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Israel Call Me

This Biblical text introduces the idea of the person happily living in the Diaspora who suddenly realizes that the Jewish state/collective needs him and that if he follows his heart and responds to the call, his life is going to change completely. It aims to focus on the question of what happens to Jews when they live in one place but are indeed connected to another place (Israel) which needs their help.

The words of Nehemiah son of Hakaliah:

In the month of Kislev in the twentieth year, while I was in the citadel of Susa, Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men, and I questioned them about the Jewish remnant that had survived the exile, and also about Jerusalem.

They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.”

When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.

The book of Nehemiah (Tanach) Ch. 1 vv. 1-4


Explanation of text:

The story of Nehemiah which appears in the Biblical book that bears his name is fascinating. The book itself is unique. It appears to represent the only autobiographical story told in the entire Tanach. Nehemiah, introduced in the above passage from the very beginning of the book, is a Persian Jew living in Susa (or Shushan) the capital city of the ancient Persian Empire.

His family had got to the area as part of the forced exile of Jews to Babylon (present day Iraq) after the destruction of the first Temple in 586 B.C.E. Babylon itself had been defeated fifty years later and had been taken over by the expanding Persian empire. The Persians, more liberal in their imperial policy than the Babylonians, had allowed those among the Jews who so wished to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild their Temple as part of the Persian Empire.

Most had chosen to stay in Babylon or Persia. Those who chose to return indeed succeeded after some twenty more years to build what was to become known as the Second Temple.

Nehemiah was a high official in the Persian court a couple of generations after these events. From his book we understand that he was a faithful and religious Jew – a good Diaspora Jew, loyal to his king and to his empire, intending to live out his life as a Jew within the Persian Empire.

The event that changed his life is described in the opening verses. A chance meeting with one Hanani, either a blood brother or a fellow Jew, who had just returned from a visit to Judah and Jerusalem, caused Nehemiah to understand that, contrary to his expectations, the community over there and the Jews of Jerusalem were in trouble. The questions that then become clear to him are whether this new knowledge demands anything of him, personally and if so, what?

In that one moment his previous life path dissolves together with the tears, the mourning and the fasting which he describes as his immediate reaction and indeed in the continuation we hear of his decision to ask for leave of office from the Persian king and for authority to go on a journey of thousands of miles to start reorganizing the communities of Jerusalem and Judah, working in the king’s name but on behalf of his own people, the Jews.

It is these reactions that we wish to highlight here: this faithful Jew and loyal servant of the Persian Empire, living a Diaspora Jewish life with no necessary feeling of contradiction between conflicting loyalties, feels the call of his own People and has to decide how to react. And then he acts. How do we react to this story today? What does a story like this say to us today?


For an extended activity based on this text, see the related activity Israel Calls Me.

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