Two prophets served the Jewish nation at the time of the destruction of the First Temple, Jeremiah in Judea and Ezekiel in Babylonia. God invested Ezekiel with exact plans for rebuilding the Temple. These plans were detailed and significantly different from the structure of the First Temple. In addition, when these plans were revealed, it did not seem at all likely that the Temple would be rebuilt any time soon. For this reason, the following words struck many a reader as problematic: “You, O mortal, show the house (The Temple) to the children of Israel, that they may be ashamed of their sins; and let them measure accurately…” (43:10) The intent of this passage was for the people to rebuild the Temple, show remorse over their sin which had caused the destruction of the previous Temple and rectify their behavior.
The dissonance caused by this prophecy provided grounds for a careful reevaluation of its significance so that its message would be relevant. The following midrash provides one of the classic rabbinic responses to this problem: “When the Holy One Blessed be He revealed Himself and showed Ezekiel the structure of the Temple, He said to Ezekiel: “Show the House to the children of Israel” (43:10). Ezekiel said to Him: “My Master, are they going to build it now as you told them, ‘that they guard its form…and do them’ (43:11)?” God responded: “No, even though they will not build it now, let them read about the structure of the Temple and I will account it to them as if they busied themselves in building it.” (Yalkut Shimoni Ezekiel 382)
This midrash reflects the idea that in lieu of certain obligatory actions which historical exigencies have rendered impossible to carry out, a Jew can study about them and that these studies are accounted as if the person actually performed them. Rabbinic Judaism has so taken ownership of this idea that one might say that Torah study, even of those subjects which are presently of no practical application, has become emblematic of traditional Jewish identity and religion and has become a primary form of interaction with God. The late Professor Gerson Cohen has identified the idea of religious study as worship as one of Judaism’s most revolutionary contributions to religion, in particular, and to Western Civilization in general.
For the Jew. Torah study is not seen as a passive activity. It is seen as dynamic, vital, and life giving. Without it, the large questions raised by Ezekiel’s prophecy would only lead to despair.