Haftarat Pesach—Ezekiel: Dry Bones

April 12, 2017 at 3:43 pm | Posted in Ezekiel, Passover/Pesach | Leave a comment
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During the week of Passover/Pesach, we pause in the annual cycle of Torah readings to commemorate the story of the liberation from slavery in Egypt. The first evening of Passover (or the first and second evenings, in some traditions) is devoted to the seder, a 14-step ritual with a meal and a story that goes from the beginning of Exodus through the crossing of the Reed Sea. One of the many songs in the ritual can be translated as “We were slaves; now we are free!”

After the excitement of the seder or seders, Jews are supposed to spend the rest of the week of Passover eating matzah and eschewing all other grain products. On the Shabbat that falls during this week we get two special readings. The Torah reading comes from later in the book of Exodus, when God proclaims Its “thirteen attributes” to Moses on top of Mount Sinai.1 The haftarah reading is a vision from the book of Ezekiel.

The hand of God came over me, and it brought me out by the ruach of God and set me in the middle of the broad valley [which] was full of bones. And it swept me over them, around and around, and hey!—there were very many on the surface of the broad valley, and hey!—they were very dry.  And [God] said to me: “Son of humankind, will these bones become alive?   And I said: “My lord God, [only] You know.”  (Ezekiel 37:1-3)

ruach (רוּחַ) = wind, spirit, breath. (Plural ruchot, רוּחוֹת.)

Ezekiel uses the phrase “the hand of God came over me” to mean that God overpowered him and compelled him to enter his vision.2 After asking Ezekiel if the dry human bones can come to life, God tells his prophet what to say to the bones.

Valley of the Dry Bones
by Gustave Dore, 1866

And I prophesied as I had been commanded. And a sound happened, as I was prophesying, and hey!—a clatter!—and the bones drew close [to each other], a bone to its bone. Then I looked, and hey!—they had sinews and flesh on them, and skin spread over them. But there was no ruach in them.  (Ezekiel 37:7-8)

Next God instructs Ezekiel to bring breath—or spirit—into the bodies by saying:

Thus said my lord God: Ruach, come from the four ruchot, and blow into these slain, and they will become alive. And I prophesied as [God] commanded me. And the ruach came into them, and they became alive, and they stood up on their feet—a very, very great force.  (Ezekiel 37:9-10)

What does this vision mean? Some early commentators viewed it as a literal statement that some dead Israelites were, or would be, resurrected.3 But in the book of Ezekiel, God explains the vision as a metaphor or parable.

And [God] said to me: “Son of humankind, these bones are the whole house of Israel.  Hey! They are saying: ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope has perished, and we are cut off’. Therefore prophesy, and you shall say to them: ‘Thus says my lord God: Hey! I, Myself, am opening your graves, and I will lift you out of your graves, My people, and I will bring you back to the soil of Israel. … And I will put My ruach inside you, and you will become alive [again], and I will put you back on your soil.  (Ezekiel 37:12, 14)

The book of Ezekiel was written in the 6th century B.C.E. during the Babylonian Exile. When the Babylonians conquered Judah, the southern kingdom of the Israelites, they deported its leading families to Babylon, including Ezekiel’s family of priests.  Ezekiel prophesied to his fellow exiles, who were inclined to despair of either returning to their old land, or building new lives among the Babylonians, who treated them as paroled prisoners.

After showing Ezekiel the vision of the dry bones coming to life, God tells Ezekiel to give new hope to “the whole house of Israel”: both the Israelites from the kingdom of Judah who have given up on their lives in Babylon, and the Israelites whom the Assyrians had deported from the northern kingdom of Israel about 150 years earlier.

It is never too late to come to life again.

*

At the beginning of Passover, we tell the story of God’s ten miracles and how God, with the prophet Moses, leads a few thousand subjugated people out of Egypt to a new land that will become their own.4 On the Shabbat during Passover, we read about God’s demonstration to Ezekiel that miracles are still possible, and God can liberate the subjugated people in Babylon and give them a new life ruling their old homeland.

May everyone today who slides toward despair receive the ruach to hold onto hope instead. May we all create new lives for ourselves, and build good countries wherever we may be.  It is not too late.

