The following is the derasha I delivered on Shabbat Chol HaMoed Pesach. I made a few minor changes to make it work better in print.
The following is a version of one of my favorite jokes (Berger, Peter. 1997. Redeeming Laughter: The Comic Dimensions of Human Experience, p. xv.)
Quite often our explanations for things are no better than the Rebbe’s “meaning of life.”
דִּבְרֵ֤י חֲכָמִים֙ כַּדָּ֣רְבֹנ֔וֹת...
The words of the wise are like goads…
…they goad us on and send us along paths that we can trust will be productive and worthwhile.
I would like to bring you along the path that I followed in trying to understand the deeper message of the Torah and haftorah readings for Shabbat Chol HaMoed Pesach.
The Torah reading relates the aftermath of the Golden Calf. In brief, Moshe beseeches God to restore His relationship with Bnei Yisrael, he is instructed to carve new tablets, he is taught the 13 attributes of God’s mercy and the covenant of Sinai is restored. In the statement of the terms of this renewed covenant we are instructed to celebrate the three pilgrimage festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot. Shabbat (as well as the mitzvah to redeem the first-issue of your flock and pidyon habein—the redemption of the first-born-son) gets thrown into the presentation of the three pilgrimage festivals and, at first glance, this is why this reading was chosen for Shabbat Chol-haMoed. However, this answer is not satisfying. It feels a lot like the Rebbe’s “the world is like a cup of tea.”
Fortunately, the Chakhamim goad us on…they provide us with a haftorah—an additional reading taken from the words of the Prophets. As is often the case, this haftorah highlights the deeper themes of the Torah reading. My method is to let the two readings enter into a kind of dialogue, let them play off each other until I am led to some deeper insight. I believe, once that takes place, we will also be able to see the relevance of these readings to Pesach.
The haftorah, Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones, begins with a disturbing image:
1 The hand of the Lord came upon me. He took me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the valley. It was full of bones. 2 He led me all around them; there were very many of them spread over the valley, and they were very dry. 3 He said to me, "O mortal, can these bones live again?" I replied, "O Lord God, only You know."
In the context of Ezekiel’s life it is not hard to see the symbolism of these dry bones. The situation Ezekiel was confronted with was bleak, in no uncertain terms. It had been more than thirty years since the Torah renaissance of Yoshiyahu—when that king, famous for his righteous reforms, had radically recommitted his kingdom to the service of God alone. As we read in the haftorah of the second day of Pesach he purged every nook and cranny of the land from every trace of idolatry, he had renewed the covenant with Hashem and in the grandest of gestures he enjoined the people in an unparalleled celebration of Pesach.
And here was Ezekiel only a little more than thirty years later—a generation—in Exile, living on the banks of the Kebar River trying to inspire and give hope to a people, a thousand miles from their homeland, who had experienced the complete destruction of their national heritage, who had seen, many with their own eyes, the destruction of their Temple and their capitol, Yerushalayim.
They had no more spirit in them, their life blood had been sapped dry—they were nothing more than a heap of dry bones. God asks, “Can these bones live again?” and Ezekiel, in perhaps the most sarcastic line in the entire bible replies, “O Lord God, אַתָּ֥ה יָדָֽעְתָּ, You know.”
But Ezekiel’s disbelief, his lack of hope, is rebuffed:
4 And He said to me, "Prophesy over these bones and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! 5 Thus said the Lord God to these bones: I will cause spirit to enter you and you shall live again. 6 I will lay sinews upon you, and cover you with flesh, and form skin over you. And I will put breath into you, and you shall live again. And you shall know that I am the Lord!"
Ezekiel is instructed to prophesy over the dry bones—to cause them to hear the word of the Lord! What shall he prophesy? What would he say? Ezekiel continues:
7 I prophesied as I had been commanded. And while I was prophesying, suddenly there was a sound of rattling, and the bones came together, bone to matching bone. 8 I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had grown, and skin had formed over them; but there was no spirit in them.
What had Ezekiel done wrong? Now he had complete bodies, but, like Frankenstein’s monster, they still had no life. His words had fallen short of the mark—they, somehow, lacked spirit, that vital force that moves us and inspires us. We read on:
9 Then He said to me, "Prophesy to the spirit, prophesy, O mortal! Say to the spirit: Thus said the Lord God: Come, O spirit, from the four winds, and breathe into these slain, that they may live again." 10 I prophesied as He commanded me. The breath entered them, and they came to life and stood up on their feet, a vast multitude.
