The People Actually Listen (For a Change!)By Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
Ezra prayed and confessed the people’s sin, crying and lying on the ground in front of the Temple. A large crowd gathered around him – men, women and children – and they were likewise moved to tears.
A man named Shechaniah cried out, “We have sinned against G-d by marrying non-Jewish women!” (The Talmud in Sanhedrin 11a says that Shechaniah was not personally guilty of intermarriage, but he included himself so as not to embarrass others by indicting them.) “There’s still hope for us,” he continued. “Let us take an oath to separate from our forbidden relationships! Let us act quickly on this matter!”
Ezra got up and asked the leaders of the people to commit to this plan; they did. Then, Ezra went from in front of the Temple to see Yehonasan the son of Elyashiv. He arrived at Yehonasan’s house, but he neither ate nor drank. Even though he was no longer fasting, he was still too upset to eat. Word was sent out throughout the land of Judah to assemble in Jerusalem in three days. The penalty for failure to appear would be that all that person’s property would be destroyed and that person would be excommunicated.
And so, three days later, on the 20th day of the ninth month, all the men of the nation gathered in Jerusalem. They sat in the plaza in front of the Temple, shivering both from fear and from the rain. Then, Ezra arose and chastised the people for their intermarriage – as if they hadn’t had enough problems! He encouraged them to confess and to separate themselves from the other nations, including their forbidden wives.
The people cried out and acknowledged that Ezra was correct. However, because of the size of the crowd and the rain, it was not possible to take care of the matter then and there. It was agreed that the leaders of the nation would remain behind to make the arrangements. The people who had intermarried would make appointments to see them, accompanied by the elders and judges of their own cities, until the matter had been dealt with. Only a small handful of people disagreed with this plan.
The people of the nation acted as they had been bidden. Ezra and the leaders met on the first day of the tenth month to see how things were going and they were done fixing things by the first day of the first month. It was discovered, however, that a few kohanim had not separated from their forbidden wives. (These were the sons of Joshua, the High Priest, as alluded to in Zechariah chapter 3.) They were advised to separate and they were informed that they owed a korban asham (“guilt offering”) for violating the ruling.
The chapter – and the Book – ends with a list of those who had married non-Jewish wives. This list goes from verse 20 until verse 43. It’s easy to see that it’s actually a tiny minority of the thousands upon thousands of people that had returned from exile. So why was the intermarriage presented as such a national problem? The entire people, including the leadership, bore partial responsibility for turning a blind eye and giving tacit approval.