1  Exodus/Shemot 33:12-34:2.

2  Rashi (1th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki), commentary on Ezekiel 37:1. In Hebrew, the phrase is hayetah (הָיְתָה) = it happened; alai (עָלַי) = over me; yad (יַד) = hand, power; of God. See also Ezekiel 1:3, 3:22, and 8:1.

3  In the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 92b, the rabbis argue about whether Ezekiel’s vision is a parable, or whether he actually resurrected some long-dead skeletons. Rabbi Yehudah bar Batyra claims to be a descendent of one of the resurrected men!

4  Unfortunately, the “promised land” in the Torah is already occupied by Canaanites. In the book of Joshua the ex-slaves from Egypt have to fight and defeat the indigenous peoples in order to take over their land. History often clashes with morality. It is a challenge today to provide liberty and justice for all the people residing in a country.

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Terumah & Psalm 74: Second Home

March 1, 2017 at 2:13 pm | Posted in Ki Tissa, Psalms/Tehilim, Terumah | 3 Comments
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(One of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms.)
David Addresses God, P. Comestor Bible Historiale

David Addresses God, Petrus Comestor Bible Historiale, 1372

Where does God live?

The “heavens” are the primary residence of many gods, including the God of Israel in the Hebrew Bible.  In Canaanite and Babylonian religions, the gods inhabit both the heavens and any number of statues on earth.  The God of Israel flatly rejects idols, but still wants a second home on earth.  In this week’s Torah portion, Terumah (“Donations”), Moses is receiving instructions from God on top of Mount Sinai.  God tells him:

They shall make a holy place for me, veshakhanti among them. Like everything that I show you, the pattern of the mishkan and the pattern of all its furnishings, that is how you shall make it.  (Exodus/Shemot 25:8-9)

veshakhanti (וְשָׁכַנְתִּי) = and I will dwell, and I will stay.   (A form of the root verb shakhan (שָׁכַן) = stay, settle, dwell, inhabit.  This is the first occurrence in the Bible of the verb shakhan.)

mishkan (מִשְׁכָּן) =  dwelling-place, home.  (Also from the root verb shakhan. This is also the first occurrence in the Bible of the noun mishkan.)

Gold calf from the temple of Baalat in Byblos

Gold calf from the temple of Baalat in Byblos

Moses stays on top of Mount Sinai so long—40 days and 40 nights—that in the Torah portion Ki Tissa the Israelites at the foot of the mountain despair of seeing him again.  So they make a golden calf in the hope that God will inhabit it.1 God refuses the golden statue and threatens to destroy all the Israelites except Moses and his direct descendants.  Moses refuses God’s offer, and God settles for sending a plague.2

Cloud descends on the mishkan

Cloud on the mishkan

After the surviving Israelites have built an elaborate portable tent-sanctuary according to God’s instructions, God descends on it in a pillar of cloud.3  In the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, God speaks to Moses from the empty space above the ark in this mishkan’s innermost chamber.

Throughout the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers the only mishkan for God is the portable tent-sanctuary. In the first book of Samuel a temple in Shiloh houses the ark, and God speaks to Samuel there.4

King Solomon builds a temple of stone and wood in Jerusalem for God to inhabit.  (See my post Terumah & 1 Kings: Tent vs. Temple.)  This temple lasts until the Babylonian army razes it in 587 B.C.E., along with most of the city.

Psalm 74 argues that this act was not merely a political conquest by the expanding Babylonian empire, but an attempt to eradicate the worship of God by destroying God’s home on earth. The psalmist, like most prophets writing after the fall of the first temple, probably believed God arranged the fall of Jerusalem in order to punish the Israelites for worshiping idols. Now that the punishment is complete, the psalmist is waiting for God to rescue the deported Israelites (and punish the Babylonians).

            Why, God, do You endlessly reject us?

                        Your anger smokes at the flock You tended.

            Remember Your community You acquired long ago!

                        You redeemed the tribe of your possession.

                        Mount Zion is where shakhanta.  (Psalm 74:1-2)

shakhanta  (שָׁכַנְתָּ) = you dwelled, you lived. (Another form of the verb shakhan.)

History repeats itself: Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, by David Roberts, 1850 (history repeats itself)

History repeats itself:
Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, by David Roberts, 1850

The psalm then describes how the Babylonian army replaced all the emblems of the Israelite religion in the temple with their own emblems, hacked up the carved ornamentation, and burned the wooden parts of the building down to the ground.

            They set Your holy place on fire;

            They profaned the ground inside the mishkan of Your name.  (Psalm 74:7)

Given this disrespect, and given that the Israelites are the people God adopted and brought to Jerusalem in the first place, Psalm 74 asks why God is taking so long to restore God’s own mishkan, city, and people.

            Why do you draw back Your right hand,

                        Holding it in Your bosom?  (Psalm 74:11)

The psalm then points out that God created the world and the day and night, then did great deeds without a mishkan on earth. Lack of power is not holding God back.  And the Israelites, particularly the poor and needy, belong to God.

           Look to the covenant!  (Psalm 74:20)

If God would only pay attention, the psalm implies, God would honor Its covenant, restore the Israelites to Jerusalem, and cause a new mishkan to be built there to facilitate worship.

           Do not let the miserable turn back disgraced.

                        Let the poor and the needy praise Your name!  (Psalm 74:21)

In Psalm 74, the mishkan of God is also the mishkan of the people. They need their own home, and they need to have a home for God in their midst.  Then, instead of suffering miserably, the needy can praise God and rejoice.

*

Many Jews still want a home where we are free to praise God, to practice our own religion without fear or discrimination.

Half of the Jews in the world live in the nation of Israel, founded in 1948 as a homeland where Jews could escape the genocide, as well as less drastic forms of discrimination, inflicted on them in Europe. Yet over the next 69 years, the Jewish and Muslim residents of Israel have been attacked both by neighboring countries and by each other.

Most of the Jews living outside Israel today are American citizens. Discrimination against Jews in the United States has fallen over the past sixty years, and many of us view America as our real home, where we can participate in the life of our country and remain free to practice our own religion. God has many second homes among religious American Jews; every synagogue is a divine mishkan, and each of us can make a mishkan for God to dwell in our own hearts.

Yet in the past year, discrimination against ethnic and religious groups has become more socially acceptable in the United States.  Psalm 74 suddenly seems more relevant.

I pray that the divine spirit blooms in all of our hearts.  May we quickly reverse this dangerous trend.  And may all people, everywhere, find a safe home.

           Do not let the miserable turn back disgraced!

1  Exodus 32:1-5.

2  Exodus 32:35:  Then God struck the people over what they had done with the calf that Aaron made.

3  Exodus 40:33-34:  When Moses completed the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the magnificence of God filled the mishkan.

4  1 Samuel 3:1-10.

Shemot and Psalm 137:  Cry Like a Baby

January 20, 2017 at 10:48 am | Posted in Psalms/Tehilim, Shemot | Leave a comment
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This week begins the reading of the book of Exodus/Shemot in the Jewish tradition. This year my posts on Exodus will relate each Torah portion to one of the psalms.

Too many foreigners live in the country, from the Pharaoh’s point of view in this week’s Torah portion. Unlike those who fear immigrants in our own time, the Pharaoh is not afraid that the Israelites will take jobs from native Egyptians. He is afraid that if another country makes war on Egypt, these foreigners will join Egypt’s enemies.

Pharaoh's decree, by Michiel van der Borch, 1332

Pharaoh’s decree, by Michiel van der Borch, 1332

Instead of integrating the Israelites into Egyptian society to win their loyalty, the Pharoah enslaves them, requiring that the men do forced labor. He also tries to reduce the population.

Then Pharaoh commanded his entire people, saying: “Every son that is born, you shall throw him into the Nile. But every daughter you shall keep alive”. (Exodus/Shemot 1:22)

And a man from the house of Levi went out and married a daughter of Levi. And the woman conceived and she bore a son, and she saw that he was good, and she hid him for three months. (Exodus 2:1-2)

Commentators have suggested many reasons why the baby (later named Moses) is “good”. But since his mother (later identified as Yokheved) is able to hide the baby for three months, the simple answer is that he is placid and quiet. As long as his mother is there whenever he wakes up, Moses does not cry.

Why could Yokheved no longer hide him after three months? The commentary offers different theories. I suspect that Moses happens to be three months old when Egyptian bullies start searching the houses of Israelites for baby boys to drown.

