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.

Haftarah for Pinchas –1 Kings: The Sound of God

July 6, 2014 at 10:29 pm | Posted in Kings 1, Pinchas | 1 Comment
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When people in the Hebrew Bible see a manifestation of God, they nearly always see either fire (from the flames in the burning bush to the sparks of fire in the pillar or cloud), or something human (from Abraham’s guest to the feet on the sapphire pavement).

When they hear a manifestation of God, they usually hear words. I have found only two exceptions in the Hebrew Bible. One is in the book of Exodus, when God descends upon Mount Sinai, and all the Israelites hear (and see, perhaps through synesthesia) thunder and the sound of a shofar (a loud wind instrument made from an animal’s horn). The cracks of thunder and the increasing volume of the shofar blasts would make the sound of God unbearably loud.

Ram's Horn Shofar

Ram’s Horn Shofar

The other exception is in this week’s haftarah, when the prophet Elijah hears God as what the King James translation calls “a still, small voice”.

A haftarah is the reading from the prophets that accompanies the week’s Torah portion. This week’s haftarah, from the first book of Kings, opens with the prophet Elijah running before the chariot of King Ahab.

In the scene just before, Elijah had staged a dramatic contest on Mount Carmel, where there were altars to both Baal and the God of Israel. King Ahab (who was away from his wife Jezebel at the time) summoned all the people to the mountaintop as witnesses. Elijah invited 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah to call on their gods, while he alone would call on the God of Israel. (The prophets of Asherah did not show up, but the contest proceeded anyway.) A bull was killed and laid over wood at each altar, but nobody was allowed to bring fire to burn the offerings. Elijah said:

You will call your gods by name, and I, I will call God by name. And it will be the god that answers with fire, that one is the god. And all the people answered, and they said: It is good! (1 Kings 18:14)

Elijah increased the drama by giving the prophets of Baal all day to work themselves into an ecstatic frenzy, and by pouring water all over the God of Israel’s altar. No fire ever appeared on Baal’s altar. In the evening, when water was dripping into the trench around God’s altar, Elijah called on God by name.

And the fire of God fell, and it consumed the rising-offering and the wood and the stones and the dirt, and it licked up the water that was in the trench. And all the people saw, and they fell on their faces, and they said: That god is the god! That god is the god! (1 Kings 18:38-39)

The Israelites helped Elijah kill all 450 prophets of Baal. A three-year drought ended. And Elijah ran as an honor guard before King Ahab’s chariot as they returned to the king’s nearest palace, in the fortress of Jezreel.

Haftarat Pinchas begins with this triumphal run. Then Ahab’s wife Jezebel, the real ruler of the kingdom, nixes the mass conversion and threatens to kill Elijah.

The prophet flees, lies down in the wilderness to die, then gets up again at the request of an angel and walks all the way to Mount Horev (another name for Mount Sinai). There God speaks to him—first in words, as usual.

Then the word of God [came] to him, and it said to him:  Why are you here, Elijah?

And he said: I was very zealous for God, the God of Armies, because the Children of Israel had abandoned your covenant, and pulled down your altars, and killed your prophets by the sword. And only I was left, and they tried to take my life. (1 Kings 19:9-10)

Elijah is in despair because Queen Jezebel won. He forgets that the Israelites fell on their faces, shouted that the God of Israel is the only god, and killed Baal’s prophets. He either does not believe, or does not care, that the people’s feelings about God have changed. All that matters to him is that he lost the contest with Queen Jezebel for political power. Her gods, and the rest of her prophets, will remain in the kingdom of Israel whether the people support them or not.

God tells Elijah to stand up, and then gives him a wordless demonstration.

And hey! God was passing by, and a big and strong wind was tearing off mountains of rocks in front of God; but God was not in the wind. And after the wind, an earthquake; but God was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake, fire; but God was not in the fire. And after the fire, kol demamah dakkah. And when Elijah heard, he wrapped his face with his robe, and he went out and stood at the entrance of the cave; and hey!—a  voice [came] to him, and it said: Why are you here, Elijah? (1 Kings 19:11-13)

kol (קוֹל) = voice; sound.

demamah (דְּמָמָה) = quiet (without much movement or sound); stillness; silence.

dakkah (דַקָּה) = very thin; finely ground, powdery.

kol demamah dakkah = “a still, small voice” (King James translation); “a soft murmuring sound” (Jewish Publication Society translation); a “sound of thin silence” (Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg translation); a faint sound of quietness (my translation).

