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.

Haftarat Beha-alotkha—Zechariah: Not by Might

June 24, 2016 at 12:13 am | Posted in Beha-alotkha, Zechariah | 1 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). This week the Torah portion is Beha-alotkha (Numbers 8:1-12:16) and the haftarah is Zechariah 2:14-4:7.

Zechariah by Michelangelo

Zechariah by Michelangelo

“Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, saith the LORD of hosts.” (Zechariah 4:6—King James translation)

This line from the haftarah in the book of Zechariah is famous in both Jewish and Christian circles. But what does it actually mean?

Zechariah was probably born in Babylon; that is where the upper classes of the kingdom of Judah, including Zechariah’s grandfather Iddo, were deported after King Nebuchadnezzar’s army razed Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E.

Only 46 years later, the Persian king Cyrus marched into Babylon and quickly seized the whole Neo-Babylonian Empire.  While Nebuchadnezzar had ordered the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, King Cyrus declared an empire-wide policy of religious tolerance, and authorized the exiles from Judah to return to Jerusalem and build another temple to their own god.

map Persian and Babylonian EmpiresAccording to the book of Ezra, the first large group of Judahites to return to Jerusalem was led by Zerubavel, a grandson of Judah’s next-to-last king, Yehoyakhin. This group also Zechariah, a grandson of the priest Iddo.

The famous line in the book of Zechariah is preceded by a vision:

And the angel who was speaking to me returned, and it roused me as a man is roused from sleep. And it said to me: What do you see?  And I said: I see—hey!—a lampstand of gold, and a bowl above its head. And seven lamps are on it, seven, and seven pipes to the lamps …And two olive trees are over it, one on the right of the bowl and one on its left. (Zechariah 4:1-3)

menorah 1A gold lampstand with seven lamps is the menorah described in the book of Exodus, mentioned at the start of this week’s Torah portion, and reproduced for Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem.  The rest of Zechariah’s vision is more mysterious, so he asks the angel: What are these? (Zechariah 4:4)

Instead of explaining the vision, the angel replies:

This is the word of God to Zerubavel, saying: Not by chayil and not by koach, but rather by My ruach, said the God of Tzevaot. (Zechariah 4:6)

chayil (חַיִל) = troop, small army, or military escort; courage in the face of a military threat; wealth; ability. (King James translation: “might”.)

This word refers to a military force about 100 times out of about 230 times it appears in the Hebrew Bible.

koach (כֹּחַ) = power, physical strength, energy, physical force. (King James translation: “power”.)

When the subject is God, koach = power to transform. When the subject is human, koach = physical strength or energy.

ruach (רוּחַ) = wind; life-breath; prophetic inspiration; insight; mood.  (King James translation: “spirit”.)

Winds, life-breath, human prophetic inspiration, and exceptional human insight are caused by God in the Hebrew Bible. Human moods can either arise naturally or be sent by God.

tzevaot (צְבָאוֹת) = large armies: hosts of stars or angels (metaphorically, as God’s heavenly army).  (King James translation: “hosts”.)

*

What does God’s message to Zerubavel, the leader of the Judahites returning from Babylon, have to do with Zechariah’s vision of the menorah and the two olive trees?

The ex-exiles laid the foundations for the Second Temple during their second year in Jerusalem. Then some of their neighbors who had stayed in the area during the Babylonian exile came to Zerubavel and said:

Let us build with you, since like you we worship your God, and we have slaughtered animals for Him since the days of Eisar-Haddon, King of Assyria, who brought us here. (Ezra 4:2)

Zerubavel rejected them, and the local people retaliated by threatening the newcomers, bribing Persian ministers to oppose the building project, and sending a damning letter to the next king after Cyrus. Their plan worked, according to the book of Ezra; construction of the temple was halted for 17 years.

King Darius I

King Darius I

In 522 B.C.E. Darius I took the throne of the Persian Empire. King Darius simplified the administration of the empire by dividing it into provinces and appointing a native of high rank to rule each district. By 520 B.C.E. he had appointed Zerubavel as governor of Yehud Medinata, a province including the core of the old kingdom of Judah.

