Haftarah Shabbat Chol Hamoed Sukkot (Ezekiel 39:1-16)
October 3, 2015 / 20 Tishre 5776
There was a prevalent belief in rabbinic times that Sukkot would be the season of the redemption of the world. These were not to be easy times. The ultimate redemption would be preceded by cataclysmic wars where God would be triumphant and all would come to recognize His sovereignty. The haftarah for the first day of Sukkot and the Shabbat Hol Hamoed Sukkot foreshadow these apocalyptic battles. This Shabbat’s haftarah, speaks of a nation, known as Gog, which would be brought to do battle against Israel. God would defeat it, leaving its devastated army slaughtered in battle. After Gog’s defeat, Israel would be responsible for burying Gog’s slain warriors: “On that day. I (God) will assign to Gog a burial site there in Israel… The House of Israel will spend seven months burying them” (39:11-12)
Eschatological scenes like that found in Ezekiel’s prophecy do not paint a pretty picture. Those of us who are far from the battlefield cannot even imagine the scenes that it portrays, let alone conjure up the gruesome horror of the battlefield strewn with corpses. These scenes still exist and are very real to some in the world. One only has to witness the stream of refugees fleeing such places. One can imagine that the original audience for Ezekiel’s prophecy knew such scenes first hand so end of times portraits like that displayed in his message were not unfamiliar.
The sages of rabbinic period Eretz Yisrael, who lived under Roman domination, were well aware of these horrors and were able to look at this prophecy and see a light amidst the horror. For them, the mythic nation of Gog may have been the ultimate enemy who was worthy of divine defeat, but still, its ancestors must have had virtues since, since unlike fallen armies that they knew of, Gog’s dead warranted burial.
The following midrash, in an attempt to explain this, noted that Gog was a descendent of Noah’s son, Yefet. The obligation to bury Gog’s dead could therefore be traced to a good deed of his ancestor, Yefet: “’And Shem and Yefet took a garment [to cover the nakedness of their drunken father]’ (Genesis 9:23). Rabbi Yohanan said: Shem started the good deed and then Yefet came and heeded to him. ‘And laid it (the garment) upon both their shoulders.’ (Ibid.) Now since it is said, ‘and he went backwards’ (Ibid.), do we not know that ‘they did not see their father’s nakedness’ (Ibid.)? This, however, teaches that they hid their faces with their hands and walked backward, giving him (Noah) the respect due from a son to a father… The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Yafet: ‘You covered your father’s nakedness: By your life, I will reward you, for it will come to pass on that day, that I will give to Gog a place fit for burial in IsraeI.’ (Ezekiel 39:11). (adapted from Bereishit Rabbah 36:6)
The sages associated the “mitzvah” done by Yafet with the ultimate dignity which God’s assigned to Israel’s enemy at the end of time. These sages who knew firsthand the scurrilous outcome of battles saw in their being dignified with burial a just answer to the dignity that their ancestor had done for his father.