Haftarah Parshat Vayah’kel-Pekudei – Shabbat Hahodesh
March 25, 2017 / 27 Adar 5777
Pesah is right around the corner and this Shabbat is the fourth and final Shabbat where we have a special additional Torah reading before Pesah. The Torah reading recounts the special preparations for the first Pesah in Egypt. The accompanying haftarah records Ezekiel’s vision of how Pesah will be conducted in the rebuilt Temple. Ezekiel who lived in Babylonia at the time of the destruction of the First Temple prescribed rituals for the Temple which differed from the those found in the Torah.
One particular practice caught the attention of the sages. Ezekiel calls for an unusual ritual for the first day of the first month (Nisan): “Thus said the Lord God: ‘On the first day of the first month, you shall take a bull of the herd without blemish, and you shall purify (hiteita) the sanctuary of sin.’” (45:18) Normatively the bull offering on Rosh Hodesh (first day of the month) was a burnt offering (olah) and not a sin offering (for cleansing the sanctuary of sin). The sin offering for Rosh Hodesh was normally a goat. (see Numbers 19:9)
This discrepancy confounded the sages of rabbinic times who sought to somehow harmonize the Torah’s practice with that of Ezekiel’s vision. One attempt to reconcile the differences took the form of a debate in the Talmud: “Thus said the Lord God: ‘In the first month, on the first day of the month you shall take an unblemished young bullock, and you shall cleanse (hiteita) the Temple. [Is it to be] a sin-offering (hatat)’? Surely it should be a burnt-offering (olah – as prescribed in the Torah)? Rabbi Yohanan said: This passage will be interpreted by Elijah in the future. Rav Ashi said: [It refers to] the special consecration-offering [to be] offered in the time of Ezra, just as it was offered in the time of Moses. It has also been taught [in a Baraitha (an earlier teaching)] to the same effect: R. Judah says: This passage will be interpreted by Elijah in the future. But R. Jose said to him, [It refers to] the consecration-offering [to be] offered in the time of Ezra just as it was offered in the time of Moses. He replied: ‘May your mind be at ease for you have set mine at ease.’” (Menahot 45a)
It is likely that Rav Ashi’s explanation that Ezekiel describes what appears to be some sort of inaugural ceremony hones toward a reasonable answer to the question at hand. (See Rabbi David Kimche) However, what intrigues me more is the process by which these sages arrive at their conclusions. Rabbi Yohanan sees a conflict in the canonical literature as an insurmountable obstacle beyond the capability of human reason. As a result, he lays his problem at “God’s door” to be resolved. Rav Ashi attends to the problem by utilizing the best of his human facilities. He analyzes the context of the problem and comes up with the best human solution possible.
These two approaches exist to this day. Some say that the Jewish homecoming to Israel should have waited until God restores them. Others resolved to use the best of human resolve to make it happen. Is Rav Ashi’s approach less “religious” than Rabbi Yohanan’s for using his God given human talents to facilitate the answer to his problem? The answer should be an unqualified no.