Elijah hears the sound of quietness, steps out to the mouth of the cave, and covers his face. That means he knows God is in the quietness, since God told Moses no one may see God from the front.

Then God asks him the same question: Why are you here, Elijah? And Elijah gives the same reply, word for word—as if he had learned nothing. So God tells him he must anoint a young man named Elisha to be a prophet in his place.

I agree with the many commentators who concluded that Elijah is too impatient in his zeal; he wants the spectacle of fire (or, presumably, windstorm or earthquake) to turn Israel back to God all at once. He is not interested in a quiet, gradual approach. And that is why God decides to retire Elijah and try a new prophet.

But I also wonder about the three ways of hearing God: as ear-splitting blasts and booms, as spoken words, and as a faint sound of quietness.

We are only human. When we want to plan, or communicate, or understand something complicated, we turn to language. Even musicians and visual artists who are working alone must think in words when they address other aspects of their lives. Our brains automatically translate much of our experience into words and language.

Maybe one difference between a prophet and an ordinary person is that a prophet can easily translate experiences of God into words. So for them, God manifests as spoken words.

For the rest of us, our occasional numinous experiences are hard to understand, hard to put into words. A shaft of sunlight or a haunting bird call might trigger an awareness of something greater—but we struggle just to describe it. Our brains do not translate these evanescent and ineffable experiences into direct speech from God.

In the book of Exodus, God manifests to all the non-prophets at Mount Sinai as unbearably loud noise. The people are terrified, and beg for God to speak only to Moses; their prophet can then translate what God says into words spoken at a reasonable decibel level.

But in the book of Elijah, when the prophet hears God ask him a question in words—Why are you here, Elijah?—he answers defensively, stuck in a repetitive loop of his own words, his own story about himself. Any further insight from God cannot get through. So God resorts to non-verbal communication.

Elijah hears the windstorm, the earthquake, and the fire. Then he hears God in the “still, small voice,” the faint sound of quietness. But he does not understand.

Does God manifest to us, sometimes, as quietness?

Can we understand?

Vayeilekh: The End of Days

August 27, 2013 at 11:57 pm | Posted in Vayeilekh | 3 Comments
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Will we win the human race, or self-destruct? Will there ever be a time without war, a time without evil deeds?

And what about my own nation, religion, or people? Will we ever learn how to get it right, and become a good model for the rest of the world?

I think people’s longing for answers to these questions creates a demand for prophecies. Even if we will not live to see it, we want to know the eventual outcome.

In the Hebrew Bible, if someone makes a prediction containing the idiom be-acharit hayamim, it is probably a prophecy inspired by God. This idiom appears 15 times in the Hebrew Bible, eight times in a speech attributed to God or an angel of God, and seven times in a speech by someone we know God has been talking to: Jacob, Bilam, Moses, Isaiah, Daniel.

be-acharit = at the end, in the aftermath, as an outcome, in the future. (From achar = after, afterwards.)

hayamim = (literally) the days; (as an idiom) a long period of time, an era.

be-acharit hayamim = (literally) “at the end of days”; (as an idiom) in the distant future, as a long-term outcome.

Most of the prophecies of be-acharit hayamim are about the future of the people of Israel, and describe events that happened up to and including the building of the second temple in Jerusalem in the 5th century B.C.E. (Prophecies about neighboring kingdoms foretell events in the same time period.)

One of Moses’ prophecies about the Israelites appears in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeilekh (“And he went”):

For I know that after my death, you will indeed go to ruin, and you will turn aside from the path that I commanded you, and you will call down evil on yourselves, be-acharit hayamim; for you will do what is evil in the eyes of God, offending [God] through the doings of your hands. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 31:29)

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses stops on that gloomy note. But earlier in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses says what will happen afterward. After the Israelites have reverted to idol-worship and doing evil in God’s eyes of God, other nations will defeat them, and the remaining Israelites will suffer exile. But then the exiles will seek out God again.

