Pirke d’Rabbi Eliezer is a midrash that is not quite a midrash. Most rabbinic midrashim take the language of the biblical text and toy with it to tease out of it the different possible readings. Instead, Pirke d’Rabbi Eliezer employs paraphrase as its tool for reinterpreting the text. In other words, when it retells a story from the Bible, you have to read carefully to notice the details or the dialogue which it has added to the text to give a story a different twist.
In the following excerpt from its retelling of Ezekiel’s prophecy of the dry bones, I want to relate to one particular addition which caught my attention: “Rabbi Pinhas said: ‘Twenty years after these people were killed in Babylonia [namely, the bones of the exilic community], the spirit of God rested on Ezekiel and brought him to the Dura Valley to show him a great many dry bones. God said to him: ‘Do [you think that] I have the power to bring them back to life or not?’ Ezekiel replied: ‘Lord, God, You know.’ (37:3) And because Ezekiel did not believe [that God could revive them], his bones were not buried in a pure place [namely Israel], as it is said: ‘And you shall die in an impure land.’ (Amos 7:17) God said to him: ‘Prophesy regarding the bones.’ Ezekiel replied: ‘Master of the world, what prophecy can I bring to flesh and sinews that have been eaten by animals and birds and have died in another land?’ Immediately, God caused His voice to be heard between the Cherubs and the earth quaked, as it was said: ‘While I was prophesying, suddenly there was the sound of rattling… and the bones came together, bone to matching bone.’ (37:7)” (Pirke deRabbi Eliezer 33)
Prophets play different roles. Sometimes there is sharp interchange between God and His servant. At other times, the prophet simply acts as a vessel of His master. In Ezekiel’s case, Ezekiel seems to be playing the later role. God’s asks him for his thoughts as to whether He is capable of carrying out what has promised and Ezekiel like a loyal servant accedes: “You know”, which seems to mean the he affirms God’s capabilities. The language of Ezekiel’s answer is, however, ambiguous and the author of the above midrash takes full advantage of this fact, turning Ezekiel into a doubter. And doubt, according to this retelling of the story is a punishable sin!
What makes it so sinful? After all, Jews are renowned for questions and even for cynicism. And what made Ezekiel deserve the sin and its punishment? The whole point of the story of the dry bones is an affirmation of life, of the rebirth of the people as a nation. This is something that might have seemed preposterous. There were probably plenty of cynics and naysayers. Anything but pure enthusiasm would quash the project and who better than this to use as an example than a heroic figure – Ezekiel, as a reminder that the lack of enthusiasm would doom the prophecy. The author of this midrash knew this and used it as a fantastic literary tool.
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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