Haftarah Hol Hamoed Pesach
March 30, 2013
19 Nisan 5773
Perhaps some of you are familiar with the African American spiritual – ‘Ezekiel connected dem dry bones, Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones, now hear the word of the Lord, dem bones dem bones gonna walk around, singin the praise of de Lord.’ These words captured in song the imagery of Ezekiel’s prophecy found in this special haftarah for Shabbat Hol Hamoed Pesah. It had deep meaning for those who sang it as a spiritual. I explored its meaning with a friend of mine, Professor Allen Callahan, an expert on gospel spiritual music. He pointed out to me that this song served as a source of hope for the African slave community that one day their community would be reconstituted as a nation. He further noted that it probably also served as a cathartic memorial for all those who died as a result of the slave trade, with the hope that in the future resurrection the lost would be resurrected as part of the community.
Professor Callahan’s observations are reminiscent of a Tannaitic debate on the meaning of Ezekiel’s prophecy as found the Talmud (Sanhedrin 92b): R. Eliezer said: The dead whom Ezekiel resurrected stood up, uttered song, and [immediately] died. What song did they utter? – ‘The Lord slays in righteousness and revives in mercy.’ R. Joshua said: They sang thus: ‘The Lord kills and resurrects: he brings down to the grave, and revives.’ R. Judah said: In truth; it was a parable. R. Nehemiah said to him: If true, why a parable; and if a parable, why true? — Rather in truth, it was a parable. R. Eliezer the son of R. Jose the Galilean said: The dead whom Ezekiel revived went up to Palestine, married wives and begat sons and daughters. R. Judah b. Bathyra rose up and said: I am one of their descendants, and these are the tefillin which my grandfather left me from them.”
Here we have five answers which ultimately boil down to three distinct approaches: 1. the resurrected rose up, sang praise of God for his ability to resurrect and then returned to the grave; 2. the vision expressed an allusion to future hopes and dreams of resurrection; 3. The resurrected rose up, returned to Israel from exile and went on with their lives.
Ezekiel’s fantastic vision was born of the dire conditions of the exilic community in Babylonia. Some sages imagined in this vision the exilic desire to recognize God’s ability to redeem them. At the very least this was worthy of a song. Others saw it as an expression of the aspirations of the exilic community for future redemption since its fulfillment did not seem imminent and still others thought that the redemptive process was part of their ongoing reality.
The resurrection of the dry bones, then, was seen as a means for expressing the deepest yearning for communal and personal redemption and homecoming. This was true for Ezekiel’s original audience. It was equally true in the consciousness of the Talmudic sages and for African Americans not so long ago yearning for freedom and redemption from oppression.
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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