It occurs to Yokheved that the best hiding place for an Israelite baby boy is the Nile itself. She tars a floating box made of papyrus stems, and places Moses inside. Then she carries it to the pool where a woman of the royal family goes to bathe, and wedges it among the reeds so the current will not carry it away. The care with which Yokheved picks the spot shows that she hopes her baby will be discovered and adopted.

detail, Golden Haggadah, c.1420 Spain

detail, Golden Haggadah, c.1420 Spain

And the daughter of Pharaoh went down to bathe in the Nile, and her maidens were walking next to the Nile. And she saw the floating box among the reeds, and she sent her slave-girl to fetch it. (Exodus 2:5)

The princess sees the box; she does not hear any crying. Moses, rocking gently inside, is probably asleep.

And she opened it and she saw the child, and hey! It was a boy, bokheh! And she felt pity for him, and she said: “This is one of the children of the Ivrim”. (Exodus 2:6)

bokheh (בֺּכֶה) = weeping, crying, sobbing, wailing. (From the root bakhah, ּבָּכָה = wept.)

Ivrim (עִבְרִים) = Hebrews; immigrants. (From the root avar, עָבַר = passed over, crossed through, emigrated.) Egyptians in the book of Exodus sometimes call the Israelites the Ivrim.

The story continues like a fairy tale, as the Pharaoh’s daughter ends up paying Moses’s own mother to nurse him, then adopts him after he is weaned. But why does Moses begin to cry when the princess opens the lid of the box? Probably the sudden sunlight wakes him—and then, instead of seeing the familiar face of his mother, he sees a stranger.

All infants cry when they are suddenly deprived of their primary caregivers, just as adults cry when someone they are deeply attached to dies. The world is strange and frightening without that familiar presence.

People may also cry when they are forced to leave their homes and live in a strange place. Yet when the Israelites and their fellow travelers follow the adult Moses out of Egypt, they “leave with a high hand” (Exodus 14:8). They rejoice rather than weep because they are choosing to leave a life of slavery and seek a new land to make their home.

On the other hand, in Psalm 137 the Israelites weep when the Babylonian army deports them from Jerusalem many centuries later, circa 586 B.C.E. They have no choice; they are forced to leave their homeland and live as foreigners in a strange place.

           psalm-137-1By the rivers of Babylon

           There we sat down, bakhinu,

           when we remembered Tziyon. (Psalm 137:1)

bakhinu (בָּכִינוּ) = we wept, cried, sobbed, wailed. (From the same root, bakhah, as in Exodus 2:6.)

Tziyon (צִיוֹן) = Zion; a hill overlooking Jerusalem; Jerusalem itself as a religious center.

The deportees weep when they see the place where they must now live. It even looks different from their motherland.         

Prisoners playing lyres from Sennacherib's palace, Nineveh, circa 700 B.C.E.

Prisoners carrying lyres, palace of Sennacherib, Nineveh, c. 700 B.C.E.

           Upon the poplars in her [Babylon’s] midst,

            Our lyres will remain hung. (137:2)

            Because there our captors asked us for words of song,

            Our oppressors for rejoicing:

            “Sing to us some song of Tziyon!” (137:3)

The Babylonian officers ask the deportees to entertain them by singing one of their quaint, provincial songs from Tziyon. If the officers merely wanted a folk song, they might have asked for a song from Jerusalem or Judah. By using the word Tziyon, the Babylonians are referring to Jerusalem as a religious center. Thus they remind the Israelites how helpless they are, even in matters of religion, now that the Babylonian army has razed the temple and deported them.

            How can we sing a song of God

           On the soil of a foreign land? (137:4)

The Israelites, and the Jews descended from them, do eventually sing sacred songs in foreign lands—including the psalms once sung in the temple. But in Psalm 137, they recoil from the idea of singing a hymn to God in order to let the Babylonians mock and humiliate them.

            If I forget you, Jerusalem,

            May my right hand forget. (137:5)

            May my tongue cling to my palate,

            If I do not remember you,

            If I do not exalt you, Jerusalem,

           Above my highest joy. (137:6)

            Remember, God, the Edomites

           On the day of Jerusalem, who said:

            “Strip it! Strip it down to the foundations!” (137:7)

According to the book of Obadiah, probably also written in the 6th century B.C.E., the men of the nearby land of Edom joined the Babylonians in sacking the city of Jerusalem (Obadiah 1:11-13).

