13 Apr 2017

Haftara for Intermediate Shabbat of Pesah (Hol HaMoed) 5777: The Whole House of Israel

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‘My sun sets to rise again.

— Robert Browning

Ezekiel 37:1-14


Yehezkel sees a prophetic vision of a valley filled with dry bones. God begins the dialogue with him asking ‘Son of humans, can these bones live again?’ Yehezkel responds ‘Only You know, God.’ God then commands him to prophesy and tell the bones to live. A rumbling occurs and the bones rejoin developing sinews, flesh and full bodies. He prophesies again and souls enter the bodies and they come alive. Hope is instilled in the hearts of the nation. They are promised rebirth. 

God explains the occurrence to Yehezkel telling him that the valley of dry bones is ‘the whole house of Israel’ and that although they have lost hope and their spirits have dried up, they will live again. God will draw them out of the graves of their despair and bring His nation back to their land. ‘He has said it and He will do it’.


When I have the privilege of speaking to large groups of people, I tend to look into the crowd rather than at the crowd, so that I can see the faces of those who are present. When I lift my head there is an energy that emanates from the people. It is the energy of many souls, each different, each precious, but unified and focused. In this state each soul is given an opportunity to shine brighter than if it was standing alone, because it is somehow relaxed as it settles within the crowd. And as the soul relaxes it is able to simply be and its natural beauty radiates and resonates in harmony with the others. The energy of such gatherings is fragile because the moment that it is affected by distraction or boredom it dissipates and once lost it is nearly impossible to regain.

When the energy is present it is palpable. Being on the receiving end of it is at once profoundly humbling and intensely moving. It has the potential to be sacred. For this reason a pulpit, podium, stage or platform afforded to anyone for any time is a great responsibility. To treat it without proper respect is a crime[1].

The inverse of this energy is the harrowing imagery at the opening scene of our haftara.

The hand of God 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. He led me all around them; there were very many of them spread over the valley, and they were very dry. (37:1-2)

The image that Yehezkel saw of this mass grave is all too familiar to us. Just as we are uplifted by the great spirit of a host of souls gathered together, we are equally haunted by the vision of lifeless, slain bodies lying in a ditch. But Yehezkel sees dry bones, not bodies.

The dry bones do not depict the national loss of our physical selves but worse, the absolute atrophy of our morale and identity. The word for ‘bone’ in Hebrew, עצם – ‘etsem, is also the word for ‘self’. It is in the marrow of our bones that white blood cells are generated and our immune system, which tells the difference between self and non-self originates. Dry bones, have barely any ‘self’ left. Yehezkel must prophesy and find the life in the bones. When he is asked if the bones can live even the prophet does not know. It is in his prophecy that he finds the answer. He must speak to the bones and summon them to life.

And He said to me, “Prophesy over these bones and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of God! Thus said the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live again. 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. (ibid., 4-6)

What for Yehezkel was all but an impossibility, as it was for our countless ancestors, is today our very reality. We live the fulfilled prophecy — the dry bones have come back to life. We all see it. Do not be afraid to see what you see[2].

For two thousand years our people have been burned by the fires of the world. Jewish communities have risen and fallen; they’ve been built and destroyed. We have seen golden ages and dark ones. We have spoken every language, lived in every region, become familiar with every ‘corner’ of the globe. No people like ours has thoroughly toured the ‘desert of the nations’[3]. We have marched to our deaths time and again. We were beaten, tortured, ridiculed, stepped on, spat on, vilified and murdered for what seemed like an eternity.

Our stories have reached their endings a thousand times and at each end we begin again.

The worst and most heinous of these endings was the Holocaust. The intention was not just to murder but to exterminate. We had, for all intents and purposes come to what could have easily been our ultimate demise. If we would never have cohesively or functionally recovered from that massive destruction, no one would have been surprised. Instead the surprise was that we did; beyond even our own dreams.

