Shabbat Hol Hamoed Pesach
April 19, 2003
When God transported Ezekiel to the valley and confronted him with the vision of the dry bones, His intention was to bring hope to the hearts of the exiles. He wanted them to know that their plight was not hopeless. They should not despair, for like the dry bones which God would ultimately restore, they, too, would experience redemption. When God asks Ezekiel: “O mortal, can these bones live again?” to which Ezekiel replies: “O Lord God, only You know.” (Ezekiel 37:3), what is the significance of this curious exchange between God and Ezekiel?
Rabbi Isaac Abrabanel, the 15th century Spanish statesman and commentator, dramatizes the peculiar nature of this dialogue. He notes the quandary in which Ezekiel found himself. Any answer he would have given to this question would have been deemed inappropriate. If he would have suggested to God that the laws of nature would not allow for such a miracle, his answer would have been out of place. Similarly, for Ezekiel to tell God that He is capable of performing miracles would be a case of stating the obvious. Since Ezekiel would not have assumed either of these, what was the intent of his answer: “Only You know!” According to Abrabanel, Ezekiel intended to tell God that He was the only true judge capable of assessing whether the bones were sufficiently worthy to be restored to life or not? He also wanted to let God know that he was aware that God was the sole source of mercy capable of this miracle.
Rabbi Joseph Kara, the 12th century French exegete, viewed the entire dialogue between God and Ezekiel in a much more direct fashion. He concluded that God’s intent in his question to Ezekiel was rhetorical. God asked, according to Kara, “Are you, Ezekiel, capable of resurrecting these bones?” Since the answer to this question was obviously “no”, Ezekiel answered God: “Only, You know whether I am capable of this miracle or not since I am only capable of carrying it out if You, God, desire it?”
A much earlier interpretation, found in a midrash, sums up the answer of these two commentators in a parable: “Four Biblical figures were found to be unsound when God tested then because they presumed abilities for themselves which were really in God’s hands. Ezekiel, on the other hand, correctly noted that all miracles are in “God’s hands”. Rabbi Hanina bar Papa: The bones can be compared to a bird found in the hands of a hunter. The hunter asked: ‘Is the bird in my hand alive or dead?’ His companion replied: ‘If you desire, it will live; if you desire. It will die.’” (adapted from Genesis Rabba 19:11)
The hunter, in this parable, is certainly aware of what he is capable of doing. The hunter’s companion, however, must assess the situation in order to draw the right conclusion. Ezekiel, who is represented by the hunter’s companion in this parable does just that. His assessment is not a matter of human resignation. Rather it intends to teach us that all of our efforts ultimately must be attributed to God’s blessings.
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.
The United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem offers students of all backgrounds the skills for studying Jewish texts. We are a vibrant, open-minded egalitarian community of committed Jews who learn, practise and grow together. Our goal is to provide students the ability and desire to continue Jewish learning and practice throughout their lives.
Rashei Yeshiva: Rabbi Joel Levy & Dr. Joshua Kulp.
Rabbi Joel Roth, Rosh Yeshiva Emeritus .
Sponsors – The Conservative Yeshiva would like to thank the following for their generous support of the Haftarah Commentary: