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.

*

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.

Bemidbar: Tribes in Four Directions

May 22, 2015 at 10:07 am | Posted in Bemidbar | 2 Comments
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

The Israelites leave Egypt in a rush, in a swarm, in no particular order.  At the beginning of the book of Numbers/Bemidbar (“In a wilderness”), they prepare to leave Mount Sinai in orderly formation.

One difference is that now they have made the portable sanctuary for God.  The Levites and priests camp immediately around the sanctuary.  (See my post Bemidbar & Naso: Four Directions of Service.)

Camping Formation

Camping Formation

Surrounding the Levites, but at a greater distance from the sanctuary, are the remaining twelve tribes.  They camp and march in four blocks: east, south, west, and north.  Each block has a leading tribe and two supporting tribes.

God spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying: Each man shall camp next to his banner, with the insignia of their father’s house.  They shall camp at a distance around the Tent of Meeting. And those camping keidmah, mizrachah, shall be the banner of the camp of Yehudah… And those camping next to them: the tribe of Yissachar …the tribe of Zevulun … All those counted for the camp of Yehudah were 186,400, by their legions; the first to pull out. (Numbers/Bemidbar 2:1-9)

keidmah (קֵדְמָה) = to the east, in front, originally. From the root verb kadam (קָדַם) = came toward, went first, confronted, preceded.

mizrachah (מִזְרָחָה) = to the east, toward sunrise. From the root verb zarach (זָרַח) = shone forth.

When the Israelites break camp, the tribe of Yehudah (Judah in English) sets off toward the east, then veers in whatever direction the people will actually travel that day.  In the book of Genesis, Yehudah gradually becomes the leader of all the brothers who confront Joseph.  King David was from the tribe of Yehudah, and after Assyria conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, the kingdom of Yehudah survived for two more centuries.

When one faces east, the south is on one’s right.  That means Reuven is Yehudah’s right-hand man in this week’s Torah portion:

The banner of the camp of Reuven shall be teymanahAnd those camping next to them shall be the tribe of Shimon…and the tribe of Gad… All those counted for the camp of Reuven were 161,450, by their legions; and they shall pull out second. (Numbers 2:10-16)

teymanah (תֵּימָנָה) = to the south.  (From the root yamin, יָמִין, = right side, right hand.)

In the Torah, south is the direction of the Negev desert, the kingdom of Edom in the hills of Sei-ir, Mount Paran, and Mount Sinai. Moses says in his final speech to the Israelites: God came from Sinai, and shone forth from Sei-ir for them, having radiated from Mount Paran… (Deuteronomy/Devarim 33:2)

menorahAll of this divine light dawns in the south.  Inside the sanctuary tent, the menorah (lampstand) is by the south wall.

Reuven is the firstborn of the twelve sons of Jacob, a.k.a. Israel, but he does not inherit the leadership of the extended family. His tribe gets second place, but at least it is close to God’s illumination in the south.

Then the Tent of Meeting shall set out, the camp of the Levites, in the middle of the camps; as they camp, so shall they pull out, each man in position next to their banners. (Numbers 2:17)

Next come the tribes in the back, to the west of the sanctuary:

The banner of the camp of Efrayim by its legions shall be yamah…And next to them shall be the tribe on Menasheh…and the tribe of Binyamin…  All those counted for the camp of Efrayim: 108,100, by their legions; and they shall pull out third. (Numbers 2:18-24)

yamah (יָמָּה) = to the west, toward the (Mediterranean) Sea (yam).

The other Biblical Hebrew word for west is ma-arav (מַעֲרָב), toward the sunset. In the Bible, the west represents the unknown:  the great sea, the future, and death. The western end of the tent sanctuary is the back wall of the Holy of Holies.

In Genesis, Jacob rearranges his hands when he blesses Joseph’s two sons Menasheh and Efrayim, so that even though Menasheh is older, Efrayim receives the blessing of the firstborn.

Thus the chief tribe on the east is named after Yehudah, who took the role of the firstborn by his own leadership.  The chief tribe on the south is named after Reuven, who was the firstborn but lost his position.  And the chief tribe on the west is named after Efrayim, who was born second but promoted to firstborn.

The chief tribe on the north, Dan, does not even care about the rights of the firstborn.

The banner of the camp of Dan shall be tzafonah, by their legions… And those camping next to them shall be the tribe of Asher…and the tribe of Naftali… All those counted for the camp of Dan: 157,600; as the last they shall pull out, next to their banners. (2:25-31)

tzafonah (צָפֹנָה) = to the north. From the same root as the verb tzafan (צָפַן) = hide treasure, hide in ambush.

Mt. Aqra, probably Mt. Tzafon

In the Bible, the north is where the Assyrians came from when they swept down and conquered the kingdom of Israel.  It is also the direction of Mount Tzafon, a peak near the Mediterranean coast in present-day northern Syria. In Canaanite mythology, when Baal became the supreme god, he built a palace on top of Mount Tzafon.

Inside the sanctuary, the table displaying the twelve loaves of bread stands by the north wall. The loaves stand for the tribes of Israel, on display before God.

Dan, Jacob’s fifth son, is unimportant in the book of Genesis.  But in the book of Judges the tribe of Dan abandons its allotted territory and heads north.  As the tribe crosses Efrayim’s territory, it captures a priest and a molten idol.  Then Dan seizes the Canaanite city of Laish.  Both conquests are surprise attacks; perhaps the whole tribe of Dan is good at hiding in ambush.  Laish, renamed Dan, becomes the northernmost city in the kingdom of Israel.

The word for northward, tzafonah, is related not only to hiding, but also to the center of Canaanite religion at Mount Tzafon. In the first book of Kings, the city of Dan has its own temple and its own golden calf.

Maybe when the Israelites break camp the tribe of Dan pulls out last because it is not wholehearted about either the community of Israel or its God.  Dan goes its own way, then follows the rest of Israelite and its sanctuary after all.

compassWhen the Israelites leave Mount Sinai, they march and camp in a formation that positions each tribe in relation to the four directions and to the sanctuary in the center.  Today, we also need to put what is holy to us at the center of our lives. Otherwise we will swarm about aimlessly.

In addition to holding a holy center, we need to operate in the world.  The four cardinal directions might indicate four ways of operating. If we are fortunate, our primary strategy is represented by the east and Yehudah: taking the lead in our own lives and setting off on new ventures. A second strategy is represented by the south and Reuven: seeking and remembering moments of illumination. Third is the strategy represented by the west and Efrayim: humbly accepting the unknown future, as well as unexpected blessings from those wiser than we.  Finally there is the strategy represented by the north and Dan: stepping away when we need to, or coming out of hiding and doing the unexpected.

May we be able to use all these strategies when we organize our own lives.

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