Haftarat Vayiggash—Ezekiel: You Can’t Go Home Again

January 2, 2017 at 8:20 am | Posted in Ezekiel, Vayiggash | Leave a 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) in the Jewish tradition. This week’s Torah portion is Vayiggash (Genesis 44:18-47:27), and the haftarah is Ezekiel 37:15-28.

Cut a board into two pieces, then glue them back together. The glued board is not identical to the original board.

Ezekiel, by Michelangelo

Ezekiel, by Michelangelo

Yet Ezekiel, in this week’s haftarah, says two separate ethnic groups that once shared a religion will again become one nation.

And the speech of God happened to me, saying:  And you, son of Adam, take yourself one piece of wood and write on it “belonging to Judah and to the Children of Israel, its chaveirim”. And take another piece of wood and write on it “belonging to Joseph, the wood of Ephraim and all the household of Israel, its chaveirim”. And bring them close, one to the other, to [make] yourself one piece of wood; and it will be as one in your hand.” (Ezekiel 37:15-18)

chaveirim (חֲבֵרִים) = comrades, companions, partners. (From the root verb chavar, חָבַר = allied, joined forces.)

In the book of Genesis/Bereishit, Jacob has twelve sons and acquires a second name, Israel. Jacob’s favorite son, Joseph, alienates his ten older brothers. Led by Judah, the ten young men sell Joseph to a slave caravan bound for Egypt. (Jacob’s twelfth son, Benjamin, is still a baby at the time.) In this week’s Torah portion, the brothers are reunited after a final confrontation between Joseph and a reformed Judah. Their descendants become the twelve tribes of Israel—who escape from Egypt 400 years later, as one people called the “Children of Israel”.

All twelve tribes settle in Canaan, but they only become a unified nation called “Israel” under King David, according to the second book of Samuel. After the death of the next king, Solomon, the northern part of the country secedes.

circa 800 B.C.E.

circa 800 B.C.E.

The new northern kingdom calls itself Israel, since it includes the traditional lands of most of the original tribes. Its richest and most dominant tribe is Ephraim, which is the name of one of Joseph’s sons. In Ezekiel’s time the northern kingdom no longer exists, but one piece of wood represents the descendants of its people by listing Joseph, Ephraim, and the tribe’s chaveirim or companion tribes from the former kingdom.

The truncated southern kingdom calls itself Judah/Yehudah. It includes only two tribal lands: the large area of Judah and the small traditional territory of Benjamin. They, too, are Children of Israel.

For two centuries the kingdoms of Israel and Judah are uneasy neighbors—sometimes allies, sometimes enemies. What they continue to have in common is their attachment to the same God (often called “the God of Israel”)—though they disagree about the correct number of temples and how to furnish them.1

The Neo-Assyrian Empire conquered the northern kingdom of Israel in 740-721 B.C.E. and deported its leading citizens, leaving only its peasants and a few puppet administrators. During several waves of deportation, some northerners escaped to Judah.map-assyrian-babylonian-deportations

The southern kingdom of Judah survived another 150 years or so by paying tribute to Assyria. Then the Neo-Babylonian Empire swallowed the Assyrian Empire and went on to conquer Judah and its capital, Jerusalem, in 601-586.  King Nebuchadnezzar’s army deported Judah’s leading citizens (including Ezekiel) to Babylon, leaving only peasants and puppet administrators.

God instructs Ezekiel to continue his performance art with the two pieces of wood until someone asks him to explain it. Then, God says, Ezekiel must answer:

Thus says my lord God:  Hey! I myself … will be making it one piece of wood. And they will be one in My hand…  (Ezekiel 37:19)

Thus says my lord God: Hey! I myself will be taking the Children of Israel from among the nations where they have gone, and I will collect them from all around, and I will bring them to their land. And I will make them a single nation on the land, in the hills of Israel, and one king will be king for all of them. And never again will they be two nations… (Ezekiel 37:21-22)

Ezekiel can only hold the “Judah” stick and the “Joseph” stick together to make one piece of wood symbolically. But God promises to reunite the two peoples literally, making them chaveirim who are not merely allies, but a single, seamless kingdom as in the time of David. This kingdom will be a home for everyone who worships the God of Israel; one land with one king, one capital (Jerusalem), and one temple, greater than the first.

Yet in human experience, time is unidirectional. We cannot go backward; our world never returns to the way it used to be. We can only go forward, building with the material we have now. Boards cut from a tree can never become a tree again, but we might make them into a chair.

Ezekiel’s prophesy never came true. After the Persian Empire took Babylon in 539 B.C.E., some of the exiles from Judah did return to Jerusalem and build a second temple, and some of their descendants served as provincial governors of Judea. Other Judahites stayed behind, building a thriving Jewish community that eventually produced the Babylonian Talmud. Most of the exiles the Assyrians deported from Israel were assimilated and lost their identity and religion.

