Friday, June 1, 2012

Historical Lessons

For the past month, every single Parasha centered on the construction of the Tabernacle in the desert, its articles, the priests’ garments, the choice of artisans, and the varied contributions made by the whole household of Israel. The Haftarot (Haftaras), except one, likewise, have been about the building of the first Temple in Jerusalem by Solomon. The return of the Jews from a seventy-year exile in Babylon also signaled the construction, or rebuilding, of the House of YHVH.  Moreover, on that occasion the Jews also had to re-establish themselves as a national entity in the land, with all of its administrative aspects, and, as it turned out, had to take defensive measures against the enemies that surrounded them.  Some of facets of that return may spark in us glimpses into what has been, and could continue to become a reality in our day and age.

To start off, the return seemed like a very promising venture, as the King of the Jews’ host-country himself lent his patronage to this undertaking and to the rebuilding of the Temple. “Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of YHVH by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, YHVH stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and also put it in writing, saying,  Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: ‘all the kingdoms of the earth YHVH Elohim of heaven has given me, and He has commanded me to build Him a house at Jerusalem which is in Judah.  Who is among you of all His people? May his Elohim be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem which is in Judah, and build the house of YHVH the Elohim of Israel (He is the Elohim), which is in Jerusalem.  And whoever is left in any place where he dwells, let the men of his place help him with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, besides the freewill offerings for the house of Elohim which is in Jerusalem’” (Ezra 1-4).

At the time the Jews may have viewed the restoration and the backing up that there were receiving not only as a fulfillment of YHVH’s word through Jeremiah, but also as a foreshadowing of the time that Isaiah spoke about:  “The Gentiles shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.  Lift up your eyes all around, and see: They all gather together, they come to you; Your sons shall come from afar, and your daughters shall be nursed at your side” (Isaiah 60:3-4).  Perhaps Micah’s prophecy also came to their mind: “Now it shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of YHVH's house shall be established on the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and peoples shall flow to it.  Many nations shall come and say, ‘Come, and let us go up to the mountain of YHVH, to the house of the Elohim of Jacob; He will teach us His ways, and we shall walk in His paths.’ For out of Zion the Torah shall go forth, and the word of YHVH from Jerusalem (4:1-2).  Furthermore, the words of their contemporary prophet, Zechariah, could have struck them as being close to fulfillment: “And it shall come to pass that everyone who is left of all the nations which came against Jerusalem shall go up from year to year to worship the King, YHVH of hosts, and to keep the Feast of Tabernacles.  And it shall be that whichever of the families of the earth do not come up to Jerusalem to worship the King, YHVH of hosts, on them there will be no rain…” (14:16-17). 
Not only were the returnees witnessing that the utensils from the first Temple were being restored, additionally,  “… all those who were around them encouraged them with articles of silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with precious things, besides all that was willingly offered” (Ezra 1:6).  After they were numbered according to their households, they made up a great company of 42,360, not to mention the servants, livestock etc…

And just as we read in the Parashot (Parashas), the spirit of generosity and participation, together with zeal and enthusiasm, swept over these returnees from the Babylonian exile. One cannot but marvel that even the governor told them that they “should not eat of the most holy things till a priest could consult with the Urim and Thummim” (Ezra 2:63).  

Upon arriving in the land, they reinstated the sacrificial system and the celebration of Succoth (3:1-5), gathering “as one man.”  The opposition, however, was fierce. Once the reconstruction of the Temple commenced they had to ward off their enemies who not only attacked them face to face, but also appealed to the ‘powers that be’ in an attempt to incite against the returning Jews and foil their efforts. (Does this not sound familiar?) Because of this, the work was halted until the second year of King Darius. The Jews’ counter appeal to the new king bore fruit, however, and once again permission was granted and the project was resumed, and brought to completion on the 3rd day of the month of Adar.  The king also made it possible for more material goods to be sent to the Temple in Jerusalem, while granting tax exemption.

Again, a group of Jews was gathered, headed this time by Ezra the Scribe, in order to make their way back to the land of their forefathers. Apparently this time there was great concern for the safety on the road, and so Ezra found it necessary to appeal, by fasting and self-affliction, to YHVH so as “to seek from Him the right way for us and our little ones and all our possessions” (Ezra 8:21 emphasis added).  Is this something that we should heed, so as to be able to carry out the present day restoration? 

Interestingly, in spite of the help, endorsement and backing that had been forthcoming from most of the Persian kings of that day, Ezra clarifies his motivation for entreating Elohim and proclaiming the fast: “For I was ashamed to request of the king an escort 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 Elohim is upon all those for good who seek Him, but His power and His wrath are against all those who forsake Him" (Ezra 8:22 emphasis added).

Ezra’s testimony, witness and providing evidence of YHVH’s power, faithfulness, and goodness toward His people had to be preserved at all costs. And since, according to Ezra, YHVH’s wrath is unleashed only against those who forsake him, obedience to Him was another aspect that impelled the Jewish leader.

After arriving safely in Jerusalem, Ezra was quick to act in accordance with the words that he had proclaimed earlier. While confessing and repenting on behalf of his people and the ancestors (chapter 9), many were gathered to him and were stirred by the same spirit. It was then that they had to separate themselves from the profane, i.e. “the foreign seed,” in obedience to their Elohim (ref. Ezra chapter 10).

And so, this Shabbat, as we read Parashat F’kudey, which reminds us that the Tabernacle was for a “testimony,” as was the ark and its content, the fact that we, the whole house of Israel, are now YHVH’s ‘testimonial abode’ should cause us to “tremble at His word”. Let us reflect on Ezra’s description of his compatriots. When addressing the would-be servants in YHVH’s house the Scribe says to them, "You are kodesh [holiness, separateness] to YHVH!”  (Ezra 8:28 emphasis added).