Just a Thought: Rosh Hashana, 444 BCE

Ezra the Scribe, speaking of renewal and return, changed my life forever.

Raising Torah 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Raising Torah 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Frankly, what I heard about the man made me think he was crazy.
But friends of mine told me that he was speaking in town, so I went to hear him. Some said he was a prophet or visionary, others said he was just a dreamer. His name was Ezra the Scribe, and what he had to say that day changed my life forever.
He spoke of renewal and return. That “teshuva” was the only thing in this world that man was able to do that had repercussions for his past, as well as his future. That “teshuva” wasn’t just fancy Hebrew for the word “repentance,” but rather was an all-embracing return to both God and self. He spoke about the renewed settlement in Judea and how it symbolized teshuva on the national level. The romance of “an ancient people returning to their ancient land to both build her and be built by her” captivated me.
By the time he finished speaking, I had resolved to join him, my people, and my God. The price was steep. I had a beautiful Babylonian wife and three wonderful children with her. She, of course, now thought me mad and so a divorce ensued. I gave her and the children everything I owned. It just felt like the right thing to do, and penniless, I set forth on the caravan from Babylon to Jerusalem.
Upon arrival the situation was bleak. The economy was in the dumps, and the security situation was very scary. But little by little, as the years passed, we rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem and put the economy in order. I set myself up in a shop as a blacksmith and remarried; this time, she was a Jew. But as the years wore on, we forgot about why we came and the teshuva we did. That was, of course, until that historic morning.
It was the first day of the seventh month at the break of day that a call came through the city of Jerusalem, waking everyone up. They said that we were to assemble as soon as possible at the Water Gate. There, we found a huge wooden platform set up; as the crowd of men, women and children settled in and as the sun was about to rise, a hush fell through the crowd as an elderly gentleman with a regal appearance made his way up the stairs onto the wooden platform. I couldn’t believe my eyes: It was Ezra the Scribe! The years had done him well. He had these enormous eyes, which had both a fire and kindness in them belying his years.
Suddenly, he pulled out this gigantic, tattered old scroll and lifted it high above his head, as he proclaimed with a charisma I have never before seen in a man, “Zot hatorah asher sam Moshe!” “This is the Torah that Moses had placed before the Children of Israel by the mouth of God and the hand of Moses!” And as he put the scroll down, he began to read: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” He went on to read about a man named Abraham, who was the first to recognize God, and how he walked with God. He read of the covenant and about Abraham’s children suffering harsh slavery in Egypt, and how God remembered his friend Abraham and took his children out of Egypt with great signs and wonders. The story went on to tell how these former slaves stood at Sinai, and were promised a land flowing with milk and honey.
It was then that our stomachs dropped – when we realized how far we had fallen. And as he continued to read about our special role to be a kingdom of priests, tears started rolling down our cheeks. The reading continued till noon and then it ended. Ezra lifted up his head from the scroll with a paternal smile. He told us that today was Rosh Hashana and we were not to cry, but rejoice. That God loved us very much and that we were to go out and eat, drink and celebrate, for this would be the source of our strength.
As the crowd dispersed, we resolved each man in his heart to make the Torah our way of life once again and that Rosh Hashana would forever more be known as a day of teshuva. After the holidays, the men approached Ezra and signed and swore an oath to make the Torah the constitution of the new state.
The rest, as they say, is history.
The writer is a doctoral candidate in Jewish philosophy and currently teaches in many post-high-school yeshivot and midrashot.