When you are in distress and all these things have found you, be-acharit hayamim, then you will return to God, your god, and you will listen to Its voice. (Deuteronomy 4:30)

Two other prophecies about the future of the Israelites go on to foretell the future of all humankind. One prophecy of our ultimate future appears in the book of Isaiah and is quoted in Micah; the other comprises the last three chapters of the book of Daniel. The two predictions are mutually exclusive, and neither course of events has occurred yet.

Here is Isaiah’s prophecy:

And it will happen, be-acharit hayamim, the mountain of the house of God will stand firm at the head of the mountains, and be lifted above the hills; and all the nations will be a river. And many peoples will say: “Go, let us go up to the mountain of God, to the house of the god of Jacob, and [God] will teach us Its ways.” …and they will beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation will not lift sword against nation, and they will not learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:2-4)

This passage in the book of Isaiah is one basis of the majority opinion in Jewish commentary that the ultimate future of the world is the “messianic era”, a time when the whole world will live in peace, under the supervision of a descendant of King David. This leader will be called the moshiach = anointed one, but unlike the Christian messiah, he will be a righteous human being who is eventually anointed as a king. The world will continue with the same natural laws; the only difference is that all human beings will behave well, and follow the same god.

The last chapter of Daniel, however, is a precursor to the Christian book of Revelation, and hints at the end of the world and natural law. Daniel has a vision and faints; then a hand shakes him, and when Daniel stands up he realizes an angel is speaking to him. The angel says:

I come to make you understand what is summoning your people be-acharit hayamim, because there is another vision for the era. (Daniel 10:14)

The angel begins by foretelling that Persia will defeat Egypt in long war, but then will be overrun by other peoples from the northeast. This will put the Israelites in dire straits, but some of them will escape to safety.

The next sentence is mysterious: And many who are sleeping in the dusty earth will be awakened: these for everlasting life, and those for everlasting abhorrent disgrace. (Daniel 12:2).

Daniel asks the angel for clarification, but the angel refuses to explain. The angel ends the book by saying: But you, go on to the keitz; then you will rest, and then you will stand up to be assigned your fate at the keitz hayamim. (Daniel 12:13)

keitz = end, limit, boundary, farthest point.

keitz hayamim=the farthest limit of time.

Daniel’s angel seems to switch from talking about future events during the course of time (be-acharit hayamim), to the end of time for this world (keitz hayamim). This is the only occurrence in the Hebrew bible of the phrase keitz hayamim.

It may also be the first written prediction of a resurrection of the dead combined with a final judgment consigning people to heaven or hell. This idea did not get much traction in Judaism, at least not until many centuries later, when Jews were living in the diaspora among medieval Christians. But it must have influenced the Christian book of Revelation.

Isaiah’s prophecy about the future of humankind is optimistic that humans can change dramatically for the good. No supernatural miracles will be required for all the peoples of the world to adopt the same god (or more importantly, the same values), and stop making war.

The final prophecy in the book of Daniel is pessimistic, It assumes that good people from the past must be resurrected in order to lead people to knowledge and righteousness, and that even then, kings will continue to make war, lie, and magnify themselves, and the wicked will continue to act wickedly. Only a supernatural final judgment will resolve the problem.

Some people still hope for a messianic age, as in Isaiah’s prophecy. Some still anticipate the apocalypse hinted at in Daniel. Even without reference to a bible, people who ponder the future of the world can be divided into two camps. Some people believe the ethical level of humanity will continue to improve, rapidly enough so we will save our polluted earth as well as ourselves. Others believe we will never get our act together in time.

I prefer to hope for the future, even as I wonder what will happen to the world while we wait for the ignorant and the selfish to become enlightened.

Meanwhile, Moses’ two prophecies about the future of the Israelites can be applied to individual enlightenment. Now more than ever we find God in a connection with our individual souls or psyches. If we replace the word for “God” with the word “soul”, and recast the sentences for the present time, here is what we learn:

After the loss of your rebbe/guru/mentor, you will turn aside from the path, and as an outcome you will call down bad consequences on yourself; for you will do what your own soul knows is wrong, and you will offend your soul through your bad deeds. (based on Deuteronomy 31:29)

And when you are in distress and all these bad consequences have happened, as the long-term outcome of straying from the path, then you will return to your inner soul, and you will listen to its voice. (based on Deuteronomy 4:30)

I pray that enough people find enlightenment inside themselves, and dedicate their lives to doing no harm, and repairing what they can repair. I am ready to beat my spear into a pruning hook!

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