Today, many voices are yelling from the proverbial rooftops. Too often, though, they are of a demagogic variety, words spouted with the only intention to rile and to enrage rather than enlighten. The discourse between reasonable people, once so valued and vital to the continuance of civil society, has been replaced by an ever-increasing escalation of ad hominem attacks, character smears, and vacuous tête-à-têtes meant only to dull minds rather than uplift them. Contemporary society longs for wisdom, but in an era where prophecy no longer occurs, how can we reconcile the degradations of society with a positive message of moral change? Asked another way: What is the meaning of prophecy in a society that chooses to ignore its inner moral yearnings?
One of the recent guides to improving a collective vision of societal betterment is Rabbi Dr. Dov S. Zakheim's newly released, must-read book Nehemiah: Statesman and Sage (Maggid Publications). Nehemiah, whose contribution to biblical literature is less well-known when compared to his forbears Isaiah and Jeremiah, nonetheless is a figure worthy of study and rumination. Rabbi Dr. Zakheim, the former Under Secretary of Defense, places Nehemiah in a unique, dual context as an ethical philosopher and practical politician. In approaching the text, Zakheim appreciates both traditional sources (midrashim and commentators) and also critical academic scholarship. In his words, Zakheim laments that Nehemiah isn't given more status in Jewish appreciation: "It is a pity that even traditional Jews who are well versed in biblical lore have only a passing knowledge of this great man's life, times, and accomplishments" (6). The book, as such, is not a biography of the man, but an accessible, erudite work that allows readers to extrapolate the fifth century world (as Nehemiah saw it) and how we can apply those lessons in the twenty-first century.
The intertwining of religion and politics, as we know from our post-modern perch, is usually a hazardous combination. But during the days of Nehemiah and the Prophets, the expectation was that a society would choose a religion and weave it into civil society. How best to do that, however, was up to dispute. Interests of state--to keep peace or to make conquest--needed influential leaders. And those leaders needed strong voices in their decision-making process. The standard thought of hoary kings sending out men to die does not offer us much inspiration for us to go out into the world and make positive change. Thus, in the preface to his book, Zakheim writes that it was the great prophet Nehemiah himself who helped motivate him toward government work and helped guide his moral deliberations:
I admired Nehemiah as a man who made a lasting mark both as a statesman and as a religious leader, one whose activities offered an enduring example for later generations to emulate. As I moved up the ranks of officialdom, Nehemiah continued to offer a compelling model of what leadership and religious commitment were all about (ix).
So then, it is an asset to readers that Zakheim understands both Torah and government and presents the life of Nehemiah as one motivated by the desire to see the betterment of the Jewish people while improving the broader society in which they lived. Nehemiah was both active in the Jewish rebuilding of Jerusalem during the Second Temple period as well as a governor of Persian Judea under Artaxerxes I of Persia (fifth century BCE). And many of those efforts have been misunderstood by later commentators and students of the Scripture. For though Nehemiah was a "man who revived in his demoralized people the sense of religious and national commitment," he also "struggled to establish a viable, pulsating, dynamic Jewish polity."
Zakheim describes why Nehemiah was such a pivotal figure in his time:
It was Nehemiah who successfully reconstructed Jerusalem's walls and provided for its security just over a half-century after the Temple was rebuilt. And it was Nehemiah who restored national pride and imposed a social and religious order based on tradition, justice, and decency (2).
Professor Martin Lockshin, a leading Bible scholar, writes about the prophet's activist zeal to protect the tradition.
Nehemiah, perhaps the more astute political pragmatist, tried to prevent future intermarriages, not to terminate existing ones. In other areas, Nehemiah took strident steps. He rebuked Jewish community leaders for allowing commerce in Jerusalem on the Sabbath. Once he won that battle and successfully closed Jerusalem to commerce on the Sabbath, he chased away merchants who tried to circumvent the blue laws by setting up shop outside the city walls (Nehemiah 13:14-22)...The book of Ezra was written mostly in Aramaic, but Nehemiah's memoir, entirely in Hebrew, mentions how he railed against those who were raising children who could not speak proper Hebrew (Nehemiah 13:24).
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, one of the great Torah sages of our time, has written about Nehemiah: "Not only was he a man of great spiritual and intellectual powers, but he was also a brilliant man of action" (Biblical Images, 208). That Nehemiah was a great man with flaws only cements his work, rather than diminish it. The legacy of Nehemiah remains complicated and the rabbis of the Talmud, for their part, had an ambivalence toward him. They reasoned that the basis for why he initially didn't have his own book in the Bible was due to his lack of humility and that he was too self-serving for his own causes (Sanhedrin 93b). Zakheim notes that: "Nehemiah's memoir was subsumed within the Book of Ezra; it was only in the Middle Ages... that Nehemiah was credited with his own book of Scripture" (2-3).
The author should be celebrated for calling our attention back to our core priorities. For contemporary readers, the main takeaway from Zakheim's book is clear: We need more people like Nehemiah if we are to progress as a society. Too often we are consumed with the notion that personal flaws translate into weaknesses of leadership. Perfection isn't a virtue when lives are at stake. Even if there are qualms with certain facets of an individual's disposition or ethos, personal character development is a noble cause that all should strive for. Indeed, it is not mere actions that engender positive change, but the moral character demonstrated in the process. That's an inspiring requirement for religious as well as secular leadership.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V'Aretz Institute and the author of nine books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.