            Babylon the despoiler,

            Fortunate are those who will retaliate for your retaliation against us! (137:8)

            Fortunate are those who will seize and smash

           Your little children on the rock! (137:9)

I picture the Israelites reacting like children, full of desperation at the loss of their mother land and religion, suddenly under the thumb of cruel and all-powerful foreigners. Toddlers in that situation might well scream with outrage and hatred at the mean strangers who have kidnapped them. It takes time to cool down, grow up, and consider the ramifications of one’s initial reaction. For a whole society, it can take centuries.

When the infant Moses cries at the sight of a stranger, it is because the stranger is not his mother, and he fears he has lost his mother forever. When the Israelite deportees cry at the sight of the rivers of Babylon, it is because Babylon is not their home, and they fear they will lose everything that means home to them: their identity, their way of life, and their religion.

They promise themselves they will never forget Jerusalem. Perhaps they recall the stories about Moses as an adult, who breaks with his royal Egyptian family to rescue the Israelite slaves.  He never forgets his mother and his own people.

May every one of us remember those we have loved and lost. May we remember our true homes—whether they are the homes we were born into (like the Israelites in Psalm 137), or the homes we adopt (like the Israelites that Moses leads out of Egypt in the book of Exodus).

 

Haftarat Vayiggash—Ezekiel: You Can’t Go Home Again

January 2, 2017 at 8:20 am | Posted in Ezekiel, Vayiggash | Leave a comment
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets) in the Jewish tradition. This week’s Torah portion is Vayiggash (Genesis 44:18-47:27), and the haftarah is Ezekiel 37:15-28.

Cut a board into two pieces, then glue them back together. The glued board is not identical to the original board.

Ezekiel, by Michelangelo

Ezekiel, by Michelangelo

Yet Ezekiel, in this week’s haftarah, says two separate ethnic groups that once shared a religion will again become one nation.

And the speech of God happened to me, saying:  And you, son of Adam, take yourself one piece of wood and write on it “belonging to Judah and to the Children of Israel, its chaveirim”. And take another piece of wood and write on it “belonging to Joseph, the wood of Ephraim and all the household of Israel, its chaveirim”. And bring them close, one to the other, to [make] yourself one piece of wood; and it will be as one in your hand.” (Ezekiel 37:15-18)

chaveirim (חֲבֵרִים) = comrades, companions, partners. (From the root verb chavar, חָבַר = allied, joined forces.)

In the book of Genesis/Bereishit, Jacob has twelve sons and acquires a second name, Israel. Jacob’s favorite son, Joseph, alienates his ten older brothers. Led by Judah, the ten young men sell Joseph to a slave caravan bound for Egypt. (Jacob’s twelfth son, Benjamin, is still a baby at the time.) In this week’s Torah portion, the brothers are reunited after a final confrontation between Joseph and a reformed Judah. Their descendants become the twelve tribes of Israel—who escape from Egypt 400 years later, as one people called the “Children of Israel”.

All twelve tribes settle in Canaan, but they only become a unified nation called “Israel” under King David, according to the second book of Samuel. After the death of the next king, Solomon, the northern part of the country secedes.

circa 800 B.C.E.

circa 800 B.C.E.

The new northern kingdom calls itself Israel, since it includes the traditional lands of most of the original tribes. Its richest and most dominant tribe is Ephraim, which is the name of one of Joseph’s sons. In Ezekiel’s time the northern kingdom no longer exists, but one piece of wood represents the descendants of its people by listing Joseph, Ephraim, and the tribe’s chaveirim or companion tribes from the former kingdom.

The truncated southern kingdom calls itself Judah/Yehudah. It includes only two tribal lands: the large area of Judah and the small traditional territory of Benjamin. They, too, are Children of Israel.

For two centuries the kingdoms of Israel and Judah are uneasy neighbors—sometimes allies, sometimes enemies. What they continue to have in common is their attachment to the same God (often called “the God of Israel”)—though they disagree about the correct number of temples and how to furnish them.1

The Neo-Assyrian Empire conquered the northern kingdom of Israel in 740-721 B.C.E. and deported its leading citizens, leaving only its peasants and a few puppet administrators. During several waves of deportation, some northerners escaped to Judah.map-assyrian-babylonian-deportations

The southern kingdom of Judah survived another 150 years or so by paying tribute to Assyria. Then the Neo-Babylonian Empire swallowed the Assyrian Empire and went on to conquer Judah and its capital, Jerusalem, in 601-586.  King Nebuchadnezzar’s army deported Judah’s leading citizens (including Ezekiel) to Babylon, leaving only peasants and puppet administrators.

