February 15, 2003
Ezekiel was the quintessential prophet of the exile whose prophecies focused on the ultimate return of his people, the children of Israel, from their exile in Babylonia to their homeland in the land of Israel. The entirety of this week’s haftarah reflects this reality in its message. Like the parasha, it contains the plans for the nation’s sacred center. In the parasha, this refers to plans for the sanctuary in the desert, while for Ezekiel, the reference is to the future Temple in Jerusalem. Ezekiel’s words, however, contained a potentially disconcerting message. While it was meant to reflect an element of hope amidst the tragedy of exile, it also contained the seeds of despair. Ezekiel spoke to an audience of exiles, shorn of the hope of return. Its message might be beyond their comprehension. What could those in exile understand about unattainable goals, about an ultimate reality especially when its message is attached to their present well-being?
The first sentence of Ezekiel’s prophecy reflects this tension: “[Now] you, O mortal, describe the Temple to the House of Israel, and let them measure its design. But let them be ashamed of their iniquities: When they are ashamed of all they have done, make known to them the plan for the Temple and its layout…” (Ezekiel 43:10-11) In this verse, the people are asked to recount what they had done to cause the tragedies which had befallen them as a requisite for rebuilding the Temple. The Temple, in turn, would again provide for them the opportunity to commune with God and to atone for their sin. In Ezekiel’s times, this hope was but a dream amidst despair. This same despair enveloped the sages in a later period in Jewish history and they used this verse to reflect their remedy.
Said Rabbi Samuel bar Abba: “The Holy One Blessed be He said to the people of Israel: ‘Even though the Temple will be destroyed and the sacrificial order discontinued, never forget the order of the sacrifices but rather be careful to read them and learn them for if you busy yourselves with them, I will count it for you as if you actually offered them.’ And if you are interested to know that this is so, come and take notice that when the Holy One Blessed be He actually showed Ezekiel the plans for the future Temple, He said to him: ‘[Now] you. O mortal, describe the Temple to the House of Israel, and let them measure its design. But let them be ashamed of their iniquities’ (Ezekiel 43:10) Ezekiel replied before the Holy One Blessed be He: ‘Master of the Universe, up until now you have set us in exile in the lands of those who hate us and You say to me that I should inform the people of Israel of the plans for the Temple and write it down before their eyes so that they may preserve its plans and its laws. Are the people really capable of doing this while they are in exile? Perhaps it would be better to wait until they go up out of exile and then I will inform them.’ God replied to Ezekiel: ‘Since my children are in exile and the Temple is destroyed, the study of Torah is tantamount to the building of the Temple for you. Therefore, inform them that the study of the plans for the building of the Temple will be rewarded as if they actually built it.’ Happy is the person who studies Torah and provides funds so that his or her children can learn Torah, for the reward for these acts will be the world to come… (adapted from Tanhuma Tzav 14)
In these days when the building of the Temple is still but a distant dream, God has granted us the gift of Torah study as a means for communing with the Divine. In God’s words, despite our condition, we will always find solace and hope.