There never was another independent kingdom of Israel. The third “temple” in Jerusalem is a mosque. After millions of Jews were killed by the Nazis and their collaborators, the nation of Israel was created in 1948 C.E., and its population now includes almost half the Jews in the world. Almost as many Jews live in the United States. If Ezekiel were here to prophesy today, he would write “Israel” on one piece of wood and “U.S.A.” on the other.

Yet the two groups of Jews are so dissimilar that only a trickle emigrate from one nation to the other. Currently, American Jews are generally respected by their fellow Americans; Israeli Jews dominate Israel and deal with entirely different issues. I cannot imagine the two groups forming a single nation in a single land, even if there were room for all of us.

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May all human beings, of any religion or tradition, recognize that we can’t go home again; if we try, we find that our old home has changed. Change is the nature of this world, the world of the God whose personal name is a form of the verb meaning “to become”.2

I pray that we may all move beyond Ezekiel’s vision; that we may all find new ways to help our own identities, our communities, and our religions grow, wherever we live. And may we also find new ways to work together with people who were once strangers.

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1 The opinion of Judah prevailed in the Hebrew Bible: that there should be only one temple, in Jerusalem, and the only statues allowed are the two keruvim, mythical winged creatures. (See my post Cherubs Are Not for Valentine’s Day.) The Bible criticizes the northern kingdom of Israel for maintaining temples at Dan and Beit-El as well as its capital, Samaria, and for the golden calves standing at the entrances of the temples in Beit-El and Dan (2 Kings 10:29).

2 YHVH = the Tetragrammaton or four-letter personal name of God that Jews consider most sacred. The name appears to be a form of havah or hayah (הוה or היה), the root of the verb “to be”, “to happen”, or “to become”, although it is a form that does not fit any standard Hebrew verb conjugations.

Haftarat Emor—Ezekiel: No Sweat

May 16, 2016 at 10:53 pm | Posted in Emor, Ezekiel | 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 Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23) and the haftarah is Ezekiel 44:15-31.

Gold gleaming, censers swinging, men chanting, priests in elaborate robes and headgear … When I saw a special Catholic mass on television, I assumed that the officiants dressed up to impress the congregation with the beauty and holiness of their ritual.

priest ordinary garmentsI used to assume the same thing about priests in ancient Jerusalem when they performed rituals in the outer courtyard of the temple, in front of all the people. These outdoor rituals included butchering animals and burning the pieces on the altar; I pity whoever had to do the priests’ laundry. Nevertheless, their costumes seemed designed to impress the congregation, from the turbans on their heads down to the hems of their long elaborately woven robes.

And for the sons of Aaron you shall make tunics and you shall make sashes for them, and turbans you shall make for them, for magnificence and beauty. (Exodus/Shemot 28:40)

The priests had to look dazzling, I figured, in order to inspire the people into a worshipful state of mind.

This week’s haftarah turned my head around.

The book of Ezekiel records the visions and prophecies of a priest who was deported to Babylon in 593 B.C.E., when King Nebuchadnezzar’s army besieged Jerusalem. While Ezekiel was in Babylon, the temple in Jerusalem was razed. Ezekiel encouraged his fellow Israelite exiles by prophesying a future temple in Jerusalem, bigger and better.

In this temple, he said, only the descendants of Tzadok, King Solomon’s high priest, would be priests. (See Haftarah for Emor: Tzadok the Priest.) They would follow strict rules of purity in their marriages, their behavior, and their dress.

When they come inside the gates of the penimit court, they must dress in garments of linen; they shall not dress themselves in wool for their attendance inside the gates of the penimit court and its house. (Ezekiel 44:17)

penimit (ַפְּנִימִית) = inner (part of a temple or palace). (From the noun panim = face, faces, surface, expression, disposition. The inner court was where one encountered the disposition of God or of a monarch.)

temple 2Throughout the ancient Near East, a temple consisted of an unroofed outer courtyard for public worship, and a roofed inner court where priests served their god through other rituals.

And when they go out to the outer court, to the outer court to the people, they must take off their garments that are on them and set them aside in the holy rooms, and they must dress in other garments, and not make the people holy with their garments. (Ezekiel 44:19)

According to Ezekiel, the holiest priestly garments must be worn in the penimit court, which only priests may enter. Thus only other priests—and God—could see them in their sacred vestments performing the rituals of the oil lamps, the bread table(s), and the incense altar.

Since the inner court is such a holy place, the garments worn there are also holy. The priests have to change into other garments before they go out into the public courtyard in order to prevent cross-contamination.