We not only came out of the ashes, we brought an ancient prophecy to life. We literally came from the four corners of the earth to re-inhabit our homeland. The spirits summoned by Yehezkel are our souls[4]. Yehezkel invites the spirits from the four corners of the earth to fill the bodies as they come to life.

Then He said to me, “Prophesy to the spirit, prophesy, O son of humans! 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.” (ibid., 9)

You and I have seen it. To deny it is to deny the lives lived and sacrificed by countless members of our nation across the centuries. A valley of bones was resurrected and God’s spirit filled them. The ‘Death Valley’ that Yehezkel sees in prophecy was not merely metaphoric. It was our homeland, Israel, utterly barren and void of its people. Eloquent witnesses testified to the fact:

We traversed some miles of desolate country whose soil is rich enough but it is given wholly to weeds…A desolation is here that not even imagination can grace with the pomp of life and action…Jerusalem is mournful, dreary and lifeless…it is a heartbroken land. Palestine is desolate and unlovely. And why should it be otherwise? Can the curse of a Deity beautify a land? Palestine is no more of this work-day world.

(Mark Twain, ‘The Innocents Abroad’, Chapter 47)[5]

Today Israel is not just a Jewish homeland, but a re-established sovereign state of an ancient and immortal people. It is not only a haven for a nation pummelled through the ages, but a beacon of hope for the entire world. With all who hate, boycott and condemn her, she remains, nonetheless, a global centre of solutions. Be it in science, medicine, agriculture, technology, charity, environment, she is a nation brimming with positivity, hope and joie de vivre. She is a nation who celebrates, cultivates and protects humanity in all its expressions. She is a nation, who, only 70 years young, has far surpassed any expectations of productivity, entrepreneurship and ingenuity, much less survival.

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…I will put My breath 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. (ibid., 12,14)

In the seven short decades in which we have returned, the energy that emerges from the multitudes is unmistakable in that land. One can feel the earth rejoicing at the return of her nation.

We have seen entirely new expressions of ourselves bud and flourish. Latent aspects of our people that were long suppressed through slavery, degradation and persecution are once again manifesting anew in their full glory. We are radiant.

Who are her citizens but the children of Jewish refugees from East and West? Are they not but the cousins of our own families? And yet, the Israeli is different than the Jew. The Israeli embodies the burgeoning national personality that has gained a new spirit of freedom and sovereignty that had been repressed for two millennia.

The land that was once cursed by the Deity is now blessed. The words of Yehezkel have come to pass.

The national anthem of our nation is Hatikvah – ‘The Hope’. If there was ever a hope that has been actualised and will continue to be, it is ours.

I prophesied as He commanded me. The breath entered them, and they came to life and stood up on their feet, a vast multitude. And He said to me, “O mortal, these bones are the whole House of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, our hope is gone; we are doomed…I will set you upon your own soil. Then you will know that I am God, I have spoken and have acted.’ (ibid., 10-11)

Let it be a source of hope to us all in our personal and national lives. Let us raise our heads high and allow our souls to shine. We have kept our heads down and necks to the ground long enough. During this festival of our freedom we turn our hope to God — He has faithfully kept His covenant and so must we. The nation of Israel lives. Am Yisrael Hai.

Moadim LeSimha,

Rabbi Joseph Dweck

[1] Kabod Tsibur, or ‘the honour of the congregation’ is not to be treated lightly. In Jewish law the concept of the honour and/or the inconveniencing of a congregation of people is of great importance and manifests as a weighty criteria to determining a plethora of legal questions. See Berakhot, 12b; 31a; Yoma, 70a; Shulhan Arukh, 124:3; Shalme Sibur, Laws of Kabod and Torah Sibur.

[2] A favourite phrase of President Ronald Reagan.

[3] Ezek., 20:35

[4] Cf. Gen., 6:17; 41:38; Numbers, 27:18.

[5] https://www.gutenberg.org/files/3176/3176-h/3176-h.htm#ch53