May 13, 2006
The first verse of the haftarah cannot be understood outside of the context of the verses which precede it. These verses (9-14) remonstrate against those who have, through their disloyalty to God, either completely lost their ability to serve God in the Temple or have been demoted to lesser positions no longer able to perform functions which were previously theirs to perform. In contrast, Ezekiel mandates that only those who maintained absolute loyalty to God could continue to serve in the Temple: \”But the levitical priests descended from Zadok, who maintained the service of My Sanctuary when the people of Israel went astray from Me [God] – they shall approach Me to minister to Me; they shall stand before Me to offer Me fat and blood – declares the Lord God.\” (Verse 15)
Ezekiel saw this situation as one where nuances were not acceptable, as a situation where even if the individual rectified his behavior, he could no longer fulfill the role he once held. This scenario reminds certain sages from the rabbinic period of a previous episode in the history of the people of Israel: \”Said Rabbi Abba bar Memel: The first born [who were originally charged with the role of Divine priestly service] lost this role because they made offerings before the golden calf. So, too, one finds that the priest who worshipped idolatry in the First Temple, the Holy One Blessed Be He dismissed them from service in the Second Temple, as it says: \’The levitical priests descended from Zadok, who maintained the service of the sanctuary when the people went astray from Me, they shall approach Me…\’, This explains why the first born wailed and cried when the sanctuary in the desert was established.\” (Adapted from Numbers Rabbah 12:7)
Both of the situations recounted in this midrash seem terribly tragic. We are more used to the Jewish institution of \’teshuva – repentance\’ where the individual has the opportunity to rectify his/her actions and reclaim what was lost. This idea is not lost on Ezekiel nor has it disappeared as one of the most significant religious institutions. There are, however, circumstances in life which can never be reclaimed once they are lost. The firstborn in the midrash and the Levites in Ezekiel\’s prophecy (verse 10) held positions of responsibility, representing the people before God and God before the people. Their betrayal of God made their positions irretrievable. Loyalty is one of those qualities which must remain inviolable if relationships are to be maintained. This is true of ones relationship with God. It is equally true of our relationships with each other.
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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