Haftorah for Shabbat Parah
29 March 2008, 2:13 PM
It is at last the Saturday after Purim. I didn’t write a note about Purim this year, perhaps because for the first time in several years I was actually drunk on the evening. Not Purim-drunk, just a trifle fuzzy. Come to think of it, I believe I actually fulfilled all four of the Purim obligations this year: I told the Purim story (to children, even, which counts extra, although I didn’t read the whole megillah, so I lose points there), I gave gifts of food to friends and neighbors (in addition to having guests for dinner, I get full Purim Points for bringing food to my colleagues, although I suppose I lose Purim Points for not actually baking the hamentaschen myself, but then I’m not a very good baker, so I had I baked them myself, I would have lost the Purim Points when my colleagues failed to actually eat the shalach manot), I donated to charity (well, I bought daffodils to benefit the American Cancer Society, which is like a donation because I paid, like, three times what I would otherwise have paid for yellow flowers, but I did receive something for my donation, so I only really get Purim Points for the overage), and I got drunk. So, Purim.
This week is Shabbat Parah, or Red Heifer Day, the day when the BBC raises money for children in poverty by putting red rubber cows on the noses of the—no, wait a minute, it’s the day when instead of reading the proper reading for the week we read Numbers 19:1-22 and, for the Haftorah, Ezekiel 36:16 - 36:38.
Moreover the word of the LORD came unto me, saying, Son of man, when the house of Israel dwelt in their own land, they defiled it by their own way and by their doings: their way was before me as the uncleanness of a removed woman. Wherefore I poured my fury upon them for the blood that they had shed upon the land, and for their idols [wherewith] they had polluted it: And I scattered them among the heathen, and they were dispersed through the countries: according to their way and according to their doings I judged them. And when they entered unto the heathen, whither they went, they profaned my holy name, when they said to them, These [are] the people of the LORD, and are gone forth out of his land. But I had pity for mine holy name, which the house of Israel had profaned among the heathen, whither they went.
Therefore say unto the house of Israel, Thus saith the Lord GOD; I do not [this] for your sakes, O house of Israel, but for mine holy name's sake, which ye have profaned among the heathen, whither ye went. And I will sanctify my great name, which was profaned among the heathen, which ye have profaned in the midst of them; and the heathen shall know that I [am] the LORD, saith the Lord GOD, when I shall be sanctified in you before their eyes.
For I will take you from among the heathen, and gather you out of all countries, and will bring you into your own land. Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do [them]. And ye shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; and ye shall be my people, and I will be your God. I will also save you from all your uncleannesses: and I will call for the corn, and will increase it, and lay no famine upon you. And I will multiply the fruit of the tree, and the increase of the field, that ye shall receive no more reproach of famine among the heathen. Then shall ye remember your own evil ways, and your doings that [were] not good, and shall lothe yourselves in your own sight for your iniquities and for your abominations. Not for your sakes do I [this], saith the Lord GOD, be it known unto you: be ashamed and confounded for your own ways, O house of Israel.
Thus saith the Lord GOD; In the day that I shall have cleansed you from all your iniquities I will also cause [you] to dwell in the cities, and the wastes shall be builded. And the desolate land shall be tilled, whereas it lay desolate in the sight of all that passed by. And they shall say, This land that was desolate is become like the garden of Eden; and the waste and desolate and ruined cities [are become] fenced, [and] are inhabited. Then the heathen that are left round about you shall know that I the LORD build the ruined [places, and] plant that that was desolate: I the LORD have spoken [it], and I will do [it].
Thus saith the Lord GOD; I will yet [for] this be enquired of by the house of Israel, to do [it] for them; I will increase them with men like a flock. As the holy flock, as the flock of Jerusalem in her solemn feasts; so shall the waste cities be filled with flocks of men: and they shall know that I [am] the LORD.
The thing that stands out for me, reading this, is the way in which, for Ezekiel, the Lord is connected with the fate of the people Israel in an almost semiotic way. That is, what happens with the people is a message for the goyim (which the KJV translates as heathens but which modern translations term nations, a literal translation that has no negative connotation; you must decide for yourself whether it is an overcorrection), rather than a judgment upon them. In other words, it doesn’t so much matter to the Lord of Ezekiel whether the Jews deserve mercy. The Lord grants mercy for the Lord’s own purposes, not according to our deserts.
It’s an important take on theodicy, and one that is difficult to remember and apply. After all, when Bad Things Happen to Good People (or arsey-versey), there is a natural tendency to assume that the Things and the People are important. Perhaps they’re not. Perhaps mercy droppeth as the gentle rain, or like a fucking downpour sometimes, and there’s no connection between the mercy and the sin, or repentance, or justice, or rightness. Just a need for rain.
Another thing that sticks out is how political Eliezar’s Divine is. How important it is that the nations know that Adonai is the Lord, and that they are aware of the power and might thereof. Who cares? It’s our Divine, dammit! The nations aren’t going to be any nicer to us because they’re frightened of our Lord, in fact, pretty clearly when they take our Lord at all seriously, it’s bad news for us. If that matters. Nor does acknowledgement that the Jews are the people whose God is the Lord seem to lead to better behavior on the part of the goyim generally, as far as more charity and loving-kindness and less biting people. So what’s the point? Is the Divine (as perceived by Eliezar) just that obnoxious that he wants the homage of everybody in sight?
And don’t give me the it’s-a-phase-the-nations-and-the-people-Israel-are-going-through-before-they-can-understand-the-true-Nature crap, because (a) even if it’s true, whose fault is that, and (2) this is ten generations after Solomon, so it’s one holy hell of a phase. I mean, forty years in the wilderness whilst the last people brought up in Egypt die off is one thing, but ten fucking generations is a bit long to be all oh, the poor primitives aren’t ready for civilization proper.
Er, sorry. Papa Rabbi at Temple Beth Bolshoyeh made the claim that animal sacrifice was a sort of half-way training deal between human sacrifice and prayer, which argument I found shocking and repulsive. Not that I like animal sacrifice, mind you, and I’d be happy to put into the morning prayers gratitude for being born after the Temple was destroyed, but seriously, how stupid and intractable were the semi-humans of ancient Israel if they needed hundreds of years in that wilderness? But again, not really Ezekiel’s fault, there.
Anyway, I think the answer to the theodicean question is in the bit about the heart of stone and the heart of flesh. That the important thing is not, despite all the hoo-hah, that the Jews made a shandeh fur di goyim, but that the stony hearts be replaced with hearts of flesh. cor carneum, in the Vulgate. Do we deserve these new hearts? No, of course not, how could we? Would it, then, be better if we had hearts of stone? Obviously not. So where is justice? Again, who cares? Will justice give us hearts of flesh?
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,