleep and grasp that the words of the Torah are the words of the Living God, and that even if they are not fully understood they should still be treated with the utmost respect.
When Ezra read the Torah, he was flanked by six men to his right and six to his left (v 4: Zechariah=Meshulam "because he was COMPLETE in his deeds" Megillah 23a). The Talmud finds an allusion in the six men flanking Ezra to the six men who go up to the Torah reading on Yom Kippur (Megillah ibid.)
"And Ezra opened the scroll in the eyes of all the people." (v 5). This alludes to the custom of HAGBAHAH, raising the scroll so that everyone can see the script, which according to the Sefardi and Chassidic NUSAH ("style", "custom") is performed prior to the actual reading, while many Ashkenazi communities perform it after the reading. At the moment of the HAGBAHAH it is customary for people to stretch out their right hand pointing towards the Torah (cf. v 6).
"And Ezra blessed." (v 6). This alludes to the BLESSING made by the reader before he begins to read. (The present-day custom where the person called up to the Torah reading blesses but leaves it to the BAAL KOREI, to actually read stems from the fact that the level of education has fallen to the point where the great majority, even if they can read Hebrew, are still unable to read the Torah themselves directly from the scroll with the correct vocalization and cantillation / "trope" because only the letters are written in the scroll but not the vowels or musical notations. In earlier times, and in some Sefardic and Yemenite communities until today, each of the men called to the Torah actually reads his portion himself, as do many Bar-mitzvah boys.) It is the blessing over the reading of the Torah - when recited and listened to with the proper intentions - that transforms the occasion from being a prosaic reading of a text into a collective act of devotion in which both the reader and the listeners are attaching themselves to God through hearing His words.
"And they read in the scroll, in the Torah of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading" (v 8). The Talmud (Megillah 3a) darshens from this verse that Ezra established the MIKRA (way of READING the words), the TARGUM (translation into the Aramaic vernacular of the people=MEFORASH), the divisions of the verses (P'SUKIM=VE-SOOM SECHEL), the cantillation/trope (=VA-YOVEENU BA-MIKRA) and the MASORETH ("tradition" as to how the words in the Torah are to be spelled, whether MALEY, "in full", or HASEIR, "lacking" certain letters, with enlarged or diminished letters etc.) For all this had apparently been forgotten (by the majority, although presumably an inner circle of sages, prophets and priests always preserved and handed down the sacred tradition) and Ezra formally reinstituted and returned to the authentic tradition.
From the response of Nehemiah and Ezra in v 9 we can infer that the Torah reading in the precincts of the Temple brought all the assembled people to a great wave of anguish, weeping and repentance for their deeds. Now these two leaders taught a lesson in the proper celebration of Rosh HaShanah that is expressed succinctly by Rabbi Nachman, who once said that God gave him a unique gift in being able to understand what Rosh HaShanah really is. "On Rosh HaShanah one must act wisely and only think good thoughts. One should only keep in mind that God will be good to us. One must be happy on Rosh HaShanah and yet one must cry." (Sichos HaRan #21).
The lesson of Ezra and Nehemiah, which is brought as Halachah in Shulchan Aruch, is that together with our tearful repentance on Rosh HaShanah, we must also celebrate the festival joyously with good food and drink in the confidence that God will be merciful with us and stretch out His "arm" to accept our repentance. "FOR THE JOY OF HASHEM IS YOUR STRENGTH" (v 8).
The penitence aroused in the people on this Rosh Hashanah was greatly elevated through the joyous celebration of Succos, which started on the 15 th of the month and continued for seven days followed by the one day festival of SHEMINI ATZERES immediately afterwards. Dwelling in the Succah for seven days helps us internalize the lesson that God's encompassing presence protects us wherever we are in the wilderness of life. From verse 15 the sages learned that the branches and leaves used for S'CHACH, the "roof" of the temporary Succah dwelling, must grow from the ground and must be in their natural state so as not to be susceptible to the TUM'AH, "impurity", that attaches itself to man-crafted vessels (Succah 12a).
"And all the assembly of the returnees from the captivity made Succos and dwelled in Succos, for the Children of Israel had not done so since the days of Joshua bin-Nun" (v 17). It was not that under King David etc. they had not celebrated Succos, but with the return under Ezra they now began counting the Sabbatical and Jubilee Year cycles again and observing the laws of walled cities and tithes etc. just as the people had started to do when they first entered the Land under Joshua (Erchin 32b).
After the jubilant celebration of Succos followed by Shemini Atzeres (which is on the 22 nd Tishri), the people gave themselves only one day (="ISRU HAG", the day after a festival, invested with a festive character) before returning to the Temple fasting, in sackcloth and ashes, separating themselves from foreign wives and children (v 2), and presumably from foreign ways of thinking as well. Verse 3 is one of the sources for the laws of proper procedure on public fast-days (Taanis 12b).
The Levites now stood on their platform in the Temple and opened up in a song that was a call to all the people to repent.
The passage running from the last part of verse 5 until the end of verse 11 is familiar from the daily morning prayers, during which they are recited after Psalm 150, before SHIRAS HA-YAM, the "Song of the Sea".
The entire "song" of the Levites, which continues until the end of the present chapter, praises God the Creator of heaven and earth and goes on to recount the history of Israel from the founding father Abraham, to whom God promised the Land of Canaan, through the redemption from Egypt and His providential care of Israel in the wilderness, leading them with pillars of fire and cloud, feeding them with Manna and water from the rocks, giving them the Torah, the Shabbos and other commandments, followed by Israel's rebellion with the sin of the golden calf, God's forgiveness and His giving them the lands of kings and nations filled with great goodness..
As the people stood now at the start of the new era of the Second Temple , the story of how Israel had become fat off God's bounty and rebelled, resulting in their exile, had to be sung to them afresh in order to remind them that their mission was to rectify the sins of the past. For each generation must hear again the saga of the nation and to relearn its forgotten lessons all over again.
BACK TO KNOW YOUR BIBLE HOMEPAGE
By Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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