Bar-Ilan University 's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Shabbat Hol Hamoed Pesah 5764/ April 10, 2004

 

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan , Israel . A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University 's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University . Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il

 

 

 

Redemption, Resurrection, and Passover

Gabby Barzilai

Department of Bible

 

The haftara reading for Shabbat Hol Homoed is Ezekiel’s vision of the Dry Bones in chapter 37. This chapter appears at first glance to be a parable, a prophetic example.   There is therefore no point in asking whose bones did Ezekiel bring back to life, for a parable is not reality.   Nevertheless, this question comes up in many derashot of the Sages.  I would like to focus on one exegetical tradition on this subject, and through that interpretation we will relate the vision of the dry bones back to the festival of Passover and its reading this Shabbat.

The Talmudic discussion in Tractate Sanhedrin 92b, begins by deliberating in principle whether Ezekiel actually resurrected the dead or whether this is only a parable.  The Talmud continues with a disagreement among those who held the first view, whether the dead were resurrected only for a short time in order to prove that “the Lord deals death and gives life,” or whether they came to life and returned to the land of Israel, took themselves wives and begot children.  In the wake of the latter view, the question arises as to whose were the bones that Ezekiel resurrected:

Who were the dead whom Ezekiel resurrected?  Rav said:   they were the descendants of Ephraim who calculated the end and erred, as it is said:  “The sons of Ephraim:  Shutelah, his son Bered, his son Tahath, his son Eleadah, his son Zabad, his son Shutelah, also Ezer and Elead” (I Chron. 7:20-22), and they were killed by the men of Gath, born in the land, etc., and it is written (ibid., 22):   “And Ephraim their father mourned many days, and his brothers came to comfort him.”

The strange story in I Chronicles about the sons of Ephraim, son of Jacob, who were killed in the land of Canaan by the Philistines from Gath, is the scriptural focus of this homily (derasha).   To state that Ephraim, the ancestor of the tribe, mourned his descendants who were born seven or eight generations later, indeed calls for interpretation.  Further, what does “who calculated the end and erred” mean?   Rashi in his commentary on the gemara explains:

And erred:  for they should have calculated the edict, “and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years” (Gen.15:13) from the birth of Isaac, … but they [the sons of Ephraim] calculated it from the moment [G-d] spoke to Abraham.  It is taught in Seder Olam [the reckoning of the universe] that our forefather Abraham was seventy years old when [G-d] spoke to him at the Covenant of the Pieces, and another thirty years passed from the Covenant of the Pieces until the birth of Isaac, for it is written:  “Now Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him” (Gen. 21:5).  Thus it turns out that from the time He spoke to him at the Covenant of the Pieces until they left Egypt there were four hundred (and thirty) years, and the sons of Ephraim erred by the thirty years from the time He spoke until the birth of Isaac.   Whence do we know the sons of Ephraim left too early and were killed?  For it is said:  “The sons of Ephraim:   Shutelah, …,   and they were killed by the men of Gath.”

Rashi’s interpretation is based on the discrepancy between G-d’s promise to Abraham in the Covenant of the Pieces – “and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years”– and Scriptures’ remark with regard to the exodus from Egypt: “The length of time that the Israelites lived in Egypt was four hundred and thirty years” (Ex. 12:40).   The tribe of Ephraim erred in their calculation of the exile in Egypt, and actually left Egypt before the appointed time, which the Sages called “pushing (hastening) the End”, and therefore were punished, being killed immediately upon entering the land of Canaan from the south.   But, the homily says, even though they erred and were killed, the merit for their good intention of returning to Canaan and inheriting the land stood them well and they were rewarded by being resurrected in the days of Ezekiel.

This derasha ties the vision of Dry Bones to Passover, so that it was chosen as the haftarah for the intervening Sabbath of the festival.  The homilist created an exegetical connection between the prophetic vision foretelling the return to Zion from the Babylonian exile by Ezekiel and the exodus from Egypt, comparing one exodus to the other.  This connection reinforces the message of the vision, and the Rabbis teach us that the same G-d who delivered the Israelites from Egypt, and who delivered them from the Babylonian exile, out of a state of utter despair, will also “redeem us speedily” in our day.

