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29.05.2017 17:26    Comments: 0    Categories: Holidays      Tags: torah  holidays  haftarah  shavuot  ganzel  

The Haftarah for Shavuot

At the beginning of the Book of Ezekiel the prophet describes how "the heavens opened and I saw visions of G-d" (Ezek. 1:1).  Chapter 1, dubbed the "Chariot Vision" by the Sages, is one of the most difficult to understand in the entire Bible.  The Sages' remark on the Mishnah (Hagigah 2.1), "The subject of the Chariot may not be expounded before one person alone," is well-known:  "You may speak thus far, but from here on in you are not permitted to speak.  For it says in Ben Sira:  do not expound that which is wondrous beyond your grasp, and do not investigate that which is hidden from you;  ponder that which is permitted you, for you have no business with the occult" (Hagigah 13a).  Bearing in mind these remarks of the Sages, we shall devote our analysis of the haftarah reading for Shavuot, taken from Ezekiel chapter 1, to the prophetic message that emerges from it, without delving into the occult levels of this prophecy.

According to the beginning of the chapter, Ezekiel saw visions of G-d and described them in their full force:  in words conveying motion—"a stormy wind came sweeping" (v. 4), "they went" (verses 12-13 and elsewhere), "dashing to and fro" (v. 14); in vivid color—"flashing fire, surrounded by a radiance" (v. 4), "their sparkle was like the luster of burnished bronze" (v. 7), "something that looked like burning coals of fire…suggestive of torches" (v. 13), "in appearance like sapphire" (v. 26); and sound—"I could hear…like the sound of mighty waters…a tumult like the din of an army" (v. 24).  All this describes the powerful encounter of the prophet with the vision of G-d.  It seems that the further the prophet proceeds with his depiction, the more difficult it becomes for him to describe the vision he has experienced; this is evident from his frequent use of the word "like" and from the number of times he repeats "semblance" (Ezek. 1:26-28):

Above the expanse over their heads was the semblance of a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and on top, upon this semblance of a throne, there was the semblance of a human form.  From what appeared…I saw a gleam as of amber—what looked like a fire encased in a frame…I saw what looked like fire.  There was a radiance all about him.  Like the appearance of the bow which shines in the clouds on a day of rain, such was the appearance of the surrounding radiance.  That was the appearance of the semblance of the Presence of the Lord.

Such a detailed description of the appearance of G-d is unique even in Ezekiel's prophecy, in which several encounters with the appearance of G-d are described, beginning with the depiction in chapter 1, from the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin, and through the vision which appeared to him twenty years later.

The vision in the haftarah came to Ezekiel in the fifth year on the Chebar Canal.  Afterwards Ezekiel was carried away by a spirit, as he heard the sound of the vision of G-d, and thus he "came to the exile community that dwelt in Tel Abib by the Chebar Canal" (Ezek. 3:15).  After another prophecy he even beheld the Presence of the Lord as he was going out to the valley, like the Presence of the Lord that had previously been revealed to him by the Chebar Canal (Ezek. 3:22-24).  A year later, in the sixth year (Ezek. 8:1), sitting in his home Ezekiel beheld a figure taking him to Jerusalem in visions of G-d (Ezek. 8:2-3), and there, after a depiction of the idolatrous worship going on in the Temple, Ezekiel saw the Presence of G-d departing from the Temple (chapter 10).  This description concludes with the Divine Presence standing "on the hill east of the city" (Ezek. 11:23).

In the second part of the book, in the twenty-fifth year (Ezek. 40:1), Ezekiel beheld the Presence of the Lord returning to the Temple in a vision of the future Temple (chapters 40-48):  first he returned, in visions of G-d, to the land of Israel (Ezek. 40:2); then he beheld a vision of G-d as at the outset and saw the Presence of the G-d of Israel returning to the Temple (Ezek. 43:1-5); finally, the Presence of G-d filled the Temple (Ezek. 44:4).

From these depictions we learn that in Ezekiel's visions prior to the destruction of the Temple the Presence of the Lord had already left the Temple, leaving no divine presence in the city of Jerusalem.  The fate of the city had been sealed; the Temple had been desecrated and contaminated, and the city could no longer become cleansed of its impurity without the Lord pouring out His wrath on it.  This imagery of the Divine Presence being mobile gives added force to the gap between the people's assumption that their G-d could not possibly abandon His Temple and the prophet's assertion that the presence of the Lord in the Temple depended on the actions of the people.  Therefore the depictions of the Divine Presence accompanying Ezekiel in his prophecies in Babylonia reinforce his prophetic message that the Presence of the Lord had indeed quit the Temple.

The Sages, in several sources which do not match Ezekiel's depiction, describe the process of the Presence of the Lord leaving the Temple as taking place in "ten journeys," although the closest source to Ezekiel's depiction of the Presence leaving is found in Lamentations Rabbah (Proem, 25):

Ten journeys were made by the Shechinah:  from cherub to cherub, from the cherub to the threshold of the house, from the threshold of the house to the cherubim, from the cherubim to the east gate, from the east gate to the Court, from the Court to the roof, from the roof to the altar, from the altar to the wall, from the wall to the city [of Jerusalem], and from the city to the Mount of Olives.

