March 20, 2004
This Shabbat is the 4th and last of the special Maftir Torah readings before Pesach. The special Torah reading recounts the preparations for the first Pesach in Egypt – the taking of a lamb for the Pesach offering and all of the other mitzvot necessary for the exodus. Ezekiel’s message, in the haftarah, sets out the sacrificial order meant to accompany the ultimate redemption. Much has been made of the fact that Ezekiel’s visions differ from the norms set out in the Torah. It has been suggested that this discrepancy represents the difference between the norms established for normative society and those which will be intended for the idyllic future. The haftarah ends with another curiosity seemingly unrelated to the sacrificial order. Ezekiel sets forth regulations for how the future messianic prince is permitted to acquire property. He sternly admonishes the prince regarding the property of his subjects: “And the prince shall not take of the people’s inheritance, it shall belong to his sons, it is their possession by inheritance.” (Ezekiel 46:18)
Targum Yonathon, the 7th century Aramaic translation of the Prophetic books, makes clear that the monarch is proscribed from “stealing” the land of his subjects. Power was not allowed to be a justification for malfeasance. Ezekiel was well aware that in the “real world” the opposite was often the case. The Book of Kings (1 Kings chapter 21) records the story of King Ahab , who coveted the vineyard of a man named Naboth. Jezebel, the queen, used a judicial ruse to have Naboth murdered so that the king could acquire the plot of land. This despicable act was unfortunately not exceptional.
Similarly, Psalm 82, recited on Tuesdays in the weekday morning service, echoes a similar reality. It is a psalm warning corrupt judges that they will be answerable to God for the miscarriage of justice: “I [God] said: ‘You [judges] are godlike beings and all of you sons of the Most High. Nevertheless you shall die like men and fall like one of the princes.” (verses 6-7)
Why did the sages include this message at the end of Ezekiel’s prophecy regarding the future sacrificial rites? The sages were well aware of the disparity between the partially redeemed world that they lived in after the redemption from Egypt and the ideal represented by Ezekiel’s message. The world that the rabbis lived in was terribly flawed. They want to ensure a different reality for the future. They knew that ideal worship alone would not determine the quality of life in the redeemed world. Rather, the just behavior of God’s subjects, especially those who control power, is ultimately what counts.
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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