There is a moving story in the book of Nehemiah chapter 8 where the people of Israel gathered in Jerusalem after their return from exile and asked the scribe and priest, Ezra, to read to them the Torah. It was an assembly of men, women and all with understanding – the whole community came together. Ezra was assisted by Levites and lay people “with interpretation…so that the people understood the reading” (verse 8).
In that assembly, Ezra was the representative of the religious, while Nehemiah, the governor, represented the civil establishment. The reading went on from early morning to midday that September day in 444/443 BCE. Furthermore, the celebration that followed lasted for 24 days, the longest celebration in the bible.
What we see in this chapter is an occasion for renewal, for the whole community.
These were people who had come back from the worst experience they had ever experienced. They renewed their common purpose and celebrated as they started their new journey together. They had God and hope for the future. That was the source of their joy and celebration – as the text says, “do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength” (verse 10).
Often we are tempted to despair and lose hope because of past experiences.
During the inaugural celebrations earlier this week, there was a lot of comparisons between four years ago and today. Every commentator was keen to contrast the 1.2 million people who attended the first inauguration with the less than a million this year. There was contrast between the hope that filled the crowd then and the less than enthusiastic mood now. The expectations of four years ago are no longer today’s.
Yet, hope is not momentary. Neither should our expectations be. Something deeper than our emotions or short-term achievements and disappointments sustains our hope and expectations. For the people of Israel on that day reminiscent of the Sinai experience, it was the renewed community, its commitment to the Torah and the Lord who is the source of every joy and strength.
We, too, can learn from their experience.