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.


Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said...

Really nice thought Yehuda. The leader's personal involvement is a critical element, again and again.

Rabbi Rosenthal remarked to me that Pesach serves as the cornerstone of rebirth in various places, for Yoshiya and for Chizkiya.

We then observed that this was the case for Ezra and Nechamia as well at the rebirth of Bayit Sheni.

In each of these cases, there is a very great emphasis on the personal involvement of the leadership n the צרה. As Mordechai said to Esther,
אל תדמי בנפשך

Yehuda said...

Pesach also marks the birth/re-birth of the nation in Sefer Yehoshua, perek 5.
Sipur Yetziat Mitzrayim is then used by Yehoshua in his final exhortation to the people before he dies in perek 24 (the source for ovdei avoda zara hayu avoseinu).