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The word of G-d came to (Ezekiel) saying: "…G-d says: When I gather the House of Israel from the people among whom they are scattered, I will be sanctified in the sight of the nations. Israel will live on its territory… in security. They will build houses, plant vineyards, and live in security…" (Ez. 29:20, 25-26)
The prophet Ezekiel was a Kohen - a priest who spent his earlier life in the Holy Land. His period of recorded prophecy, however, took place after his enforced exile to Babylon - during the period before and after the Destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE. His Divine communications were addressed to both those Jews already exiled in Babylonia, and to the people of Jerusalem.
The Book of Ezekiel begins in drama, and climaxes in crescendo. It is a long message with powerful, vivid, and ultra-brilliant images. It starts with the excitement of storms, lightening and fire: the heavens open, and Ezekiel dramatically experiences G-d's words and power. The Almighty calls on him to be a prophet to carry His message to the people through communications emanating from the celestial mobile angelic composition of the His throne. The prophecy continues to warn the Jews in the darkest terms of His judgment on them, for their having abandoned Torah teachings and basic morality, preferring false prophets, and an idolatrous and grossly self-indulgent lifestyle. It then leaves the Israelites, removing its focus to the doom of the various nations that misled them, including Egypt - the subject of the Haftara. By the time the prophecies of Ezekiel return to the Jews (just beginning in this Haftara), they become warmer and more kindly. Words of threat are replaced with words of comfort and hope: promising a brighter future for the Israelites, and their revival and unification (the subject of the Haftara) within the Holy Land, with, after the defeat of the nation of Gog, a fully restored Temple and nation.
The Haftara itself begins and ends with the idyllic scene of Israel restored from Exile to the Holy Land (above). However its main content, like the Parasha, concerns Egypt. The Parasha relates the gradual, but spectacular tearing down of Pharaoh's power over the enslaved Israelites, through the first seven of the Ten Plagues. The Haftara focuses on the final downfall of Egypt under the Pharaohs, and its miserable future as an impotent backwater in the Middle East.
The date of prophecy: 'on the twelfth day to the tenth month of the tenth year' was, according to the Radak, in the tenth year of King Zedekiah - the puppet king of Babylon over Judah. That would have been in 587 BCE - during the siege of Jerusalem under Nebuchadnezzer, and one year before destruction of the First Temple. Although Pharaoh's army (no doubt fearing Nebuchadnezzer) initially came to besieged Judah's aid, it returned quickly back home (Jer. 37:5-7). It no doubt gambled on the hope that if Babylon conquered Judea, its territorial ambitions would be satisfied, and therefore cease to be a potential threat to Egypt. Thus Egypt was no more of a support to Judea than a broken reed (Ez. 29:6). It left the Jews with the feeling so often experienced in later generations: that they could not trust promises and treaties made with the Gentiles: they would always sacrifice Jews if their own interests were threatened.
The Egyptian gamble failed. Subsequently, the Almighty whetted Nebuchadnezzer's desire to take Egypt after his earlier campaign against Tyre proved disappointing. Ancient Egypt, as the Haftara relates and as history shows, was brought to terminal ruin and devastation by that same nation that exiled Judea, and its power and influence in the region were no more.
The opening words of the Haftara that include the words: 'Israel will live on its territory… in security. They will build houses, plant vineyards, and live in security', bring G-d's guarantee of safety in the ultimate return of the Israelites to the Promised Land. It is followed by G-d's word though Ezekiel, thundering against Egypt who did not keep the terms it promised to Judah as its ally. This sequence in the text implies rebuke to the Jews for placing their faith in the Egyptians in the first place, instead of in Him.
However, the words 'they will build houses, plant vineyards, and live in security' sound rather tame. They reflect the ideals of most nations, peoples, and classes throughout humanity. As Ezekiel is directing this prophecy specifically to the Jews, should the content not be more specialized and spiritual - in keeping with their role as a 'kingdom of priests and a holy nation' (Ex. 19:6), and as a 'light amongst the nations'? (Isaiah 49:6)
One approach to this question lies in considering the deeper, holistic qualities of Torah observance. The following letter, taken from the Shema Yisrael website (which has kindly been hosting my work for more than ten years) illustrates it.
