An Open Letter to NehemiahBy Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
Sanvalat, Tovia, Geshem and the rest of the enemies heard that the wall had been completed and there were no more breaches through which they could invade. When the doors were installed in the gates, the opponents lost their last opportunity for entry into the city. Sanvalat and Geshem invited Nehemiah to sit down and talk things over, but it was a trap. Nehemiah returned a message politely declining on the grounds that he was too busy. The enemies invited Nehemiah four times and each time he declined. The fifth time, Sanvalat sent an “open letter.” (This was literally an unsealed letter, as well as the sense we use it today. I wouldn’t be surprised if the expression comes from here.)
The open letter to Nehemiah said, “It is generally accepted that the reason you have been fortifying Jerusalem is that you are preparing to rebel against the empire. There’s talk of Judah becoming an independent state with you as its king. Darius will hear of this, so I strongly suggest that we meet to talk things over.”
Nehemiah replied that the charges in Sanvalat’s letter were baseless. “Nobody really thinks the Jews are planning to rebel against the empire,” he wrote. “You’ve been trying to stop us since we started and now you claim to have our best interests in mind? I don’t think so!”
Nehemiah went to the home of Shemaya, a so-called “prophet” who had been colluding with the enemy behind Nehemiah’s back. Shemaya said that he had heard of an assassination attempt that was planned for Nehemiah. In an effort to avoid it, Shemaya advised him to go to the securest place there was – the Kodesh (Sanctuary) of the Temple. (In actuality, Sanvalat and company had planned an ambush in the very place Shemaya was sending Nehemiah in a vain attempt to avoid one!) From this advice, however, Nehemiah knew that Shemaya was a false prophet and was lying. How? Nehemiah was not a kohein (priest) and non-kohanim were not permitted to enter the Kodesh under pain of Heavenly execution. A real prophet would not have advised Nehemiah to perform an impermissible act. He replied to Shemaya, “I’m the leader – I won’t run away!” Nehemiah knew that his enemies planned to trap him , or at the very least to embarrass him by making him run and tricking him into violating a commandment. He prayed to G-d to remember the deeds of Tovia and Sanvalat, as well as No’adya the prophetess and other prophets who allowed themselves to be swayed to the enemy side.
The wall was completed in 52 days, on the 25th of Elul. When the opponents heard, they were despondent, since they knew that it was from G-d. Despite this, some people in Judah sided with Tovia, since he had a powerful and influential father-in-law and mechutanim. These people would praise Tovia to Nehemiah and shared letters that Tovia sent in an attempt to intimidate him.
One question remains: Who is No’adya the prophetess and why didn’t Nehemiah include Shemaya in his prayer? The Ibn Ezra says that No’adya actually refers to Shemaya. The name comes from Shemaya’s expression in verse 10, niva’ed – “Let’s meet.” The term prophetess is written in the feminine simply to make it agree. So verse 14 could refer to “…the prophet who said ‘let’s meet’ and others.”
Oh, yeah – “mechutanim” is a Yiddish word with no English equivalent. When a couple gets married, what are his parents to her parents (and vice versa)? In Yiddish there’s a term for that – mechutanim. And apparently Tovia had some important ones.