Commentators differ on the direction of the contamination. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105 C.E.) wrote that ordinary garments are not ritually pure, and therefore would contaminate any holy garments they touched.  But according to Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi, 1160-1235 C.E.), Ezekiel was concerned that the holiness of the priests would rub off on the unqualified.

Turbans of high priest (L), regular priest (R)

Turbans of high priest (L), regular priest (R)

The holy linen garments include headgear and underpants as well as a long tunic and sash.

Turbans of linen will be on their heads and breeches of linen will be on their hips; lo yacheggeru in sweat. (Ezekiel 44:18)

lo yacheggeru (לֹא יַחְגְּרוּ) = they shall not gird themselves, they shall not wrap a belt or sash around their waists.

Girding happens most often in the Bible when men gird on swords or other weapons. A close second is girding oneself with sackcloth as a sign of mourning or repentance; in this case, a man wraps a broad sash of coarse goat hair around his naked midsection. In other references, men gird their loins in order to shorten the skirts of their tunics so they can run or march without encumbrance.

In this week’s haftarah, a priest’s linen sash girds his long linen tunic simply because men wore sashes. In the outer courtyard, a priest’s sash might help to hold his tunic away from spattering blood, or he might shorten his skirts with it to facilitate moving the ashes off the altar. But in the penimit court, the sash is strictly for beauty and propriety.

So are the linen breeches. Linen is cooler than wool; a man wearing linen is less likely to sweat. Today, sweat stains are considered unattractive and inappropriate on formal wear; copious perspiration is associated with either hard labor or excessive nervousness.

The Hebrew Bible refers to sweat only twice: in the sentence from Ezekiel above, and once in the book of Genesis when God sentences Adam to his new life outside Eden, and declares:

By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread… (Genesis/Bereishit 3:19)

Here, sweat is a metaphor for hard labor in the fields. But the work of the priests hidden inside the inner court is stately and spiritual. For this holy service, they need refined and holy clothing—not for the sake of onlookers, but for the sake of their own state of mind.

According to Ezekiel, the priests in the penimit court will be in an altered state. They will wear special clothes that are never worn anywhere else. They will not sweat. And they will not put on a show for the general public.

A second Israelite temple was built in Jerusalem, with construction beginning in 516 B.C.E. It did not follow Ezekiel’s plans, though it still separated the inner and outer courts. It was staffed by priests from the Levite tribe, but they were not all Tzadokites. They wore linen tunics, sashes, turbans, and breeches, though their sashes and the hems of their long tunics were embroidered with colored yarn that might have been wool.

There is no record of whether the priests of the second temple sweated inside the inner court.

After Romans destroyed the second temple in 70 C.E., priests could no longer perform the sacred rituals. But a new form of serving God was already developing. For the last two millennia, Jews have emphasized worshiping God through good deeds and the prayers of every individual. In that sense, we have become a kingdom of priests (and priestesses), as God predicted to Moses in Exodus/Shemot 19:6.

What can we do today to make our prayers and our good deeds like magnificent and beautiful garments we wear without sweating, in a pure and priestly state of mind?

Haftarat Tetzavveh—Ezekiel: The Meaning of Humiliation

February 14, 2016 at 9:30 pm | Posted in Ezekiel, Tetzavveh | 2 Comments
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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 Tetzavveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10), and the haftarah is Ezekiel 43:10-27.

This week’s haftarah begins when God tells the prophet Ezekiel:

You, son of humankind, describe the House to the household of Israel, veyikalmu because of their sins, and they will measure off its plan. And if nikhlemu because of everything that they have done, make known to them the design of the House and its plan …(Ezekiel 43:10-11)

veyikalmu (וְיִכָּלְמוּ) = and they will be humiliated, embarrassed, publicly disgraced. (From the root k-l-m, כּלם, sometimes translated as “ashamed” but actually referring to public humiliation regardless of actual guilt or innocence.)

nikhlemu (נִכְלְמוּ) = they are humiliated, etc.

“The House” refers to a building for the God of Israel: Ezekiel’s vision of a new temple to replace the one that King Solomon erected and King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon razed when he destroyed Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E.

Temple sizes

Temple sizes

The two clauses about being humiliated are difficult to interpret, since in the first one God predicts the Israelites will be humiliated, and in the second one God says “if they are humiliated”. According to the standards of the sixth century B.C.E., there is no question that the Israelites of Judah have been publicly humiliated by the time of this prophecy, dated to the fourteenth year after the fall of Jerusalem.

