Haftarah Vayigash (Ezekiel 37:13-28)
December 19, 2015 / 7 Tevet 5776
Ezekiel’s message in this week’s haftarah is utopian or, as we like to say in Jewish parlance, “messianic”. It envisions the unity of the Jewish nation as represented by attaching together two sticks, each symbolizing a portion of the Jewish people. The nation will be unified under the leadership of a king: “My servant David shall be king over them; there should be one shepherd over them. Thus they shall remain in the land that I gave to My servant Jacob and in which your father dwelt; they and their children and their children’s children shall dwell their forever, with My servant David as their prince for all time” (37:24-25)
The language of this verse, taken at face value, raises a “historical” problem. How can David, who was the first king of a dynasty of kings, be the king of the future “Messianic” kingdom? This would seem to be historically untenable. The Talmud takes up this very question: “Rav Judah said in Rav’s name: The Holy One, blessed be He, will raise up another David for us, as it is written: ‘But they shall serve the Lord their God, and David their king, whom I will raise up unto them’ (Jeremiah 30:9): not ‘I raised up’, but ‘I will raise up’ is said. Rav Papa offers a challenge to Abaye: But isn’t it written: And my servant David shall be their prince [nasi] forever (Ezekiel 37:25)? – that is to say: an emperor and a viceroy. ” (Sanhedrin 98b)
What is the crux of the debate between these two sages? Rav Judah asserted that God will raise up a descendant of the House of David who will be in David’s likeness, while Rav Papa maintains that the “messiah” will have a higher status than that of King David. What we have here is a debate over ideal leadership and the nature of messianic times. Rav Judah argues that the ideal future will be shaped in the image of a nostalgic look of the past, while Rav Papa views the future as a radical improvement over the past.
It is interesting that these two existential postures exist to this day. There are those who want to shape the future in the image of the past and there are others among us who would turn a blind eye on the past in shaping what will be. Both ideologies idealize their visions and both are utopian. It seems to me that the “ideal reality” will be found somewhere in between.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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