Sefer Ezra v’Nechemya is the penultimate book of the Hebrew Bible. Though comprised of two smaller books, Ezra and Sefer Nechemya were joined, as they concisely discuss the same general era, the final period included in the Tanakh. While some of the recorded events occur in faraway Persia, the focus of the book is the realization of the yearning of the Jewish exiles to return to Eretz Yisrael.
Many people associate the term “Zionism” only with the movement that began in the late nineteenth century with the Jewish émigrés who returned to the land of Israel in what became known as the “First Aliya”. In truth, however, the term Shivat Tzion (returning to Zion) was first used in reference to those who returned from the Babylonian exile with Ezra and Nechemya some 2500 years ago. Scholars have pointed out the two events share 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 without strong ties to their host countries. Indeed, history, especially Jewish history, tends to repeat itself.
Seventy years before the reign of the Persian King Cyrus, Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians took control of the land of Israel, exiling the inhabitants of Yehuda and destroying Yerushalayim and the Beit Hamikdash. One might have expected the Judean people to disappear in the Babylonian exile, as had happen to their brothers from the Northern Kingdom following the earlier exile at the hands of Assyria, but incredibly, as the prophet Yirmiyahu had predicted, they persisted. To assure their survival, they adopted a three-step approach: remember the past, live in the present, and hope for the future. And within that projected future, Eretz Yisrael was always central.
Sefer Ezra v’Nechemya begins with Cyrus’s proclamation allowing the Jews to return to Israel and rebuild the Beit Hamikdash. While some Jews did heed the call, many chose to remain in Persia, where, over the years of Babylonian rule, they had become comfortable and had built a life for themselves. The returnees are met with resistance and hardship, and the construction of the Temple is halted until the second year of the reign of King Darius. In response to the encouragement of the prophets Chagai and Zecharya, construction of the Beit Hamikdash resumes and is finally completed in Darius’s sixth year.
A short time later, in the seventh year of King Artaxerxes, Ezra, “a scribe expert in the Teaching of Moshe” (Ezra 7:6), brings a second wave of returnees to the land of Israel, with Nechemya following thirteen years later. Ezra and Nechemya were both reformers, but while Ezra implemented spiritual reforms, Nechemya focused on pragmatic matters involving the country’s material infrastructure. Ezra’s attention turns to combating assimilation, promoting Jewish education and reestablishing a proper system of justice. Nechemya concentrates on physically reestablishing Jewish communities and reconstructing the fortifications of Yerushalayim. Both aspects were essential for the survival of the nation. Like Nechemya, the early twentieth-century Zionists were mostly responsible for building the country physically. However, as modern-day Israel’s first Chief 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 twenty-four books of the Hebrew Bible relate to Eretz Yisrael, but this is the only one that is dedicated to the rejuvenation of the land and its people, 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 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 of Israel, in the days of Ezra and Nechemya.