Ezekiel was a revolutionary and visionary prophet. His prophetic message, in this third of the four special haftarot which precede Pesah, opens with message common to other prophets, namely, that the nation’s sinful behavior was the primary cause of its exile from its homeland. The innovative spirit in Ezekiel’s message is contained in what comes next. The exile may serve as divine punishment for God’s subjects, concludes Ezekiel, but it also reflects badly on God, since God is seen by the nations of the world as weak and incapable of protecting the interests of His people. As a result, exile was no longer considered an effective option for stemming the nation’s sins and redemption was no longer thought of as reward for good behavior since human beings, on their own, would never be deserving of redemption.
This pessimistic view of human nature required a new paradigm. God would redeem His people from exile not because He forgave their sins or because they reformed their ways; rather, their redemption was necessary in order to restore God’s reputation. Redemption and repentance were required to reestablish God’s kingdom on earth but could only be realized with God’s help.
Ezekiel chose his metaphor for this process carefully. He likened the sinner to someone who had become ritually impure through contact with the dead. This is where the laws of the Red Heifer come into the picture. Someone who came into contact with the dead required the sprinkling of water mixed with the ashes of the Red Heifer in order to be purified, as noted in this week’s Maftir Torah reading: “Whoever touches a corpse, the body of a person who has died, and does not clean himself, defiles the Lord’s Tabernacle; that person shall be cut off from Israel. Since the water of purification was not dashed on him, he remains unclean; his uncleanness is still upon him.” (Numbers 19:13) Symbolically, Ezekiel maintained, the sinner required the same treatment at the hand of God: “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you will be clean.” (Ezekiel 36:25 – See Rashi; R. Kasher, Ezekiel, Mikra L’Yisrael, pp. 703-4) This process would create a “new” human being who would have a “heart of flesh” instead of a “heart of stone” (See 36:26)
Ezekiel may have been cynical about the human ability to change but he opened the doors for all of us who feel that on our own, we cannot fix ourselves – that we need help. Ezekiel let us know that God is there for us, not just to help us but for His own good as well.