Friday, April 18, 2014

Dry Bones

The following thoughts on this weeks haftorah were extracted from a much longer (and for that reason hard to digest) post I made last year.  

The haftorah for Shabbat Chol HaMoed Pesach is Ezekiel’s famous vision of the dry bones. It begins with the following 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.”

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, righteousness and kindness.  This, I believe, is the same spirit Isaiah (chapter 11) 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.

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, righteousness and kindness.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Does God Speak?

Starting in section 80 of the Kuzari the Chaveir offers the interesting thesis that God-given religions appear suddenly, like the event of creation itself.  This leads into a recounting of the startling tale of the exodus.  To this the Kuzari responds:

זֶהוּ הָעִנְיָן הָאֱלהִי בֶאֱמֶת, וּמַה שֶּׁנִּתְלָה בּו מִן הַמִּצְות רָאוּי לְקַבְּלו כִּי אֵין נִכְנָס בַּלֵּב מֵחֲמָתו סָפֵק לא מִכְּשָׁפִים וְלא מִתַּחְבּוּלָה וְלא מִדִּמְיון, וְאִלּוּ נִדְמָה לָהֶם הִבָּקַע הַיָּם וְעָבְרָם בְּתוכו, יְדֻמֶּה לָהֶם הַצָּלָתָם מִן הָעַבְדוּת וּמות מַעֲבִידֵיהֶם וְקַחְתָּם שְׁלָלָם וְהִשָּׁאֵר מָמונָם אֶצְלָם, וְזֶה עִקְּשׁוּת מֵאֶפִּיקוּרְסִים

This is, in truth, divine power, and the commandments connected with it must be accepted. No one could imagine for a moment that this was the result of necromancy, calculation, or phantasy. For had it been possible to procure belief in any imaginary dividing of the waters, and the crossing of the same, it would also have been possible to gain credence for a similar imposition concerning their delivery from bondage, the death of their tormentors, and the capture of their goods and chattels. This would be even worse than denying the existence of God. (trans. Hartwig Hirschfeld)

The Kuzari sees these events as being beyond doubt.  The Chaveir does not disagree.  However, he does believe that one very significant doubt would remain for Bnei Yisrael even after all the wonders and miracles of the exodus: does God truly speak with flesh and blood?  Here is the Chaveir’s formulation of the people’s doubt:

הָעָם, עִם מַה שֶּׁהֶאֱמִינוּ בְמַה שֶּׁבָּא בּו משֶׁה אַחַר הַמּופְתִים הָאֵלֶּה, נִשְׁאַר בְּנַפְשׁותָם סָפֵק, אֵיךְ יְדַבֵּר הָאֱלהִים עִם הָאָדָם. כְּדֵי שֶׁלּא תִהְיֶה הַתְחָלַת הַתּורָה מֵעֵצָה וּמַחֲשָׁבָה מִחֲמַת אָדָם וְאַחַר יְחַבְּרֵהוּ עֵזֶר וְאמֶץ מֵאֵת הָאֲלהִים, מִפְּנֵי שֶׁהָיָה רָחוק הַדִּבּוּר בְּעֵינֵיהֶם מִזּוּלַת אָדָם, בַּעֲבוּר שֶׁהַדִּבּוּר גַּשְׁמִי. 

Although the people believed in the message of Moses, they retained, even after the performance of the miracles, some doubt as to whether God really spake to mortals, and whether the Law was not of human origin, and only later on supported by divine inspiration. They could not associate speech with a divine being, since it is something tangible. 

This formulation of the people’s doubt is highly intriguing.  Why would the people be ready to believe that Moshe received divine inspiration after thinking about the ideas himself?  Why couldn’t they believe after everything that they experienced that God spoke to Moshe?

I believe that Yehuda HaLevi is hitting on a fundamental issue.  People, especially after experiencing wondrous events, are ready to accept Divine intervention in the human sphere.  We are ready to admit that God can influence and even subvert the natural order.  We are ready to believe that God is like a silent conductor gently and from time-to-time quite forcefully guiding events.  However, as strange as it might seem, we have a harder time believing that God can do what we consider to be most uniquely human: produce speech or writing (Just conduct the following thought experiment. Is it easier to believe that God caused an earthquake or that God wrote a book?).  The basic implication of this is that, in our heart of hearts, we believe that the human capacity for speech is more wondrous than all of the plagues, more wondrous than the splitting of the sea, more wondrous than the falling of the manna, even more wondrous than the very act of creation.  It is easier for us to believe that Moshe was a brilliant sage and God, in His mysterious ways, gave him inspiration.  After all, inspiration is mysterious—it works like the wind, or a rushing stream, or the shining sun (all often cited—if we are to believe the poets—as sources of inspiration).

The revelation at Sinai was designed to breakthrough this distortion.  God created man, just like He created everything else.  Man’s capacity for speech is not beyond nature (which, as the Chaveir already explained in sections 70-77, is just a stand-in word for Goda term which enables man to obfuscate and deny God as the ultimate Cause of Being) and God is not merely a benevolent “natural” force.  God can manifest Himself as Speaker.  God can manifest Himself as Writer.  The word is not man’s alone.