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By James Vasquez
King Artaxerxes ruled the throne,
And twenty years had reigned,
When news of Judah came to me,
And how her fortunes waned.
Jerusalem was quite exposed,
I learned in great dismay,
Her gates had suffered from the torch,
Her walls in ruins lay.
And Jews till now in exile had,
Returned from every place,
Who thus without defenses would,
A greater danger face.
And overcome with sadness, then,
For days I mourned and wept,
And to my God a prayer I said,
While I my fasting kept,
"O great and awesome Lord of all,
O God of heav’n above,
Who keeps for those who do his will,
His covenant of love,
"Now hear your humble servant’s prayer,
And let your ear attend,
As I my people’s sins confess,
Our customs to amend.
"For I and all my father’s house,
In truth, all Israel’s kin,
Have turned aside from Moses’ law,
And chose, instead, to sin.
"And rightly did you scatter us,
Among the enemy,
When from your law we turned our face,
And acted faithlessly.
"But then in kindness you forgave,
And from the nations took,
Our people once again as we,
Our blasphemies forsook.
"Your servants, Lord, whom you restored,
Now hopefully await,
Within our city’s shattered walls,
To learn what is their fate.
"O hear my voice, most gracious God,
And grant to me, I pray,
Success as to this man I go,
To make my plea today".
The king had charged me with the wine,
I bore the cup to him,
Assuring that each drop within,
Was safe right to the brim.
And so I entered, cup in hand,
Before this monarch wise,
Who, when he saw my sadness asked,
To my complete surprise,
“And what has come about, good man,
This sadness to impart?
For this can be naught else, I think,
But sadness of the heart.“
I told him that my brother came,
And brought this word in haste,
“The city where my fathers lie,
Is ruined and a waste.
"And why should not my face, O king,
Be sad at what I’ve heard,
With city walls and gates destroyed,
And all that has occurred?“
Now even greater my surprise,
When he then said to me,
“What is it that you wish, my son,
And what your humble plea?“
"O grant in this one moment, Lord,
That’s come upon me now,
That wisely I may choose my words,
And fearlessly, somehow".
“If I have pleased the king,“ I said,
“And favor I have found,
Then send me on to Judah where,
Your name is quite renowned,
"And let your servant also take,
Some letters with your seal,
That safely I may venture there,
And our sad plight repeal.“
Now God’s good hand was on me for,
All that I did request,
Was granted by my lord, the king,
Who nothing did protest.
He asked naught more than to be told,
The length of my sojourn,
Well pleased was he with what I did,
And wished me to return.
So when I finally had arrived,
My gaping eyes lay desolate,
And ravaged by her war.
Her enemies still dwelt within,
For quickly did I learn,
Quite ill disposed were some that I,
Had shown, for her, concern.
By night I ventured out the gates,
And round the battered wall,
Through valleys and the ruins there,
I thus surveyed it all.
A gathering I quickly called,
Of nobles, priests and those,
Whose hands would join us in the work,
My mission to disclose.
“Now come, O Israel, put your hand,
To this great work we face,
And let us build this wall again,
To banish our disgrace.
"For God has put his gracious hand,
Upon me for this task,
And by his will the king has giv’n,
All I of him did ask.“
And to my great delight they all,
Of one accord did say,
“This grand and noble work we’ll do,
And let’s begin today!“
Then once again our enemies,
Did mock and ridicule,
“And will you now defy the king,
And violate his rule?“
“You have no share,“ I answered them,
“In this great city now,
For God will grant prosperity,
According to his vow.“
You should have seen what happened then,
When once we did commence,
I’d not before seen such a force,
Nor have I seen it thence.
For everywhere you looked the men,
Were seen to come and go,
Repairing, building, and their loads,
Transporting to and fro.
Now daughters, too, were counted there,
And none were found to shirk,
For right beside their brothers they,
Joined forces in the work.
