On a visit to the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem a few weeks ago, I learned about a place called Al Yahudu. Al Yahudu was a village in Babylonia (now Iraq) where Jews exiled from Israel by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia settled some 2,500 years ago. The story of the village is told in a special exhibit at the museum using fascinating artifacts that were excavated in Iraq, along with a multimedia presentation that tells the story of the destruction of Jerusalem, the difficult journey to Babylonia as captives and the lives of the exiles in captivity (Click here to see the video). The artifacts on display in the exhibit include clay tablets on which are inscribed the names of Jewish families and individuals who rebuilt their lives in Al Yahudu after experiencing the catastrophe of destruction and exile.
From these tablets and other pieces of archaeological evidence, the story of the march through history of the Jewish people becomes vivid. The exhibit connects the finds to Biblical verses, making them come alive. It’s clear that after exile, the Jews built meaningful and productive lives. Most were farmers, but some were involved in trades and crafts. Some even held positions in the local administration of their region. Within a little more than a century, King Cyrus allowed the Jews to return to Israel where they built the Second Temple, but many remained in what became Persia, reinforcing that the Jews would develop their unique religion and culture in the Diaspora, outside of the Land of Israel.
On a map of Babylonia displayed in the Bible Lands exhibit, Al Yahudu is located in the south east of the country, about 200 miles distant from another Babylonian (later Persian) city- Shushan. Yes, that’s the same Shushan that we’ll read about in the Book of Esther on Purim next week. The Purim story is historical fiction, a farcical story told to make a point. There probably was no King Achashverosh or Queen Esther, but there was a place called Shushan, and it was located not far from Al Yahudu, the village where the Jews first arrived from Israel. The Purim story, aside from being hilarious, was written to encourage and uplift the Jews living in Persia that they would be safe and could have a prosperous future even if they lived outside of the Land of Israel. It’s a tale of survival, with the quiet, hidden hand of God guiding His people to safety even in dangerous places.
That’s one of the messages I see in the story of Al Yahudu, and the story told in Megilat Esther. Our survival as a people results from our determination to carry our traditions forward, on our dedication to our way of life, and perhaps even on the quiet, hidden hand of God guiding us to safety. The Jews who were exiled from Israel back in the 6th century BCE to Babylonia established the village of Al Yahudu and there they survived, even flourished. We might ask how that was possible. Indeed, how is it possible that the Jewish story continues in the world more than 2,500 years later? That’s one of the hidden questions in the Book of Esther as well.
Given the odds against our survival across the centuries, why is it, do you think, that we have survived and thrived?
P.S. I do hope you will be at Oheb Shalom to celebrate Purim on the evening of Wednesday, March 4. Check www.ohebshalom.org for details.