Haftarah Parshat Shmini – Shabbat Parah (Ezekiel 36:16-38)
April 2, 2016 / 23 Adar B 5776
This week’s special haftarah for Shabbat Parah is theologically complicated. From Ezekiel’s vantage point, God is angry at the nation for their sinful behavior. They have symbolically rendered the land impure and deserve punishment. As a result, the people are exiled among the nations. This punishment, however, presents a clear dilemma for God. On the one hand, the nation’s punishment is deserved, but, on the other hand, their punishment is an embarrassment to God, since the nations will see the exiled Judeans and blame their exile on God’s inadequacies.
God is in a quandary! Which of His interests should take precedence, divine justice or His good name? Ezekiel’s answer to this question is theologically innovative: “But when they came (vayavo) to those nations, they caused My holy name to be profaned, in that it was said of them, ‘These are the people of the Lord, yet they had to leave His land.’ Therefore, I am concerned for My holy name, which you have caused to be profaned among the nations to which they have come. Say to the House of Israel: Thus, said the Lord God: Not for your sake will I act, O House of Israel, but for My Holy name, which you have caused to be profaned among the nations to which you have come.” (20-22) This passage makes it clear that despite the nation’s sinful behavior, God has decided to redeem His people for the sake of His good name.
In the following midrash, the sages mark this idea even more poignantly, based on a biblical expression that had gone out of use in rabbinic Hebrew. When Ezekiel describes the nation’s exile, he states that “they came to those nations”. The verb used – “vayavo”, however, is in the singular. While not atypical of biblical Hebrew, this offered the sages an opportunity to assert that this verb referred to God and not the people: “You find that when Israel went into exile among the nations, the Holy One Blessed Be He went from door to door among the nations of the world to hear what they had to say. And what did they say? The god of that nation had punished Pharaoh and the likes as if he were a young deity. He must have gotten old [and was no longer capable of saving His people]. ‘And when He (God) came among the nations that they had gone there, they caused His name to be profaned.’ Scripture should have said ‘vayavou – and they came’; instead it said: ‘vayavo – and He came’, as it were, that God Himself came.” (adapted from Eicha Rabbah Petichot 15)
God’s reputation is intertwined with the fate of His people for good and for bad. From the human perspective this means two things. The behavior of God’s people must reflect God’s highest values but equally so, God’s people must also be concerned that they do their very best to maintain and protect the fate and wellbeing of His nation as well.
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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