And in 520 B.C.E. Zechariah began prophesying.

After the angel gives Zechariah the message for Zerubavel, it explains:

The hands of Zerubavel laid the foundation of this house, and his hands shall bring it to an end. Then you shall know that God of Tzevaot sent me to you. (Zechariah 4:9)

Then Zechariah asks the angel to interpret the two olive trees in his vision, the ones with pipes pouring olive oil above the menorah.

Artist's sketch of Zechariah's vision

Artist’s sketch
of Zechariah’s vision

And it said: These are the two sons of the olive oil, the ones who stand with the lord of all the earth. (Zechariah 4:14)

“Son of the olive oil” is an idiom in Biblical Hebrew for “anointed”. Traditionally, a new king or high priest was consecrated by being anointed with olive oil. In Zechariah’s vision, Governor Zerubavel and High Priest Yehoshua are the two consecrated leaders who serve God, the lord of all the earth.

Zechariah does not ask the angel for further clarification about that particular vision, but we can infer that it foretells a time when Zerubavel and Yehoshua relight the old religion by ensuring there is a new menorah in a new temple.

This message from God (as well as a prophesy by Zechariah’s fellow prophet Haggai, according to the book of Ezra) apparently encouraged Governor Zerubavel to resume construction of the temple.

This time the local population did not protest; no troops (chayil) nor physical force (koach) was necessary.

The Second Temple was completed in only four years and dedicated in 516 B.C.E.—perhaps because God filled the master craftsmen with ruach, the same exceptional insight God granted Betzaleil, the master craftsman of the first sanctuary, in the book of Exodus.

*

As a message to Zerubavel, the line from this week’s haftarah is best translated as:

(You shall build the temple) not by troops (chayil) and not by physical force (koach), but rather by My divine insight (ruach), said the God of Armies (Tzevaot). (Zechariah 4:6)

But can we rescue the famous line and apply it today?

The “temple” we need now is not a building where priests sacrifice animals; it is a world-wide devotion to peaceful cooperation in order to save human lives and our planet.  Like Governor Zerubavel, we all need to shun the use of troops or any other kind of physical force—between nations and between individuals.  And when our neighbors come and say “Let us build with you,” we need to work out safe ways for everyone to contribute.

So may we all be filled with the chayil of ability, the koach of energy, and the ruach of inspiration to light our own menorah for a new way of life on earth.

Noach: Winds of Change

October 13, 2015 at 12:50 pm | Posted in Bereishit, Noach | Leave a comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah

Wind changes the weather.  A persistent mood or spirit changes your behavior, driving you like the wind in a new direction.

Bibilical Hebrew has one word for both wind and spirit: ruach.

ruach (רוּחַ) = wind; spirit, mood, emotional energy.

The Torah uses this word to describe both the creation of the world in the first Torah portion of Genesis/Bereishit, and its re-creation after the flood in this week’s Torah portion, Noach.

In a beginning God created the heavens and the earth, and the earth was a vacancy and a void and a darkness over the face of the deep, and the ruach of God was merachefet over the face of the waters. And God said: Light, be!  And light was. (Genesis/Bereishit 1:1-2)

eagle+nestmerachefet (מְרַחֶפֶת) = fluttering, hovering tremulously. (The only other place the Bible uses the verb rachaf in this form is in Deuteronomy/Devarim 32:11, where God is compared to an eagle fluttering over its young.)

Translators disagree over whether the word ruach at the beginning of the Bible should be translated as “wind” or “spirit”.  I think the ruach of God, fluttering over the blank darkness and deep waters, is like the tender, hesitant spirit of someone about to become a parent.

The word ruach shows up again when Adam and Eve hear God’s voice in the garden “in the ruach of the day” (Genesis 3:8)   I agree with modern scholars that this means the windy time of day, which tended to be late afternoon in Israel.

