The Haftarah last Shabbat, Ḥol Ha-Moed Pesaḥ was Ezekiel 37, one of the most thrilling passages in the Bible. It is a vivid and dramatic vision of the resurrection of the dead in the Valley of the Dry Bones—a vision with a symbolic message:
Mortal, these bones represent the entire house of Israel.
They are saying, “Our bones are all dried, our hope is all gone.”
Now prophecy again, and say to them,
“This is what Adonai the Almighty says:
I will open your graves of exile,
raise you up, and bring you back to the land of Israel.”
These words have given hope to our people in the darkest of times. Can these bones live? Can ragged, poverty stricken immigrants build a community in the new world that will rise to wealth, power, influence and Jewish creativity? Can beaten-down shtetl dwellers take back a barren land and found a Jewish state? Can concentration camp survivors, little more than bones themselves, rebuild their lives? Can these Soviet Jews, two generations removed from ḥeder [religious school] and shul, reclaim not just their Jewish identity but their Jewish faith? Can long-hidden conversos in the hills of Portugal unearth their roots and return to their covenant? Can there ever be a thriving Jewish community in Germany, let alone in the Nazi capital, Berlin?
What rational person would have answered yes to any of these questions? — and yet today we are part of a great American Jewish community; we will soon celebrate 69 years of the Jewish state; the Soviet Jewry movement succeeded beyond the dreams of refuseniks and advocates; six years ago I davened at a Conservative synagogue in Lisbon with Jews who have returned to Judaism after generations of living as Christians. In 2012, I worshiped with the Masorti congregation in Berlin, led by Rabbi Gesa Ederberg, a German-born convert to Judaism. It is one of a dozen synagogues in Berlin from every movement.
We often say that the Exodus is the founding narrative of Judaism. Ezekiel’s visionary haftarah of resurrection and renewal is its necessary companion. It is also a very appropriate message for this period when we observe Yom ha-Shoah and then Yom Ha-Atzma’ut.
I read a story by Rabbi Pinhas Peli about Palestine was under the British Mandate, after World War II. The pitiful remnants of European Jewry were desperately trying to get past the British blockade to the Land of Israel. Though Independence had not been declared, Jerusalem was already under siege. The mood was grim as people prepared for the inevitable battle.
A young boy from the Orthodox Mea She’arim quarter found himself in the midst of so-called secular Jews, gathered in a home in the fashionable Rehavia quarter. They gathered to discuss the matzav, the gloomy situation and its even gloomier prospects. Many hard, painful questions were asked that evening by some learned well-informed speakers. There were doubts; deep sighs and even tears.
Towards the end of the meeting, instead of listening to another learned, informative speech, a ‘secular’ Jew, the famed Habima actor Yehoshua Bertonov, rose in the middle of the dimly lit, crowded living room, and read aloud in a clear, resounding voice, word by word, the 37th chapter of Ezekiel, the vision of the Valley of Dry Bones:
He concluded, “This is what Adonai the Almighty says:
I will open your graves of exile,
raise you up, and bring you back to the land of Israel…
You will live because I will put My spirit in you, and I will return you to your own land;
then you will realize
that I, Adonai, have kept My promise.”
As he finished, the meeting dispersed in total silence. Not a syllable was uttered. All questions were answered. Each person knew, or thought that he knew, what he or she was supposed to do now. Hope again filled their hearts.”
That is the power of Ezekiel’s vision to instill hope, so it is quite appropriate that one of the designs on the Knesset Menorah is a representation of this vision.
In Ezekiel’s vision, the people of Israel cry out in despair:
“Our bones are dried up, our hope is gone (avdah tikvateinu); we are doomed.”
“Our hope is gone.” In 1878, Naftali Herz Imber wrote a poem and titled it Tikvateinu — our hope. And he deliberately wrote the words, od lo avda tikvateinu, our hope is not lost, as if to refute those despairing Israelites so long ago. As if to say, we are still here. We are building colonies in Israel. We will be am ḥofshi b’artzeinu— a free people in our own land.
Ezekiel’s extravagant and dramatic vision has been fulfilled repeatedly in Jewish history. Today we are privileged to be witnesses to the Jewish nation resurrected. I hope you will join us on April 28th as we celebrate this monumental event together at an Israel-themed Shabbat, Accompanied by a band, Hazzan Itzhak Zhrebker will lead the the Shearith Choirs and our congregation in an inspiring Kabbalat Shabbat service sung to the tunes of popular Israeli songs.
And please stay for Shabbat dinner with AIPAC President Lillian Pinkus, whose insights on contemporary Israel will prove yaish tikvah: there is hope.