God instructs Ezekiel to continue his performance art with the two pieces of wood until someone asks him to explain it. Then, God says, Ezekiel must answer:

Thus says my lord God:  Hey! I myself … will be making it one piece of wood. And they will be one in My hand…  (Ezekiel 37:19)

Thus says my lord God: Hey! I myself will be taking the Children of Israel from among the nations where they have gone, and I will collect them from all around, and I will bring them to their land. And I will make them a single nation on the land, in the hills of Israel, and one king will be king for all of them. And never again will they be two nations… (Ezekiel 37:21-22)

Ezekiel can only hold the “Judah” stick and the “Joseph” stick together to make one piece of wood symbolically. But God promises to reunite the two peoples literally, making them chaveirim who are not merely allies, but a single, seamless kingdom as in the time of David. This kingdom will be a home for everyone who worships the God of Israel; one land with one king, one capital (Jerusalem), and one temple, greater than the first.

Yet in human experience, time is unidirectional. We cannot go backward; our world never returns to the way it used to be. We can only go forward, building with the material we have now. Boards cut from a tree can never become a tree again, but we might make them into a chair.

Ezekiel’s prophesy never came true. After the Persian Empire took Babylon in 539 B.C.E., some of the exiles from Judah did return to Jerusalem and build a second temple, and some of their descendants served as provincial governors of Judea. Other Judahites stayed behind, building a thriving Jewish community that eventually produced the Babylonian Talmud. Most of the exiles the Assyrians deported from Israel were assimilated and lost their identity and religion.

There never was another independent kingdom of Israel. The third “temple” in Jerusalem is a mosque. After millions of Jews were killed by the Nazis and their collaborators, the nation of Israel was created in 1948 C.E., and its population now includes almost half the Jews in the world. Almost as many Jews live in the United States. If Ezekiel were here to prophesy today, he would write “Israel” on one piece of wood and “U.S.A.” on the other.

Yet the two groups of Jews are so dissimilar that only a trickle emigrate from one nation to the other. Currently, American Jews are generally respected by their fellow Americans; Israeli Jews dominate Israel and deal with entirely different issues. I cannot imagine the two groups forming a single nation in a single land, even if there were room for all of us.

*

May all human beings, of any religion or tradition, recognize that we can’t go home again; if we try, we find that our old home has changed. Change is the nature of this world, the world of the God whose personal name is a form of the verb meaning “to become”.2

I pray that we may all move beyond Ezekiel’s vision; that we may all find new ways to help our own identities, our communities, and our religions grow, wherever we live. And may we also find new ways to work together with people who were once strangers.

__

1 The opinion of Judah prevailed in the Hebrew Bible: that there should be only one temple, in Jerusalem, and the only statues allowed are the two keruvim, mythical winged creatures. (See my post Cherubs Are Not for Valentine’s Day.) The Bible criticizes the northern kingdom of Israel for maintaining temples at Dan and Beit-El as well as its capital, Samaria, and for the golden calves standing at the entrances of the temples in Beit-El and Dan (2 Kings 10:29).

2 YHVH = the Tetragrammaton or four-letter personal name of God that Jews consider most sacred. The name appears to be a form of havah or hayah (הוה or היה), the root of the verb “to be”, “to happen”, or “to become”, although it is a form that does not fit any standard Hebrew verb conjugations.

Haftarat Eikev—Isaiah: Abandonment or Yearning?

August 24, 2016 at 8:37 pm | Posted in Eikev, Isaiah 2, Psalms/Tehilim | 2 Comments
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Eikev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25) and the haftarah is Isaiah 49:14-51:3).

            How can we sing a song of God

            On foreign soil?

            If I forget you, Jerusalem

            May I forget my right hand. (Psalm 137:4-5)

Babylon

Babylon

Psalm 137, like this week’s haftarah, is about the Babylonian Exile. In 586 B.C.E. the Babylonian army deported the last leading families of Judah and its capital, Jerusalem. These Israelites were stuck in the capital of the Babylonian empire for 48 years, until Babylon surrendered to the Persian king Cyrus, who declared freedom of movement and freedom of religion in 538 B.C.E..

In Jewish history, which spans millennia, 48 years may not seem long.  But for individuals it was a long time to remember their old home and their old god—especially if they were born in Babylon, and had only their elders’ memories to go by.