The kingdom of Judah had been a vassal state of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, paying annual tribute to King Nebuchadnezzar but managing its internal affairs as an independent country. Then King Yehoyachim of Judah rebelled, and the Babylonian army besieged his capital, Jerusalem. His son Yehoyachin (a.k.a. Jeconiah) surrendered in 597 B.C.E. and saved the city. Nebuchadnezzar deported him and about 3,000 of Jerusalem’s leading citizens—including Ezekiel—to Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar installed Yehoyachin’s uncle Zedekiah as Judah’s king, and Judah resumed its status as a Babylonian vassal state.

Destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E.

Destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E.

The Israelites remaining in Judah still had their own king, and a temple for their own god. But eight years later Zedekiah rebelled (after making a secret treaty with Egypt), and the Babylonian army surrounded Jerusalem again. This time the siege ended in the capture of Jerusalem, the execution of Judah’s last king, and the destruction of the capital and its temple—in other words, the complete humiliation of Judah.

What caused this humiliation? One might blame Nebuchadnezzar for his determination to expand his empire, or King Zedekiah for foolishly rebelling, or even Egypt for marching toward Judah at Zedekiah’s instigation, then succumbing to the Babylonian army before they reached Jerusalem.

But in the passage above, God says twice that the humiliation of the Israelites happened because of their own sins—and God is not referring to their kings’ rebellions against Babylon.

This week’s haftarah comes in the middle of Ezekiel’s fifth and final vision. This vision begins when a divine guide wafts Ezekiel to Jerusalem and shows him around a new and larger temple, measuring everything as he goes. Then the glory of God appears, and God tells Ezekiel:

Son of humankind, [this is] the place of My throne and the place of the soles of My feet, where I will dwell in the midst of the children of Israel forever. But the house of Israel must not again defile My holy name, neither they nor their kings, by their prostitution [with other gods] and with their kings’ lifeless idols in their shrines. (Ezekiel 43:7)

The sin of the Israelites is building shrines for idols and other gods—and in the worst possible place.

When they placed their thresholds next to My threshold and their doorposts beside My doorposts, [with only] the wall between Me and them, and they defiled My holy name with their taboo actions, then I consumed them in My anger. (Ezekiel 43:8)

God decided to destroy Jerusalem and its temple because of the people’s apostasy, and used the Babylonian army to do it.

Jeremiah, who was still prophesying in Jerusalem when Ezekiel prophesied in Babylon, also said that God arranged the destruction of Jerusalem, using Nebuchadnezzar as a tool. According to both prophets, God decides which army wins in every battle involving Israelites. (See my post Jeremiah: The Ruler of All Armies.) Nebuchadnezzar did not even know the God of Israel was using him to punish the Israelites.

Today this prophetic point of view seems parochial and narrow-minded. Even if God did micro-manage every battle and siege, why should all of God’s plans be about rewarding or punishing the Israelites? What about all the other peoples in the world?

Nabu, from temple at Kalah

Nabu, from temple at Kalah

Other peoples had their own, albeit inferior, gods. For example, the chief gods of the Neo-Babylonian Empire were Nabu and Marduk. The Bible maintains that the God of Israel was more powerful than all other gods, and that God chose the Israelites to be “His” people and commanded them not to worship any other gods. The Torah often compares this exclusive relationship between the God of Israel and the Israelites to a marriage in which the Israelites let down God by failing to be monogamous.

Monotheism, the idea that there is only one god in the universe, only creeps into the Bible in a few of the many books written during the Babylonian exile in the sixth century B.C.E. The book of Ezekiel, however, sticks to the older point of view that the God of Israel is the most powerful god, not the only god.  Therefore the book of Ezekiel is Judeo-centric; God interferes in the world primarily to reward or (more often) punish the Israelites.

And if nikhlemu because of everything that they have done, make known to them the design of the House and its plan——its exits and its entrances, and its entire plan, and all its decrees and all its plans and all its teachings; And write it down before their eyes so they will observe its entire plan and all its decrees, and do them. (Ezekiel 43:11)

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For those of us who have a more monotheistic or universal idea of God, I propose a radical rereading of Ezekiel 43:11:

And if nikhlamta because of everything that you have done, discover for yourself the design of the House and its plan—

If you feel your life is unsatisfactory, even humiliating, and suspect it is because you have done something wrong, then think of your life as a temple for God’s presence.

—its exits and its entrances, and its entire plan,

Where in your life do you exit from the presence of God? Where do you enter it? What is your overall plan for living with God?

and all its decrees and all its plans and all its teachings;

What principles do you follow as if they are divine decrees? What teachings help you to approach God?

And write it down before your own eyes so you will observe its entire plan and all its decrees, and do them. (Ezekiel 43:11)

And undertake a practice, such as prayer or study, that will keep reminding you of your plan for living in God’s presence and the principles you are following. Then make it your life.

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