In his first attempt to revive the bones, Ezekiel says וְנִבֵּ֖אתִי—I prophesied. This is what the grammarians call a transitive verb—his action was directed outwards, toward the bones. In his second, successful attempt Ezekiel says, וְהִנַּבֵּ֖אתִי--in English this would also be translated as: I prophesied. But, in Hebrew this is a reflexive verb—in which the actor, the prophet, acts upon himself. In his first attempt Ezekiel remained at a distance, removed from his charges. Only when Ezekiel, the prophet, the visionary leader, became fully enmeshed in the plight of those he was calling could his prophecy give life—only at that point could “they come to life, stand up on their feet, as a vast multitude.”
With this thought I was led back to the Torah reading.
The transformed Ezekiel reminds me of Moshe, the ultimate man of vision. Moshe was completely bound-up with the plight of the people. After the sin of the golden calf, for which he clearly had no guilt, he beseeched God:
“Now, if You forgive their sin—But if not, erase me now from Your book, which You have written."
Moshe could not lose hope. There was always the possibility for redemption and renewal. He knew with the right vision even the decree of Heaven could be reversed and the people could be returned to their former glory—he does not recoil from challenging God’s decree.
Moshe said to the Lord, "See, You say to me, 'Lead this people forward,' but You have not made known to me whom You will send with me. Further, You have said, 'I have singled you out by name, and you have, indeed, gained My favor.' Now, if I have truly gained Your favor, pray let me know Your ways, that I may know You and continue in Your favor. Consider, too, that this nation is Your people." And He said, "I will go in the lead and will lighten your burden." And he said to Him, "Unless You go in the lead, do not make us leave this place. For how shall it be known that Your people have gained Your favor unless You go with us, so that we may be distinguished, Your people and I, from every people on the face of the earth?"
Though he could not see it on his own, he knew if he had truly found favor in God’s eyes—if he could behold God’s glory, see the complete tapestry of God’s design—he could set a new course for the people even at the moment of greatest disappointment and calamity. And ultimately, God, so to speak, acquiesces to Moshe’s argument:
And the Lord said to Moshe, "I will also do this thing that you have asked; for you have truly gained My favor and I have singled you out by name." He said, " הַרְאֵ֥נִי נָ֖א אֶת־כְּבֹדֶֽךָ, Oh, let me behold Your Presence!" And He answered, "אֲנִ֨י אַֽעֲבִ֤יר כָּל־טוּבִי֙ עַל־פָּנֶ֔יךָ, I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name of the Lord, and I will favor the one I wish to favor and I will have compassion when I wish to have compassion.
הגיעה שעה, The time has come, שתראה בכבודי מה שארשה אותך לראות, that you shall see of My glory what I will permit you to see, לפי שאני רוצה וצריך ללמדך סדר תפלה, because I want and I need to teach you the order of prayer. שכשנצרכת לבקש רחמים על ישראל, Because, in the past, when you had to beg mercy for Israel, הזכרת לי זכות אבות, you would ask Me to remember the merit of the Avot, the Patriarchs. כסבור אתה, You thought, שאם תמה זכות אבות, that if the merit of the Patriarchs became depleted, אין עוד תקוה, there is no longer any hope. אני אעביר כל מדת טובי לפניך על הצור, ואתה צפון במערה Therefore, I will let the full measure of my goodness pass before you.
After the catastrophe of the Golden Calf, the merit of the Patriarchs had, so to speak, been depleted. Bnei Yisrael had gone too far—the breach was too great—in the depths of their corruption they could no longer call upon the merit of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. The merit of the Patriarchs hinges on the conduct of the children—what connection could this people steeped in foolishness, debauchery and idolatry claim to those giants of spirit! But, Rashi tells us, Hashem tells Moshe: יש תקוה—there is hope! With a renewed vision of God’s mercy, Moshe could find the frame of mind in which his prayers for the people could be answered.
With this Rashi I was ready to see the final connection between the Torah and haftorah readings: hope.
We read in the concluding verses of the haftarah:
11 And He said to me, "O mortal, these bones are the whole House of Israel. They say, יָֽבְשׁ֧וּ עַצְמוֹתֵ֛ינוּ 'Our bones are dried up, וְאָֽבְדָ֥ה תִקְוָתֵ֖נוּ our hope is gone; נִגְזַ֥רְנוּ לָֽנוּ we are cut off.' 12 Prophesy, therefore, and say to them: Thus said the Lord God: I am going to open your graves and lift you out of the graves, O My people, and bring you to the land of Israel. 13 You shall know, O My people, that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves and lifted you out of your graves. 14 I will put My spirit into you and you shall live again, and I will set you upon your own soil. Then you shall know that I the Lord have spoken and have acted"—declares the Lord.
The plaintive and hopeful lament of Jeremiah: “אוּלַ֖י יֵ֥שׁ תִּקְוָֽה”—“perhaps there is hope!” had been supplanted with the resigned and utterly hopeless: “אָֽבְדָ֥ה תִקְוָתֵ֖נוּ”—“our hope is lost!”
