On Shavuot, we read an excerpt from the most difficult book in the Bible. What is Ezekiel trying to tell us? What was God trying to tell him?
Table for Five: Shavuot Special Issue
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
Now it came to pass in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was in the midst of the community of exiles by the Chebar Canal, the heavens opened, and I saw visions of God.
–Shavuot Haftarah, Ezekiel 1:1
Rabbi Pinchas Winston, Thirtysix.org
It is called the “Ma’aseh Merkavah” in Hebrew, the “Act of the Chariot.” But what is it, divine plans for the ultimate ride? It is the basis of the most esoteric knowledge: Kabbalah, the mystical teachings of Torah. But why do we read this particular and somewhat confusing Haftarah on Shavuot?
True, the giving of the Torah was the most esoteric moment in human history. Nevertheless, why focus on something so “heavenly” when the point of Shavuot is that Moses brought the Torah down to Earth?
There are several answers, but one of them is exactly this. Moses did bring the Torah down from Heaven for man to live by on Earth, but lest we forget just how mystical Torah is, we read something very Kabbalistic after the Torah reading on this day to remind us. It is supposed to make us recall that, as understandable as Torah may seem to us, we merely scratch the surface of its heavenly wisdom.
We have to keep in mind that Torah knowledge has four levels: Simple, Hints, Exegetical, and Kabbalah. In Hebrew they are Pshat, Remez, Drush, and Sod, and when the first letters of each Hebrew word are combined, they spell the word “Pardes,” or “Orchard.” But not just any orchard. An intellectual one, the ultimate one. If the word “Paradise” sounds a lot like the word “Pardes,” it’s because the latter was the former, back in the Garden of Eden. The Torah, therefore, is meant to be our path back “home.”
Miriam Yerushalmi, CEO of SANE, author of Reaching New Heights
Tradition has it that on the night of Shavuos–the holiday of the giving of the Torah–the heavens open up, and if we see them split, our prayers will be granted. Ezekiel saw this and shared his vision with us, in a book so esoteric that it is beyond the average person’s understanding. Yet, it was from his abstruse prophecy that the haftarah on Shavuos was taken. Why these particular verses on this particular day?
At the Giving of Torah, the world was silent, and there was no echo. The Lubavitcher Rebbe teaches a deep message from this. An echo is created when vibrations of a sound wave hit an obstacle and bounce back in the original direction.
We may perform good deeds and kindnesses, yet they don’t seem to “echo”—we don’t see the results of our efforts. The lesson of the missing echo at Mt. Sinai was a personal message from Hashem: Don’t give up! Hashem’s voice did not bounce back, but it did not disappear: it permeated the entire world. So too our voice or our effort, may not bounce back at us, but it has not disappeared. It is impacting the world. The power of our giving or loving or doing the right thing is absorbed into reality and is affecting the world. We may not be able to comprehend all that we have accomplished, but Hashem does. When Moshiach comes—or on Shavuos—we too may be privileged to share those visions of G-d.
Rabbi Cheryl Peretz, Associate Dean, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, AJU
When the Jews were exiled to Babylonia, Ezekiel, a priest in the Temple prior to its destruction, was amongst them. In his wandering, Ezekiel sees a vision of God in remarkable splendor that consecrates his role as a prophet in Israel. In that moment standing by the river, Ezekiel experiences God’s presence and understands his mission as God’s messenger in the world. He describes in specific detail an encounter that gets so complicated with each layer that the Mishnah (Hagigah 2:1) later cautions against any singular person trying to understand its meaning on his or her own. What is clear, however, is that his description includes images reminiscent of the Tabernacle from the time beforethe giving of the Torah, a time when each person could see God’s presence.
Prophecy and revelation are connected and Ezekiel’s complex story is intertwined with Shavuot via an important message highlighted in Midrash. The Midrashic work, Tanhuma, teaches that Ezekiel’s vision is not unique. He is not the first to experience God’s chariot, for 22,000 chariots descended with God on Mount Sinai. Ezekiel’s vision is an individual expression of an ancient pattern of prophecy and revelation that is not limited to select Jews in earlier time periods.
Every Jew had and has the potential to see God, to experience God’s revelation, to experience God’s greatness. That means you and me! Every moment, every experience is a personal invitation to a vision of God. Will we accept the invitation?
Heftsibah Cohen-Montagu, Arevot Women’s Beit Midrash of the Sephardic Educational Center
The Midrash tells that when the heavens opened up for Ezekiel, he saw the visions of God not when he looked up to heaven but when he looked down into the water of the river Chebar. Imagine that moment: in order for the heavenly vision to be reflected, the water of the river must have been clear and still. The prophet’s experience in that instant was characterized by vision, clarity, and stillness.
The people of Israel at Mt. Sinai had a totally different experience: a confusing and powerful attack on their senses by fire, smoke, mist, thunder and lightning. But the outstanding element in that experience was the voice: “you heard the voice of words, but you saw no form: only a voice” (Deuteronomy 4:12). The experience was so powerful that the people of Israel saw the voice: their sense of sound and their sense of sight coalesced and the awe of the moment blocked their capability for direct contact, so that they requested Moses to stand between them and God.
The Torah reading and Haftarah for Shavuot present two contrasting experiences of meeting with the Divine: the voice heard by all the nation together at Mt. Sinai and the visions of God revealed to an individual prophet. Each of these two revelations still poses its challenge today: to fulfill God’s word through our actions in the world, and through reflection on symbols and images to deepen our conception of the Divinity which we can never fully perceive.
Rabbi Scott N. Bolton, Congregation Or Zarua
Ezekiel went back to the same spot on the Canal year after year, since year one of the exile. It was the first year, the fourth month, on the fifth day after the Jews were forcibly settled by the river that it happened. Jeremiah’s poetry still gave them hope at that point: “Save me God, and I will be saved. Heal me God and I will be healed.”
Some continued to chant Psalms of King David. But Ezekiel was tormented since witnessing what he did. Always the same image returned – the child was standing beside the river washing something – was it a dirty pot or some toy? Children played in Babylonia like they did in Israel. Ezekiel’s eyesight was not excellent, but he could make out the soldiers descending. Wiping water away from his eyes, he pushed closer. The current fought him back. Half of his bronze skin glazed from the sun was visible above the water; the river covered his nakedness. And God did not protect the Jewish babe and neither could he. New pharaohs arose that day, again. They drowned him with six hands. “Did your God turn their hearts to stone?!”
Ezekiel raged at Heaven. “And in the 30th year of his exile, the fourth month and the fifth day…” (Ezekiel 1:1) at that same spot on the river, he received a vision. And God sought to remove his guilt and iniquity but moreover to strengthen and inspire him with fantastic fires beyond those Moses saw at the bush, in a different wilderness.
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