Mordechai Silverstein

Don’t Forget Who You Are! (Ezekiel 37:15-28)

Ezekiel was a prophet with utopian yearnings. He prophesied about the restoration of the Jewish people to its homeland, likening them to dry bones which would be reinvigorated and restored to life. In this week’s haftarah, he foresees the reconciliation of the two biblical Jewish nations, the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah under a single Davidic king: “The word of the Lord came to me: ‘And you, O mortal, take a stick and write on it, “Of Judah and the Israelites associated with it;” and take another stick and write on it, “Of Joseph – the stick of Ephraim – and all the House of Israel associated with him.” Bring them close to each other so that they can become one stick, joined together in your hand.’” (37:17)

Ezekiel’s parable was intended to represent the future emergence of a united nation. Of course, rabbinic interpreters throughout the ages have never felt themselves confined to the plain meaning of the text. The Netziv, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin, an important 19th century Lithuanian sage, found in Ezekiel’s prophecy, a message suitable for his own audience. Noting that the northern kingdom no longer existed in Ezekiel’s times, the Netziv totally reinterprets this prophecy: “’the stick of Judah’ represents the strength of Torah and ‘the stick of Joseph’ represents the strength of acts of lovingkindness (Gemilut Hasadim), The prophet, (according to the Netziv’s reinterpretation of this prophecy), seeks to convince people to join together the strength of Torah and that of lovingkindness, to make them one; for in this world [namely, our day], few are drawn to the strength of Torah while many are drawn after acts of lovingkindness. This is why it is necessary to join the two.” (adapted from Herhav Davar on Genesis 50:23)

It is likely that the Netziv is talking here about the Eastern European Jews of his day who were drawn to the allure of Socialism and Communism under the pretext that these “isms” were going to build a utopian society. He does not denigrate the significance of their drive to better the world, rather, he only seeks to remind them that the world that they seek to build should not be achieved without Torah and Jewish identification.

The Netziv’s interpretation of Ezekiel’s prophecy is as fitting today as it was a century ago. The Jewish search for a utopian worldview cannot divorce itself from the particular concerns of the Jewish people. The world should not be rebuilt ignoring Jewish concerns while exclusively advocating universal concerns. The future of the Jewish people and heritage should not be sacrificed by ignoring the need to make Jewish education excellent and affordable while resources are thrown only to universal causes. Our energies need to be expressed both universally and particularly. The Netziv understood that the Torah and Gemilut Hasadim must go hand in hand. So should we.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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