The next time the Torah uses the word ruach is when God is musing about the dual nature of human beings.  God made the first human, in Genesis 2:7, out of both dirt and God’s own breath.  In other words, humans are partly animals with physical desires, and partly mental beings with spiritual desires.

And God said: My ruach will not always be judge in the human; he is also flesh…  (Genesis 6:3)

Here, ruach seems to mean God’s spirit, which shapes a human being’s character and prevailing mood.  Sometimes a person’s character controls the appetites of the flesh, but not always.

God lets these double-sided humans make their own choices for 1,556 years in the Torah, from the time God returns Adam and Eve to the world until the time when their great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson Noah is 500 years old.

Then God saw that the badness of the human on earth was abundant—that the shape of every idea of his heart was only bad, all the time. And God had a change of heart about making the human on the earth, and he grieved in his heart. (Genesis 6:5-6)

God tells Noah to make an ark, because in another hundred years God is going to destroy the earth.

And hey, I Myself am bringing the deluge of water over the land to wipe out from under the heavens all flesh in which is the ruach of life.  Everything that is on the land will expire.  (Genesis 6:17)

The Torah repeats the phrase “the ruach of life” twice more in the story of Noah’s ark.  In the third occurrence it becomes clear that ruach in this phrase means moving air, a small-scale wind:

All that had the breath of the ruach of life in its nostrils, from all that were on dry land, they died.  (Genesis 7:22)

Noah Leaving the Ark, by Sisto Badalocchio

Noah Leaving the Ark, by Sisto Badalocchio

The flood wipes out all land animals, including humans, except those aboard Noah’s ark.  But God is not really starting over.  The animals and humans who emerge from the ark are the descendants of the ones God created in the beginning; they are built according to the same designs.  Human beings have the same dual nature.

Nevertheless, when God restores the earth to working order, the language in the Torah recalls the language of the original creation.

And God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and all the domestic animals that were with him in the ark, and God made a ruach pass over the earth, and the waters abated.  The springs of the deep and the floodgates of the heavens were stopped up…(Genesis 8:1-2)

Once again God begins with a ruach.  But while the first ruach flutters like the tender spirit of a mother bird, this ruach sweeps across the flooded world like an eagle soaring—or a wind that brings a change of weather.

In the first creation story, God acts by speaking things into being.  In the re-creation story, God merely changes the weather, and the earth gradually dries out over the course of a year.  When God speaks, it is only to tell Noah to come out of the ark with his menagerie.

After the story of Noah, the word ruach continues to mean “wind” when the Bible talks about God. When it talks about humans, the word ruach means “spirit” or prevailing mood.

A third phenomenon is the ruach Elohim, a “spirit of God” that takes over or rests inside humans.  The ruach Elohim is a sublime wisdom in Joseph the dream-interpreter and Betzaleil the master artist, and a supernatural strength in Samson.  It is an infectious battle drive in war leaders, and a divine compulsion in mad King Saul as well as the many prophets God uses as mouthpieces.

Thus even the ruach Elohim is manifested only in human beings.

In the beginning of the Torah, God creates everything.  After the flood, the world and its humans continue on their own, and God intervenes only by blowing winds, by making plagues and occasional miracles, and by changing the spirits of a few select humans.

Today, I encounter two types of “spiritual” people.  One type often sees omens and miracles, attributing every coincidence to the hand of God rather than to the laws of probability or nature.  For this type, if a wind knocks down a tree that just misses them, God is literally in the wind and moves the tree.

The other type perceives God only through changes in their own spirits.  For this type (my type), if a wind knocks down a tree that just misses me, God is in the shaken liberation of joy after the flash of fear.  The divine is in me and moves my spirit.

Yet the Bible shows God changing the spirits of only the few.  And I know I am no prophet or war leader or master artist.

The world has always been full of silent people who are moved by a divine spirit, but never do anything famous enough to be written down in a book. After all, according to the Torah we are all made partly of God’s breath, God’s wind, God’s ruach.

 

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