Jew of the Week: Ezra the Scribe

The Sage Who Saved Judaism

“Ezra Reads the Law to the People” by Gustave Doré

Ezra ben Serayah (c. 5th century BCE) was born in Babylon to a family of Jewish priests, kohanim, descendants of Aaron. He spent his early days immersed in Torah study, under the tutelage of Baruch ben Neriah, disciple of the prophet Jeremiah. Ezra soon became the most renowned scholar and scribe in Babylon’s community of exiled Jews. Earlier, the Persian Emperor Cyrus the Great had freed the Jewish community and permitted them to return to Israel and rebuild the Temple. While the majority stayed in Babylon, a group of 42,360 Jews returned to rebuild Jerusalem. Unfortunately, few among them were learned, and in those first decades many ended up intermarrying with the non-Jewish settlers that were brought to Israel by the Assyrians and Babylonians. Ezra soon decided to head to Israel himself, along with a second wave of 1,500 Jews. Upon arrival, he wept at the poor state that the Jewish community was in. He immediately started teaching Torah, decreed that the Torah must be read publicly every Monday and Thursday (which is still done in all synagogues today), and put an end to intermarriages. So successful were his campaigns that the Tanakh states the Jews started to keep the holidays as properly and fervently as they did in the times of Joshua, the successor of Moses. As a priest, Ezra was involved in restoring the new Temple’s services. More importantly, he was able to discover and prepare a new Red Heifer, allowing the entire nation to be spiritually purified. Ezra wrote numerous holy texts, and is fittingly known as Ezra HaSofer, “the Scribe”. He composed the majority of the Book of Chronicles, which concludes the Tanakh, as well as the Book of Ezra, which records the historical events of the time. Ezra was one of the last prophets of Israel, and penned his prophecies under the name Malachi, also a Biblical book. He was one of the co-founders of the Great Assembly, a group of 120 prophets and sages who, among other things, codified the Tanakh and composed the first formal Jewish prayers (including the Amidah). The Talmud credits Ezra with reviving the Torah in the Holy Land, and even states that had Moses not given us the Torah, Ezra would have been worthy of doing so. He passed away on the ninth of Tevet, which is next Monday.

Words of the Week

Predicting rain doesn’t count, building an ark does.
– Warren Buffet

Jew of the Week: Ed Koch

The Man Who Made New York Great Again

Ed Koch

Edward Irving Koch (1924-2013) was born to poor Polish-Jewish immigrants in The Bronx. He was drafted to the US Army in 1943 and sent to Europe as an infantryman, earning three medals of distinction. Because he could speak German, he remained in Europe after the war to help dismantle the Nazi government. Returning to New York, Koch studied at City College, then got his law degree from NYU. He worked as a lawyer for the next two decades, and during that time became an influential member of the Democratic Party. In 1967 he was appointed to the New York City Council, and two years later was elected to the US House of Representatives. Though he was originally “just a plan liberal”, he soon became a “liberal with sanity” (in his own words), realizing that at times liberal ideology was illogical and harms the very people it aims to help. He was renowned for his human rights efforts, as well as for combating communism and dictatorships. This drew the ire of various foreign governments (including Uruguay and Chile, who unsuccessfully plotted to assassinate him). Koch served in Congress until 1977, resigning only to take the post of New York City’s mayor under a platform of restoring “law and order”. He fulfilled his campaign promises, among them hiring 3500 new police officers to make New York safer. He ended the riots, and saved New York from its deep economic crisis. Koch was a beloved mayor, easily winning re-election in 1981 with 75% of the vote, and again in 1985 with 78% of the vote. When Chabad wanted to put up a public menorah for Chanukah, he readily agreed, and made sure it would be “the world’s largest”. In fact, he paved the way for other cities to do the same. (Amazingly, a lighting ceremony in Manhattan one Friday afternoon went behind schedule, so Koch summoned a helicopter to transport the rabbi back home to Brooklyn in time for Shabbat!) Despite a stroke in 1987, Koch recovered and continued faithfully serving his city. A year later, he took a strong stand against Jesse Jackson’s run for president (citing Jackson’s anti-Semitic comments). This lost him the support of most black voters, and Koch narrowly missed re-election in 1989. He returned to practicing law, and also became a professor at NYU. He spent more time writing, publishing a children’s book and contributing to a number of newspapers. Back in 1984 he had already published a memoir, Mayor, which became a bestseller and was later turned into a hit Broadway musical. Koch was a big movie buff, and his film reviews became legendary. Koch himself appeared in over 60 films and TV shows. He continued lecturing and going on speaking tours, often in support of human rights, and always in support of Israel. New York’s Queensboro Bridge was renamed after him, and there is a street named after him in Tel-Aviv, too. Koch’s funeral was attended by thousands, with the NYPD doing a fly-over, and eulogies by Bill Clinton and Michael Bloomberg. He asked his tombstone to simply state the Shema, along with the final words of journalist Daniel Pearl, who was kidnapped and brutally murdered by terrorists: “My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish.”

Where in the Torah is Chanukah?

Words of the Week

A small hole in the body is a big hole in the soul.
– Rabbi Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezeritch (1704-1772)

American-Israeli astronaut Jessica Meir tweets her Chanukah wishes from the International Space Station, with a photo of her Chanukah socks.