The Bible recounts two episodes of the Jewish people having been held captive in a foreign land until we were ultimately redeemed and allowed to return home. Passover celebrates the first time. The second, the Babylonian exile followed by the rebuilding of the Temple and Jerusalem, doesn’t get a celebratory holiday. There are additional dissimilarities between the two. We were enslaved, persecuted and in a hurry to leave Egypt, whereas we prospered and were largely disinclined to leave Babylonia. Pharaoh was despised and resisted our departure, whereas the Persian king, Cyrus the Great (who ruled Babylonia and made it the world’s first superpower), was exceedingly popular with the Jewish leadership for issuing a proclamation assuring our right to return and pursue our national destiny in the land of Israel.
Cyrus promoted, via royal decree and taxpayer funding, the restoration of Jerusalem and our Temple. As one might expect, several passages in the later books of the Bible direct much praise and gratitude toward Cyrus and his dynasty. The prophet Isaiah even goes so far as to call him a messiah! The editors of our Bible chose his magnanimous proclamation to be its concluding verse.
Several US presidents have been accorded (or accorded to themselves) the status of being a modern day Cyrus. Like him, they were understood to have had the opportunity, or could claim the aspiration, to be the champion of Zion and hero to the Jews. Although some evangelicals and Israeli politicians are experiencing a renewed excitement over Cyrus, mainstream Jewry seems to have largely forgotten about this legendary ruler. Why?
The decisive voice on this topic in the Talmud argues that Cyrus (“Koresh” in Hebrew) started out “kosher,” but he became “chametz.” The Talmud pegs Cyrus as having been guilty of duplicitous behavior, disappointing results, and sexual indiscretion. It is possible the sages were influenced to look for hints of his ruinous trajectory by Herodotus, who was considered the definitive historian of Persia in their day. Herodotus implies that Cyrus, despite his auspicious beginnings and improbable early victories, grew impetuous, overreacted to a minor setback, and allowed himself to be distracted by petty grievances. When a single prized horse was lost crossing a river, Cyrus cursed its waters and demanded his vast army squander much time on digging hundreds of canals in order to divert and enfeeble its current! He resorted to cheap tricks in conflict, fought too desperately, and finally fell in battle to a rival warrior queen, who dealt him the ignoble fate of soaking his decapitated head in a sack made from skin and filled with blood.
Whatever the explanation, Cyrus came to be regarded in the Jewish tradition more as a case of unfulfilled potential than of ultimate success. The memory of his laudatory acts faded. We learned that even a “kosher” leader offering to realize our loftiest dream may prove fatally flawed and, unfortunately, turn out to be “chametz.”
Rabbi Mitch Levine