The 'Shivat Tzion' in the Days of Ezra and Nechemiah & our Contemporary Shivat Tzion - Part I
Last week, we saw that according to Rashi, the blessing of "matzvi g'vul almanah," is to be recited when one sees a settlement like "the settlement during the Second Temple" (Berachot 58b, s.v. baruch).
The Shivat Tzion during the Second Temple Period brought the People of Israel back to their ancestral homeland, saw the building of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, and a re-settlement throughout the Land. Ezra and Nechemiah lead a heroic political and spiritual renaissance; a herculean effort attempting to restore the Jewish Nation.
This period of Jewish History demands our attention, as the challenges they faced are so similar in so many ways to the challenges we face today. To a certain degree, history is repeating itself in front of our very eyes.
In the first year of his rule, Cyrus the Great, King of the Persian-Median Empire, granted the Jews permission to return to the Land of Israel and rebuild the Holy Temple (Ezra 1:1-3; Divrei Hayamim II 36:22-23). So significant was his role, he is called “moshiach” (Yeshayahu 45:1). A 6th Century BCE cuneiform clay chronicle of Persian-Median history, the 'Cyrus Cylinder,' which was discovered in Iraq in 1879 and is currently housed in the British Museum, touts Cyrus’ accomplishments. Among them: repatriating peoples to their ancestral lands and granting them permission to rebuild their temples.
The prophets, Chaggai, Zechariah and Malachi beckoned the People to return and rebuild. Ezra and Nehemiah made a brave attempt at gathering the people, but their words fall upon deaf ears: “Ezra told them to ascend to the Land of Israel, but they did not respond” (Tanchuma, Tetzaveh 13).
Initially, only 42,360 returned together with Sheshbazzar and Zerubavel (Ezra 2:64; Nechemiah 7:66). Years later, after the Second Temple had already been built, Ezra himself ascends with a small contingent, followed by Nechemiah’s aliyah (Ezra 7:1-6, and Rashi, ad Loc. See also Rosh Hashanah 3b and Arachin 13a).
The Jewish People were bereft of spiritual leadership. The Levi'im, for example, refused to return en masse (See Ezra 8:15. See also Sefer Ha'ikarim 3:22). According to the Talmud, Ezra penalized them by taking the Ma'aser Rishon, which had previously been reserved for the Levites, and giving it to the Kohanim (Yevamot 86b; Ketubot 26a; Sotah 47b; Chullin 131b; Rashi to Bava Batra 81b, s.v. ma’aser rishon l’kohen; Rambam, Hil. Ma’aser 1:4).
Even the Kohanim who returned were few in number. The service in the Second Temple was conducted by only four watches of Kohanim, as opposed to the twenty-four of the First Temple (Ta’anit 27a based on Ezra 2:36-39; Tosefta Ta’anit 2:1. Cf. Tanchuma, Tetzaveh13).
Jewish Communities around the Diaspora in Persia, Yemen, Morocco, Tunisia and even Germany, maintain traditions of being visited by Ezra and beckoned to return. The stories are all the same: They refuse, Ezra places a curse on them, and they are subsequently punished. Scholars may debate the historicity of these traditions, but they express the very real tragedy that most Jews did not return with Ezra and Nechemiah. The People failed to heed the call and did not participate in this unique moment in history.
Why didn’t more Jews return?
In Babylonia, the Jews were content, comfortable and wealthy (See Rashi to Kiddushin 69b, s.v. v’avinah b’am. See also Kuzari 2:24). They had achieved prominence, power and influence: “They preferred subservience in the Exile so that they would not have to leave their homes and affairs” (Kuzari, ibid.). According to Rav Yosef Albo, “Only a small number ascended with Ezra, when he ascended from Babylonia. The great ones of Israel, the wise men, and those with pedigree remained in Babylonia” (Sefer Ha'Ikarim 3:22). Babylonia had become a center for Torah study. In contrast, the Land of Israel was empty and barren. Returning to Tzion meant entering into an unknown wilderness. It was a risk that not many were willing to take.
The Return to Tzion in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah was very different than the first conquest of the Land, in the days of Yehoshua. This time, there were no wonders and miracles. The Jewish People did not merit seeing Hashem’s Hand clearly. The redemption took place through natural means, b’derech ha-teva, and the People were not convinced.
According to the Talmud, it was the sins of the Jewish Nation prevented them from being the recipients of a miraculous entry into the Land (Berachot 4a; Sotah 36a; Sanhedrin 98b). The very nature of the conquest and settlement was different between the First Temple Period and the Second.
Even religious life took on a different character. The Second Temple was a mere shadow of the First. No more were the miracles that took place daily in the First Temple: "Five things were in the first Temple, but not the Second: the Holy Ark with its cover and cherubs, the flame [that descended from Heaven to the Alter, consuming the offerings], the Shechinah, prophecy, and the Urim V’Tumim" (Yoma 21b. Cf. Mishnah Sotah 9:12; Tosefta Kippurim 2:15; Tosefta Sotah 13:1-2; Yoma 52b; Horayot 12a; Keritot 5b; Y. Ta’anit 2:1; Y. Horayot 3:2; Avot D’Rebbi Natan, 41. Tanchuma, B’halotecha; Bamidbar Rabbah 15:10; Shir ha-Shirim Rabbah 8:11; Rambam, Hil. Beit Ha-Bechirah 4:1. See also Malbim to Haggai 1:1; Abravanel to II Melachim, Chap. 25; Rashi to Yoma 9b, s.v. sanina l’chu).
Rav Yehudah Ha-Levi blames the absence of the Divine Presence on the fact that so few Jews had returned (Kuzari 2:24). Reish Lakish even curses those Babylonians who did not return, for had they returned en masse they could have prevented the Second Temple from being destroyed (Yoma 9b and the comments of Rashi and Maharsha, ad loc. Cf. Shir ha-Shirim Rabbah 8:11. See also Tosafot to Menahot 100a, s.v. she’sonim et habavli’im; Maharsha to Yoma 9b, s.v. k’chomah).
Tragically, the overwhelming majority of Jews did not return to the Land of Israel during the Second Commonwealth (Ketubot 25b and Rashi, ad Loc., s.v. lav kulhu seluk and Rashi to Ta'anit 27a, s.v. alu min hagolah. See also Metzudat David to Nechemiah 1:2).
*Next week we will look at who did return with Ezra and Nechemiah, and explore the MANY challenges they faced.*