Today we change books in the first reading and we begin our reading of the book of Ezra. The book traces the return of the people to Jerusalem, the rebuilding of the temple, and the building of the Wall to protect the city.
What is most fascinating is where the book begins, not with a Moses or other Israelite prophetic figure, but with Kurush bozorg, which we translate as Cyrus the Great.
Cyrus was the King of Persia (Iran) and it was this "pagan" that the book of Ezra records as having been inspired by God, after his conquest of Babylon (539 BC), to call the people of Israel back rebuild their temple in gratitude to the "God of Heaven."
Once more the scriptures foil our attempts to draw bright lines separating us and them, and remind us that as Isaiah told us yesterday, God's ways are not our ways. God speaks to, and inspires whomever he will.
On a more pragmatic front, scratch the surface of your average Iranian even today, and underneath you will still find a person who knows and is proud of their Persian history, and their contribution to the worlds of art and science. Many people unfortunately mistakenly think of them as Arabs, and believe that the present post 1979 revolution Iran, is "the way they have always been." Nothing could be further from the truth. The Iran of today is 32 years old, a merely blink in history.
The book of Ezra reminds us that the end of the period known as the Babylonian captivity is thanks to a Persian who listened to the voice of God. It reminds us of a time when Jews and Persians worked together. Let us pray that the cooperation we see in Ezra may be seen once more in the world we call the middle east.