Ezra went up from Babylon. He was a scribe skilled in the Torah of Moshe, which the Lord God of Israel had given. The king granted him all that he asked, for the hand of the Lord his God was upon him. (Ezra 7:6)
A primary appellation of the holiday of Shavuos is z’man matan toraseinu, the time of the giving of our Torah. It marks the date by which we commemorate our nation’s singular experience at Sinai, when we received our most precious treasure. Naturally, this moment is inexorably linked with Moshe Rabbeinu, the great leader who served as Hashem’s messenger in delivering His Word to our forebears.
While the Torah was given only once, there were numerous moments in Jewish history when our commitment to Torah came under intense fire and needed to be upheld, if not regiven. This included the period of the Chashmonaim, who valiantly withstood Seleucid and Hellenistic harassment in order to preserve the Torah’s purity. Other struggles took place with the Tzaddukim (students of the apostate Tzadok, during the Second Commonwealth period), as well as the later struggles against the Karaites and, most recently, Reform.
In each instance, a new leader arose who refused to relent and heroically took steps to preserve the Torah and its observance among the masses.
One such man was Ezra. Ezra was active during the years just following the completion of the Second Temple. He was so influential that our sages placed him on a level with Moshe, affirming that “had Moshe not preceded him, Ezra would have been worthy of receiving the Torah for Israel” (Sanhedrin 21b).
As a guide to others and a foremost member of the Great Assembly, Ezra provided strong leadership and a moral conscience to a people that had lost its way. It would be far from an exaggeration to suggest that if it hadn’t been for him, the overwhelming majority of the Judean community would have disappeared from the historical landscape.
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Ezra the Scribe arrived in Jerusalem a year after the completion of the Temple. Nearly 1,500 men and their families, in addition to thirty-eight Levites who were fit for service in the Temple, accompanied him.
Prior to his journey, Ezra received official sanction from the Persian ruler Darius to oversee social and governmental affairs in Judah. The king further pledged additional contributions for the Temple, and went so far as to permit the Jews to use tax monies to help support the Temple service.
Upon his arrival Ezra was faced with unexpected difficulties. Though the Temple had been rebuilt by the time of his appearance on Judean soil, the optimism that had accompanied it had failed to overturn years of malaise caused by a failed initial attempt at rebuilding (during the earlier period of Zerubavel), economic stagnation, and constant threats from hostile neighbors.
Add to that the limited trickle of reinforcements and financial support from Babylonia and the recent narrow escape under Achashveirosh, and it becomes easy to understand the feeling of hopelessness that had enveloped the community. This sense of surrender had an adverse effect on the Jews’ spiritual and emotional well being.
Ezra was greatly distressed at the weak spiritual level that confronted him. Most people were ignorant of Torah. Many had not been circumcised. The most discouraging reality was the high rate of assimilation and intermarriage. Not even the family of Ezra’s nephew, the high priest Yehoshua, was left unaffected (Sanhedrin 93a).
Ezra summoned all the people to Jerusalem. In an unprecedented display of decisive leadership, he unequivocally demanded that the men separate from their foreign wives. They were up to Ezra’s challenge and quickly acquiesced.