            Why did I come and there was nobody,

            [Why] did I call and there was no answer? (Isaiah 50:2)

Usually when someone in the Hebrew Bible cries “Why have you forsaken me?” it is an Israelite addressing God. But in this week’s haftarah, God feels forsaken by the Israelites who have adjusted to life in Babylon.

In the second book of Isaiah, God is preparing to end the rule of the Babylonian empire, rescue the Israelite exiles, and return them to Jerusalem and their own land. (See last week’s post, Haftarah for Va-etchannan—Isaiah: Who Is Calling?) But it is no use unless the Israelites trust their God and want to go home.

map of BabylonImagine you were kidnapped and taken to a strange city. Your life there was comfortable, but you were not free to leave. Would you accept your new reality, adopt the customs and religion of the city, and make it your home?

That must have been the strategy of the Israelites that the Assyrian armies deported from Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel, in 729-724 B.C.E.—because the Bible never mentions them again.

Or would you cling to your memories and your old religion, hoping that someday you would escape and go home?

This is the strategy that the second book of Isaiah advocates for the Israelites living in Babylon.

Reading between the lines, I imagine some Israelites moving past their trauma, falling in love with Babylonians, and assimilating. I imagine others stuck with post-traumatic stress disorder, trying hard not to remember their old lives or God or Jerusalem. And I imagine a few stubborn individuals clinging to the belief that their God was alive and well, and would someday rescue them and return them to their motherland.

But how could the believers convince their fellow Israelites to take heart and wait for God?

This week’s haftarah tries a new approach: Stop thinking about yourselves, and remember the parents you left behind!  How do they feel—your homeland, which is like a mother, and your God, who is like a father?

The haftarah begins with the land—called Zion for one of the hills in Jerusalem—crying that God has forsaken her, too.

And Zion says:

            God has abandoned me,

            And my lord has forgotten me! (Isaiah 49:14)

So far, Zion and God sound like lovers. But this is not another example of the prophetic poetry claiming that the people of Israel are straying after other gods like a wife who is unfaithful to her husband.  In this haftarah, the innocent land is Zion, and the people are Zion’s children. Zion lies in ruins after the war, empty and desolate because her destroyers (the Babylonians) stole all her children.

God reassures Zion by telling her:

            Hey! I will lift up My hand to nations

            And raise My banner to peoples,

            And they shall bring your sons on their bosoms

            And carry your daughters on their shoulders. (Isaiah 49:22)

In this poem God will arrange for foreigners (like King Cyrus) to return Zion’s children to Jerusalem. The poet or poets who wrote second Isaiah probably hoped that if discouraged exiles thought of Jerusalem as a mother missing her children and longing to have them back, their hearts might soften, and they might want to return to her.

Then, second Isaiah says, they would hear God ask:

           Why did I come and there was nobody,

            [Why] did I call and there was no answer?

            Is my hand short, too short for redemption?

            And is there no power in me to save? (Isaiah 50:2)

What if their god, their father, had not been defeated when the Babylonian army captured Jerusalem? What if God really had planned the exile to punish them, as Jeremiah kept prophesying during the siege, but now the punishment was over and God missed the Israelites? What if their father, their god, really was powerful enough to rescue them and take them home to Zion?

If both parents, God and Zion, are yearning for them, then the Israelites in Babylon might start yearning for God and Zion again.

*

Decree by Cyrus

Decree by Cyrus allowing captives in Babylon to return to their native lands

It worked. After King Cyrus issued his decree, bands of Israelites from Babylon began returning to Jerusalem, a thousand or so at a time. Under Ezra and Nehemiah they built a new, larger temple for God. The former kingdom of Judah became a Persian province administered by Jews, and the expanded, monotheistic version of their religion, founded by second Isaiah, survived.

Today, two and a half millennia later, yearning for Jerusalem is built into Jewish daily liturgy. At the end of the Passover seder in the spring and Yom Kippur services in the autumn we even sing out: “Next year in Jerusalem!”

Almost half of the Jews in the world today live in the United States. We are free to emigrate to the nation of Israel, as long as we meet Israel’s requirements. Only a few do so. Are religious American Jews still exiles?

Or has God become both the mother and the father we yearn for, while Jerusalem is now a pilgrimage site?

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