The merchants, Levites, priests as well,
Forsook their other plans,
As best they could assisting all,
And dirtied both their hands.
The nobles had not worked like this,
Nor with such labor coped,
And, all in all, it seemed that they,
Were not quite what we hoped.
But as for all the rest, I say,
It was a glorious sight,
As once again God’s people were,
Together in the fight.
And thus the gates were set in place,
The wall began to rise,
We saw the work of God progress,
And tears flowed from our eyes.
But then Sanballat rose and with,
Tobiah at his side,
He mocked the work that we had done,
In words both mean and snide.
“And will these Jews in but a day,
This city build again?
Will they restore to life its stones,
These hopeless, feeble men?“
"Now look upon us, Lord above,
And how we are despised,
And turn their insults on themselves,
For what they have devised,
"And send them far afield into,
Captivity for they,
The builders have insulted and,
Your precepts disobey.
"May all their goods be plundered well,
And cover not their guilt,
Remove them from Jerusalem,
Till all its walls are built.
"We saw one day the wall had ris’n,
To half its former height,
And we rejoiced exceedingly,
At this most welcome sight".
But others who our progress saw,
Were clearly not inclined,
To celebrate this circumstance,
Nor cause for gladness find.
And as their anger then increased,
They plotted our downfall,
For to Jerusalem they’d come,
To fight us, one and all.
Our voices then, did we lift up,
To God most earnestly,
But also posted guards around,
For our security.
So with their swords and bows and spears,
Each family I placed,
And urged them all to fight against,
The enemy we faced.
“Now fight this wicked foe who comes,
Assuring each survives,
Among your fathers, brothers, sons,
Your daughters and your wives.
“Remember, too, that God is great,
And awesome is his power,
Rise up, O Israel, and save,
This dark, portending hour.“
So from that day while some performed,
With shovel, pick or hoe,
The half of all our men stood guard,
To watch against the foe.
We worked from morning’s early light,
Till stars above us shined,
Nor did I, while the work went on,
A change of clothing find.
And if the foe was not enough,
My people added more,
In truth, the way we’ve fought ourselves,
Is found throughout the lore.
For some were forced by other Jews,
To sell their homes and land,
To buy much needed food and grain,
And have enough on hand,
While others were unable to,
The royal taxes pay,
For quite deprived, they found themselves,
Of land or field or hay.
But some I learned, most tragically,
Yet paid a greater cost,
Their children had been bought as slaves,
Their daughters, thus, were lost.
And then my anger was aroused,
I flayed them savagely,
Both noble and official for,
It mattered not to me.
I ordered them to restore all,
That from their brethren they,
Had taken so rapaciously,
And thus in full, repay.
“And will you not fear God?“ I said,
“Or seek a better name,
Among our Gentile enemies,
Than what your actions claim?“
I shook my robe most violently,
And said, “In this way God,
Will shake the man from all he owns,
Who o’er this path has trod.“
So one and all they promised to,
Give back what they had seized,
And put an end to their demands,
That I might be appeased.
"Remember all that I have done,
For your great people’s sake,
And grant that I might fully of,
Your favor, Lord, partake".
The enemy was not yet through,
They then invited me,
To leave my city and to meet,
With them quite secretly.
But well aware was I of all,
The harm they sought to do.
"Increase my strength once more, dear God,
And let it be in you.
Remember, too, my enemies,
For all their wicked part,
Who ceaselessly endeavor to,
Intimidate my heart".
How great the day, - it finally came!,
Jerusalem did stand,
Surrounded by a wall at last,
Magnificent and grand!
Now when our enemies looked on,
They wondered at the sight,
And gone was all their confidence,
And even more, their fight.
The nations round about beheld,
And they, as well, were awed,
For they perceived beyond a doubt,
This work was done by God.
"Now kindly, Lord, remember me,
For all my labors here,
And let your love upon me rest,
Your favor, Lord, be near".
from the November 2005 Edition of the Jewish Magazine