The story of Ezra the Scribe takes us back about 23 centuries, to the time when the Jews had returned from the Babylonian exile, had rebuilt the Beth Hamikdosh, and had begun to live a free life on their own native soil. In the year 3408, the construction of the Second Beth Hamikdosh in Jerusalem was under way. Jerusalem again became the center of Jewish life. But the era of the prophets was about to end. Hagai, Zechariah and Malachi were the last of the prophets. There were no more prophets after them, though there never ceased to appear men of wisdom and vision in Israel who were leaders and sages, and inspired their brethren with the spirit of the Torah and of the prophets.
One of the first of these great men who followed on the very heels of the last prophets was Ezra the Scribe. He was born in Babylon, like many of the other great leaders, patriots and sages which the Jewish community in exile had produced. By profession he was a scribe; he used to write scrolls of the Torah, which he knew so well. Ezra was also a priest, a member of the priestly family of Aaron. He was a great scholar and teacher, and all his qualities combined to make him an outstanding figure not merely among his brethren, but also in the court of Artachshashta. A great and secure future lay ahead of him in his land of exile, but Ezra's heart was with his brethren in Jerusalem. It was no easy task for so prominent a man to leave Babylon in order to make his home in the Land of Israel. But eventually king Artachshashta fulfilled Ezra's cherished dream. Not only did he permit him to return to his homeland, but even ordered his representatives and governors everywhere to assist Ezra on his way, and expedite his journey. The Persian king appointed Ezra as a high-ranking officer in the Land of Israel, with powers to appoint judges and officers of the law, and to levy monetary fines, impose banishment and even to impose the death penalty, if necessary.
Ezra left Babylon in the spring, in the month of Nissan, his heart full of excitement and joyous expectancy. He took with him a great deal of gold and silver for the Beth Hamikdosh. The journey lasted almost six months, for Ezra did not arrive in Jerusalem before the month of Ab, at summer's end.
Ezra was accompanied by thousands of enthusiastic patriots who gave up the comforts of their life in exile to begin life anew in their own homeland, ready to face whatever dangers and uncertainties awaited them there.
Upon arrival in the Land of Israel, Ezra was shocked and grieved to find that the spiritual standards of his brethren had sunk to a dangerous low. They had fallen under the influence of the powerful Samaritans and other native tribes, had intermarried with them freely, and a young generation was growing up which was unaware of the great spiritual heritage of Israel. The children did not even know their own Hebrew tongue.
Ezra rent his clothes and grieved bitterly, but he did not give way to despair. He gathered around him the few loyal priests and Levites, the few teachers and patriots among his brethren, in an attempt to restore Jewish life in the Holy Land. A heavy cloud hung on the assembly, for the picture looked dismal and bleak. The hearts of the assembled were full of anxiety and grief, and their eyes were full of tears. Suddenly a man rose and called out: "We have committed a crime against G-d and against our people by marrying non-Jewish women. But we are ready to give them up and part with them and with their children. Arise, Ezra, call upon the people to send away their strange wives! Be strong, firm and fearless!"
The name of this man was Shecheniah ben Jehiel, and his words spurred Ezra to immediate action. He called a great assembly in Jerusalem and proclaimed an order calling upon his brethren to part from their non-Jewish wives. A wave of "Teshuvah" swept the small Jewish community in the holy land; Ezra's leadership began to show real and far-reaching results.
But this drastic action roused the anger of the Samaritans, and awakened their old hatred of the Jewish people. Like enraged beasts they swooped down from their hills and attacked the peaceful inhabitants of Jerusalem. They fell upon the protective walls of the city, smashed and razed them to the ground, and also burned, destroyed and ransacked many homes. The inhabitants of Jerusalem fled in terror, and the Jewish community of the holy city began to dwindle. Once again, many Jews began to seek the friendship of the powerful Samaritans, and Ezra's strenuous efforts to stem the tide of assimilation seemed all but fruitless. For about twelve years the situation grew from bad to worse, for the Jews had no respite from the cruel Samaritans. The situation became very critical. But at the height of the crisis, timely help arrived which saved the day for the Jews in the Land of Israel. This help came through Nehemiah, Ezra's contemporary and great co-worker.