Ezekiel had to inspire the people—they needed to know that the wellsprings of life can always be renewed.
There is hope. The dry bones can be given new life—they can be inspired. Just one thing is needed to give them hope: spirit.
However, one very important question still needs to be answered: What is this spirit?
What vision can fill us with hope when we have been destroyed and completely severed from the wellsprings of life? With this spirit we are told that we shall be returned to our soil—the exile will be over. But, what is it?
The spirit is, of course, the Torah—but not a Torah of dogmatic decrees: a Torah of true spirit—of true life—of wisdom and righteousness. This, I believe, is the same spirit Isaiah spoke of so beautifully:
And a shoot shall spring forth from the stem of Yishai, and a twig shall sprout from his roots. And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of counsel and heroism, a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord. And he shall be spirited by the fear of the Lord, and neither with the sight of his eyes shall he judge, nor with the hearing of his ears shall he chastise. And he shall judge the poor justly, and he shall chastise with equity the humble of the earth, and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth and with the spirit of his lips he shall put the wicked to death. And righteousness shall be the belt around his loins, and faith the sash around his waist.
We cannot simply return to the Land of our Heritage. Rabbi Mendel Hirsch, the son of Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, writing with great prescience in his commentary on this haftorah (written, mind you, only a year before the First Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897) provides the following deep insight:
If the Land of Israel were to be handed over today into the hands of the Jews through a miraculous combination of circumstances and they could return to the Land of their Fathers and establish a Jewish State: they would not gain anything, nothing at all, as long as they do not remove the factors that caused our destruction in the past. In truth it can be said that this destruction was necessary in order to save Judaism and the Jewish people. A Jewish political body without a Jewish spirit will be and shall be nothing—a dead body. A Jewish State, that does not harness itself to the realization of the Torah of Hashem—to the application of its eternal decrees of righteousness and love of the Other on a pure ethical foundation—will be dead on arrival, destined to elimination as it has been for thousands of years.
Finally, Rabbi Mendel Hirsch, provides the connection between the Torah and haftorah reading and Pesach:
With the imparting of this spirit God opened the graves in which their bones had been buried for so long. God brought them up out of their graves to be His people. As the hosts of the Lord they were led out, in the past, by His mighty hand, ידו החזקה, from the grave of Egypt. As the battalions of the Lord, He will bring them up, with the very same יד החזקה, mighty hand, of the blessed God from the vast grave of the nations.
On Pesach we reflect on the redemption that once was and we are also confronted with the depressing reality of what is. The redemption from Egypt is incomplete—we still await the ultimate redemption. We feel a kind of helplessness and hopelessness when we look at the harsh facts. It is hard to see how we can ever achieve the final fulfillment of our aspirations. But yet there is hope. On Pesach we are called to be inspired by the spirit—to be moved to act with wisdom and righteousness.
I will leave you with one last point. The following passage from the Jerusalem Talmud, I believe, gets to the essence of what I am trying to convey:
Rabbi Yudan the son of Chanan in the name of Rabbi Berakhia related the following: The Holy One, blessed is He, said to Israel: “My children, if you see that the merit of the Patriarchs has depleted and the merit of the Matriarchs has collapsed, go, הידבקו בחסד, cleave to kindness. What is this based on? The following verse from Isaiah:
י כִּ֤י הֶֽהָרִים֙ יָמ֔וּשׁוּ וְהַגְּבָע֖וֹת תְּמוּטֶ֑ינָה וְחַסְדִּ֞י מֵֽאִתֵּ֣ךְ לֹֽא־יָמ֗וּשׁ וּבְרִ֤ית שְׁלוֹמִי֙ לֹ֣א תָמ֔וּט אָמַ֥ר מְרַֽחֲמֵ֖ךְ יְהוָֽה׃
For the mountains may depart, and the hills be removed; but My kindness shall not depart from you, neither shall My covenant of peace be removed, so says the LORD that has compassion on you.
“For the mountains may depart”—this is a reference to the merit of the Patriarchs. “and the hills be removed”—this is a reference to the merit of the Matriarchs. When their merit has been depleted, from that point on, “neither shall My covenant of peace be removed, so says the LORD that has compassion on you.”
In this beautiful passage Rabbi Berakhia teaches us that the ultimate source of hope lies in a vision of compassion. Not a compassion bestowed upon us gratis from above, but a compassion that must flow from our own hearts to the widow, the orphan, the stranger and all those in need. That is the spirit that can give life to our dry bones. On the Shabbat of the intermediate days of this festival of Pesach we are reminded that with the right spirit there is always hope.
I hope that I have offered you more than just a nice cup of tea.