The educational message of the homily, however, goes further.  The story of the descendants of Ephraim who hastened the end, were killed, and were resurrected teaches another ideological lesson which concerned the Sages.  This message is presented better in a variation of the Talmudic homily as it appears in Yalkut Shimoni (I Chron. par.1070):

Rabbi Eliezer said:  All the years that the Israelites were in Egypt the Ephraimites dwelled complacently, in peace and security, until Nun, one of the descendants of Ephraim, came and said, “The Holy One, blessed be He, revealed Himself to me to take you out.” In his pride, for they were of the royal line and mighty heroes in war, they arose, took their sons and daughters, and left Egypt.   Then the Egyptians arose and killed all their heroes.

This variation is far more critical of the descendants of Ephraim, presenting them as an elite that did not share in the suffering of the Israelites in Egypt, rather as “dwelling complacently, in peace and security.”   Nun, father of Moses’ servant Joshua from the tribe of Ephraim, is portrayed as appropriating to himself leadership, leading his tribesmen into error and causing their death.   “Hastening the End” is not presented as an innocent mistake stemming from good intentions, but as a revolt against G-d.  This ties the homily about the sons of Ephraim to the harsh criticism launched by the Sages at apocalyptic and messianic elements, those who “reckon the ends” and those who “hasten the end” (mehashve kitzin, dohake haketz ) as found in the Midrash Song of Songs Rabbah (2.1[7]):

“I adjure you, O maidens of Jerusalem” (Song of Songs 2:7) Rabbi Halbo says:   There are four oaths here:   Israel had to swear not to rebel against the ruling authority, not to anticipate the imminent coming of the Messiah, not to reveal their mysteries to the rest of the world, and not to return en masse from the Dispersion.  That being so, why is the Messiah and King supposed to come?  To gather together the dispersed of Israel.   Rabbi Oniah said:   They had to swear four oaths, one for each of the four generations who anticipated the end before its time and failed, and these are they:  one in the days of Amram, one in the days of Dinai, one in the days of Ben Kozeba (=Bar Kokhbah), and one in the days of Shutelah, son of Ephraim.   That is the reference in the verse, “Like the Ephraimite bowmen who played false in the day of battle” (Ps. 78:9), calculating the end from the time the edict was made, when the Holy One, blessed be He, spoke to our forefather Abraham in the Covenant of the Pieces; but [the reckoning of the years] only began from Isaac’s birth.   What did they do?   They gathered together and went to war, and many of them fell in battle.  What for?   Because they had not had faith in the Lord and trusted Him to deliver them, and because they had violated the end and had violated the oath.

This homily bases its point about Ephraim on a verse from Psalms, not on the passage from Chronicles, which we saw above.  This association takes the story in a different direction, for Psalms 78, which mentions the exodus from Egypt explicitly, describes the Ephraimites as sinners:   “Like the Ephraimite bowmen who played false in the day of battle, they did not keep G-d’s covenant, they refused to follow His instruction; they forgot His deeds and the wonders that He showed them” (Ps. 78:9-11).  This homily shows no sympathy for the deeds of the Ephraimites, but judges them harshly.

 

The Sages’ stern condemnation of apocalyptic elements in general stems, as far as one can tell, from the terrible failure of the Bar Kokhba rebellion (132-135 C.E.), which began with strong messianic sentiment that the time of Redemption had come and ended in total devastation of Judah and the death of close to a million and a half Jews.  This terrible end is what led the Sages to formulate the midrash about four oaths and urge the Jews of the Diaspora to wait patiently for the coming of the Messiah.  This message of patience can be found in our haftara as well, for the end of the vision of Dry Bones attributes Redemption to the acts of G-d alone (Ezek. 37:12-14):

Prophesy, therefore, and say to them:  Thus said the Lord G-d:  I am going to open your graves and lift you out of the graves, O My people, and bring you to the land of Israel.   You shall know, O My people, that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves and lifted you out of your graves.   I will put My breath into you and you shall live again, and I will set you upon your own soil.   Then you shall know that I the Lord have spoken and acted – declares the Lord.

In sum: our chapter connects the redemption after the Babylonian Exile with the earlier redemption from Egypt, and thus gives each generation hope for the future redemption. Yet at the same time, the rabbinic midrash on this chapter cautions against initiatives which “push the end”. Remembering that G-d Almighty is the Redeemer can be seen in the text itself, as cited above. Thus it is entirely fitting that the Sages selected precisely this prophetic passage for Shabbat Hol Hamoed of Passover to get across these important messages.