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GTP Readers Theater


AN ANCIENT FUTURE

A play with two characters:

—Nehemiah (costumed, if possible), who speaks to us from Jerusalem in the fifth century BCE; and

—And a contemporary Jew who speaks to us from our own city.

Props: two stools

Scene: the two characters are seated on the stools, facing the audience, about eight feet apart

 

Nehemiah: In the month of Kislev of the twentieth year. . . one of my brothers, together with some men of Judah arrived, and I asked them about the Jews who had survived the [Babylonian] captivity and about Jerusalem. And they told me, “The survivors there in the province are in dire trouble and disgrace; Jerusalem's wall is full of breaches, and its gates have been destroyed by fire.”

Contemporary Jew: My son told me the other day that kids at his school are fighting and threatening each other all the time. He doesn't want to fight with them but he doesn't know what else to do.

Nehemiah: When I heard that, I sat and wept, and was in mourning for days, fasting and praying to the God of heaven.

Contemporary Jew: Sometimes I feel like weeping when I see what's happening, the hatred between the kids.

Nehemiah: I was the king's cupbearer at the time. . . . I took the wine and gave it to the king. The king said to me, “How is it that you look bad, though you are not ill? It must be bad thoughts.” I was very frightened, but I answered the king, “How should I not look bad when the city . . . of my ancestors lies in ruins, and its gates have been consumed by fire?” The king said to me, “What is your request? . . . I answered the king, “. . . Send me to Judah, to the city of my ancestors' graves, to rebuild it.”

Contemporary Jew: I'm only one person. Am I supposed to save the kids and rebuild the city?

Nehemiah: After I was there [in Jerusalem] three days I got up at night . . . [and] I went out by the Valley Gate and I surveyed the walls of Jerusalem that were breached, and its gates, consumed by fire.

Contemporary Jew: I walked several miles the other day through the city and what I saw depressed me—empty store-fronts and jobless men, street people begging me for money; I saw the bus bench where two kids were killed in a drive-by shooting. Skinheads hanging out in front of Thrifty's, loaded, acting obnoxious.

Nehemiah: Then I said [to the local leaders], “You see the bad state we are in—Jerusalem lying in ruins and its gates destroyed by fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem and suffer no more disgrace.” And they said “Let us start building!” When Sanballat [the governor] and Tobiah [the major landowner] . . . heard [about this], they mocked us and held us in contempt and said, “What is this that you are doing? Are you rebelling against the king?” I said to them in reply, “The God of heaven will grant us success, and we His servants, will start building.”

Contemporary Jew: I can see the trouble we're in, but what am I supposed to do? Get into a fight with politicians? What'll that accomplish? And where am I going to find help?

Nehemiah: Then . . . the high priest and his fellow priests set to [work] and rebuilt the Sheep Gate. . . . Next to him, the [people] of Jericho built. . . . Next to them, Zaccur son of Imri. . . . The [family] of Hassenaah rebuilt the Fish Gate, they roofed it and set up its doors, locks, and bars. . . . Next to them, Meremoth son of Uriah repaired; and next to him, Meshullam son of Berechiah. . . . and so on until we rebuilt the wall to half its height [100 feet]; for the people's heart was in the work.

Contemporary Jew: Would my neighbors work with me If I tried to help turn things around? I barely know them.

Nehemiah: When Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the wall, it angered him, and he was extremely vexed. He mocked the Jews, saying in the presence of his brothers and the Samarian force: “What are the miserable Jews doing? Will they restore [the city and the Temple], offer sacrifice, and finish [rebuilding the city] one day? Can they revive those stones out of the dust heaps, burned as they are?”

Contemporary Jew: Sometimes I'm afraid to get involved. Things seem so far gone, I don't know if we can bring them back.

Nehemiah: And our foes were saying, “Before they know it or see it, we shall be among them and kill them, and put a stop to the work.” [And I said] “Do not be afraid of them! Think of the great and awesome Lord, and fight for your brothers, your sons and daughters, your wives and homes!” I further said to the people at that time, “Let every man with his servant lodge in Jerusalem, that we may use the night to stand guard and the day to work.” There was a great outcry by the common folk and their wives against their brother Jews. Some said, “Our sons and daughters are numerous; we must get grain to eat in order that we may live!”

Contemporary Jew: I'm overwhelmed just trying to keep my own family together—what am I going to do to fix a whole generation of families?

Nehemiah: The wall was finished on the twenty-fifth of Elul, after 52 days. When all our enemies heard it, all the nations round about us were intimidated . . . ; they realized that this work had been accomplished by the help of our God. [Then] my God put it into my mind to assemble the nobles, the [local leaders], and the people. . . .

Contemporary Jew: In the face of all this, can I count on God and the congregation to help me?

Nehemiah: When the seventh month arrived . . . the entire people [of 50,000] assembled as one . . . in the square . . . .

Contemporary Jew: Would the Jews of this city gather as one?

Nehemiah: [T]hey asked Ezra the scribe to bring the Scroll of the Teaching of Moses. . . . [and] they read from the Scroll. . . . [T]he people were weeping as they listened to the words of the Teaching.

Contemporary Jew: What's the Torah got to do with me trying to live and work and hold a family together?

Nehemiah: The Levites . . . said: “Rise, bless the Lord your God who is from eternity to eternity. . . . `You alone are the Lord. . . . You are the Lord God, who chose Abram, who brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans and changed his name to Abraham. Finding his heart true to You, You made a covenant with him. . . . You took note of our [forebears'] affliction in Egypt, and heard their cry at the Sea of Reeds. . . . You led them by day with a pillar of cloud and by night with a pillar of fire, to give them light in the way they were to go. . . . You came down on Mount Sinai and spoke to them from heaven; You gave them right rules and true teachings, good laws and commandments. . . . You gave them bread from heaven when they were hungry, and produced water from a rock when they were thirsty. . . .

Contemporary Jew: Who's going to lead our children?

Nehemiah: In view of all of this, we make this pledge and put it in writing. . . . an oath with sanctions to follow the Teaching of God, given through Moses the servant of God, and to observe carefully all the commandments of the Lord. . . . The officers of the people settled in Jerusalem; the rest of the people cast lots for one out of ten to come and settle [and rebuild] the holy city of Jerusalem. . . . .

Contemporary Jew: Am I supposed to believe that God's promises are for me?

Discussion Questions

  • Why do you think so many diverse people in the Nehemiah story were able to work together successfully as a kahal poalei tzedek (a congregational community of doers of justice and righteousness), and ultimately rebuild Jerusalem?
  • What do you imagine people learned from rebuilding the wall and gates together?
  • What was their common vision from Torah for their city?


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