Nehemiah – Chapter 2

You Break It, You Buy It

By Rabbi Jack Abramowitz

A few months later, in the month of Nisan, Nehemiah was bringing wine to Darius, who noticed that his valet was looking uncharacteristically somber. This aroused the king’s curiosity. He said, “What’s wrong with you? You’re not ill. Perhaps you look so grim because you’ve poisoned my wine.” This accusation concerned the heck out of Nehemiah (who was no doubt fond of his head and wished to keep it), so he was quick to disabuse Darius of this misimpression.

“May your majesty live forever!” Nehemiah exclaimed. “The reason I’m so upset is that my ancestral homeland is desolate and its gates are burned!”

“I see,” replied Darius. “What can I do to help?”

“If it pleases your majesty,” Nehemiah beseeched, “please allow me to go to Jerusalem to oversee its reconstruction.”

The king deferred to his mother (whom the reader may know as Queen Esther, from the Book that bears her name), who obviously was in favor of the plan. Darius gave his permission and he and Nehemiah worked out a date by which the king’s servant was due back at his duties. Nehemiah requested various letters from the king so that the governors of the districts he would pass through would provide him with safe passage and an escort. He also needed a letter so that Asaf, the man in charge of the forests of Lebanon, would give him cedar for the project. The king gave him the letters, as well as an escort to the border.

News of Nehemiah’s arrival in Jerusalem did not please everyone. A man named Sanvalat and a man named Tovia (who was an Ammonite slave) were enemies of the Jews and did not want this project carried out. Store that information aside; we’ll come back to it shortly.

After three days in Jerusalem, Nehemiah started on his task. He arose at night with some assistants, but he didn’t tell anyone his plans. He didn’t bring any animals, except for the one he was riding, so that the party would be all the more inconspicuous. They left the city through the Valley Gate, passed through a place called Ein HaTannin, and returned through the Dung Gate, so called because it was the exit that led to the trash heap. (This is apparently not the same as the gate we know by that name today.) Nehemiah actually increased the size of the holes in the walls, drawing greater attention to their state of disrepair. Nehemiah had wanted to go to the Spring Gate (so called because of the flowing water there) and the pool used to water the king’s horses and gardens, but there was no place for his mount to pass, so he went home, inflicting more damage on the wall as he went.

The local officials knew that Nehemiah had gone somewhere, but they didn’t know where. He hadn’t told anyone the details of his mission, and he certainly wasn’t going to tell them at this point that he had surreptitiously made the damage to the wall worse. Now he said to them, “You see how bad things are? Just look at the condition of that wall – it’s not secure at all! I’m here to lead a fix-it project so we won’t have any more wall-related problems!” This struck everyone as an excellent idea…

…except for Sanvalat and Tovia, who were now joined by a third antagonist, Geshem the Arab. They made fun of the project and claimed that it was rebellious to the throne. (They claimed that the reason the Jews wanted to fortify the city was to secede.) Nehemiah replied that no matter what their opponents said, G-d would grant them success. The wall would be rebuilt and those who were complaining had no say in the matter because Jerusalem is ours, not theirs. (Does any of this sound the least bit familiar?)

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