I live in Bayit Vegan, Jerusalem - a neighborhood where the majority of the residents are Haredim - traditional Orthodox Jews. One evening, a young girl knocked on my door and asked me to sign a petition protesting a proposed plan to build a synagogue in a small local park. I've always considered myself somewhat of an environmentalist, but I hesitated to sign. After all, this is Jerusalem, the holy city, and we're talking about a synagogue. Should not its sanctity take precedence over trees and bushes? I told the girl that I needed to learn more about the issue before I could sign her petition and feeling very pious, I closed the door.
To my surprise, I later discovered that the petition drive was organized by the wife of one of the leading Rabbis of the community! Her campaign was successful; the park was spared. Although those wanting to build the synagogue had offered to create a park in a new area, their opponents did not feel that the offer was realistic. In the end, the proponents of the synagogue were the ones who were forced to find another site.
In conversations with a number of Talmudic scholars, I was told that, according to their understanding of the Halacha (Torah Law), the rights of those using the park took precedence over the rights of those wanting to build the synagogue. The people using the park had already established a claim, and, the park was meeting a vital recreational need - one which contributed to the health and well-being of the residents. The scholars also pointed out that there were other synagogues in Bayit Vegan, and those wanting to be independent of those synagogues had no right to do so at the expense of others.
In fact, one neighbourhood scholar, Rabbi Aryeh Carmell, has written a book about the social and spiritual goals of the Torah's mitzvos (precepts), in which he discusses the mitzvah to design parks for the urban environment. In this work titled Masterplan, Rabbi Carmell points out that an ancient example of an urban park can be found in the Torah's command to design open spaces around the cities of the Levites (Numbers 35:2-3). According to the Biblical commentator, Rashi, part of these open spaces were to provide an atmosphere of beauty - a "greenbelt" around the cities - therefore no building was allowed in this designated area, and agricultural activity was also forbidden,. And Maimonides states that these regulations applied not only to the cities belonging to the tribe of Levi, but to all the tribes of Israel. (Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Sabbatical and Jubilee Years, 13:5). Therefore, long before the development of modern parks, the Torah gave city residents access to the natural beauty of the countryside.
Some of these arguments were not new to me, and I wondered why I hesitated to sign that petition. Perhaps it's because I grew up with the western idea that Judaism is a religion, and therefore its activities are centered in a house of worship. But if we examine the vocabulary of Biblical Hebrew, we will not find a word for religion. The term does not appear in the Torah, because to the Torah everything is religious. To set aside a part of life and call it religion is the very negation of the holistic philosophy of the Torah, since it implies that there is a sphere of human activity from which God is excluded. This idea is expressed in an essay by the late Dayan Dr. I. Grunfeld, a member of the London Rabbinical Court, and a renowned scholar and lawyer:
"...To be religious in the Jewish sense of this word does not mean to primarily pray, although prayer is an essential part of all personal religion. To be religious in the Torah sense means to conceive of all human activities as falling within one scheme... The farmer behind the plough, the workman on the bench, the merchant with his goods and the scholar with his thoughts - they all have an equal opportunity of serving God as much as the priest in the Temple; perhaps even more so. In the conception of the Torah, only spiritual victory which is won in the arena of life is worth achieving; for the highest aim of Jewish teaching is the sanctification of life in all its aspects." (Introduction to Horeb.)
This is not to deny the central role of the temple. We enter the temple to renew the covenant with God, Torah, and each other, yet we leave the temple to apply the covenant to life. Therefore, a city park can also be a scene of Divine service, and in the unique case of Bayit Vegan, the Torah chooses the park over a synagogue. For the Torah is described in the following words: "She is a tree of life" (Proverbs 3:18); thus her mitzvos encompass all areas of our existence.
In other words there is 'building houses, planting vineyards, and living in security' and 'building houses, planting vineyards, and living in security'. The Torah attitude is that life should be lived to the full, and that these seemingly mundane activities should be directed at serving Him and improving the lives of other people, as the above letter illustrates.
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: email@example.com for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
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This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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