The importance of his visions throughout the book of Ezekiel is evident from the way he beholds the Presence of the Lord arriving back in the Temple, coming from the east (Ezek. 43:1-2):

Then he led me to a gate, the gate that faced east.  And there, coming from the east with a roar like the roar of mighty waters, was the Presence of the G-d of Israel, and the earth was lit up by His Presence.

The next verse seems to be redundant (Ezek. 43:3):

The vision was like the vision I had seen when I came to destroy the city, the very same vision that I had seen by the Chebar Canal.

Apparently at the very moment that the Presence of the Lord returns to the Temple, in Ezekiel's vision of the future, the prophet stresses that the vision is the same as that which accompanied him all the years of his prophesying, even before the Temple was destroyed, while he was in Babylonia.  This point is made by recapping each of the places in which Ezekiel beheld visions of G-d, in the first part of the book.  Thus, the words, "the vision was like the vision I had seen" (ibid.) refers to the vision in chapter 1, and therefore the use of the definite article to emphasize the point.  Afterwards he says: "like the vision I had seen when I came to destroy the city" (Ezek. 43:3), referring to the visions in chapters 8-11, which match the description of the city's destruction in chapter 9 (verses 4-11).  Finally, the prophet sums up that all these visions were beheld during the time he spent on the Chebar Canal (chapters 1-3).  In this manner Ezekiel emphasizes that although, for the first time since the Temple had been built under Solomon, the Presence of the Lord had left the Temple and the Temple had been destroyed, nevertheless the same Divine appearance would occur again and would dwell in the Temple in the future; so the people should not fear that the Presence of the Lord leaving the Temple meant that the Presence of the Lord had left the people.  Upon beholding this vision of G-d, the prophet reacts by falling on his face (Ezek. 43:3), and proceeds to describe the Temple again becoming filled with the Presence of the Lord (Ezek. 43:4-5):

The Presence of the Lord entered the Temple by the gate that faced eastward.  A spirit carried me into the inner court, and lo, the Presence of the Lord filled the Temple.

Chapter 43 begins with a description of the Presence of the Lord entering the Temple.  This can be seen as the climax of Ezekiel's prophecies regarding the future, since the objective of building the Temple, with all its details, was that the Presence of the Lord should dwell in it.  The importance of this prophecy is also evident from the fact that the prophet receives it in the first person:

O mortal, this is the place of My throne and the place for the soles of My feet, where I will dwell in the midst of the people Israel forever.  The House of Israel and their kings must not again defile My holy name (v. 7)…and I will dwell among them forever (v. 9).

Henceforth, the place through which the Lord will enter ("the outer gate…that faced eastward") is to be closed and thus will be protected from human beings entering and from the fear of further contamination:  "And the Lord said to me:  This gate is to be kept shut and is not to be opened!  No one shall enter by it because the Lord, the G-d of Israel, has entered by it; therefore it shall remain shut" (Ezek. 44:2).

It is in this spirit that Rabbi Nebenzahl explains:[2]

Therefore it is important that the eastern, central, gate be closed and serve no practical use other than making people remember:  through this gate the Lord will return, because through this gate He left when the Divine Presence removed itself prior to the destruction of the Temple.  If you bear in mind that the Lord might also leave, then perhaps He will never have to leave again. (p. 369)

These verses at the beginning of chapter 43 describe the Presence of the Lord coming to dwell amidst the people (verses 7, 9, as well as 37:26-28).  In all of Scripture there is only one other such description of the Presence of the Lord coming down to the people, namely the Theophany at Mount Sinai:  "The Presence of the Lord abode on Mount Sinai" (Ex. 24:16).

The Theophany at Mount Sinai and the Divine Presence descending in the book of Ezekiel provide confirmation of the positive and irreversible bond between the Lord and His people, which ultimately leads to the Presence of the Lord dwelling amongst them.  The realization of this lofty prophetic vision will take place when the House of Israel shall "not again defile My holy name" (Ezek. 43:7).

So from the description of the holy chariot at the beginning of the book and from the depiction of the journeys of the Presence of the Lord throughout the book there emerges a prophetic message:  the people must learn that not under every circumstance will the Lord necessarily cause His Presence to dwell in His Temple.  Nevertheless, despite the people not obeying the prophets and not repenting of their deeds, even after the destruction, the Holy One, blessed be He, will not abandon His people forever.  It seems that the Sages had in mind this bold relationship between the Lord and His people, in the generation of the destruction of the Temple and afterwards, when they chose chapter 1 of the book of Ezekiel as the haftarah for Shavuot, the festival which celebrates our receiving the Torah.  When, on the festival of receiving the Torah we read of the holy chariot in Ezekiel, we learn that the Torah given to our people is eternal and stands up even in times of crisis.  This message is also evident in the verse appended to the end of the haftarah and recited in our daily prayers:  "Then a spirit carried me away, and behind me I heard a great roaring sound:  'Blessed is the Presence of the Lord, in His place'" (Ezek. 3:12).

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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