The Book of Ezra and Nehemiah is the penultimate book of the Hebrew Bible. Though comprised of two smaller books, the Book of Ezra and the Book of Nehemiah were grouped together since they are both concise and discuss the same general time period, the final time period included in the Tanakh. While some of the recorded events occur in far away Persia, the goal of the book is the realization of the yearning of the Jewish exiles to return to the Land of Israel.
Many people associate the term “Zionists” with the Jewish émigrés returning to Israel during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In truth, however, the first returnees to Zion were those who returned from the Babylonian exile with Ezra and Nehemiah 2500 years ago. Scholars have pointed out that both events have similar characteristics. In both cases, the majority of exiles did not opt to return, and most of those who did come were young, driven by idealism and did not possess strong ties to their host countries. Indeed, Jewish history tends to repeat itself.
Seventy years before the reign of the Persian King Cyrus, Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians take control of the Land of Israel, exiling the kingdom of Judah and destroying Jerusalem and the Holy Temple. We might have expected the Jewish people to disappear in the Babylonian exile like their brothers from the Northern Kingdom, but, as Jeremiah predicted, they miraculously persisted. They adopted a three step approach: remember the past, live in the present, and hope for the future. And always within that projected future, the Land of Israel was central.
Ezra and Nehemiah begins with Cyrus’ proclamation allowing the Jews to return to the Land of Israel and rebuild the Temple. While some Jews heed the call, many choose to remain in Persia where they have become comfortable and built a life for themselves over the seventy years of Babylonian reign. The returnees are met with resistance and hardship, and the construction of the Temple is halted until the second year of King Darius. In response to the encouragement of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, construction of the Temple resumes and is finally completed in Darius’ sixth year.
A short time later, in the seventh year of King Artaxerxes, Ezra, “a ready scribe in the Law of Moses” (Ezra 7:6), brings a second wave of returnees to the Land of Israel. His return is followed by the return of Nehemiah in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes. Ezra and Nehemiah were both reformers, but while Ezra implemented spiritual reforms, Nehemiah’s focus was more pragmatic. Ezra’s attention turns to combating assimilation, promoting Jewish education and reestablishing a proper system of justice. Nehemiah concentrates on physically reestablishing Jewish communities and re-fortifying Jerusalem. Both were essential for the survival of the nation. Like Nehemiah, the early 20th century Zionists were mostly responsible for physically building the country. However, as Israel’s first modern Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook commented, even the most mundane tasks like plowing a field or building a home, if performed in Israel, constitute a fulfillment of the word of God.
All the 24 books of the Hebrew Bible relate to the Land of Israel, but this book is the only one that is dedicated to the rejuvenation of the Land of Israel, the people of Israel, and the Torah laws. Our generation has merited seeing these words come to life before our eyes. It is therefore our privilege and obligation to study this book in order to learn from and benefit from the successes and failures, core messages, and divinely inspired wisdom that relates to the Jewish people’s first attempt at resettling the land in the times of Ezra and Nehemiah.