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. And in this week’s haftarah, he foresaw 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. Using cues from the text from which to raise questions, the Netziv, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin, an important 19th century Lithuanian sage, found a different kind of accord in Ezekiel’s message, one which spoke to his own audience. Noting that the northern kingdom no longer existed in Ezekiel’s times, the Netziv totally reinterpreted 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 sees as his task to convince people to join together the strength of Torah and that of lovingkindness, making 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 did not denigrate the significance of their drive to better the world. He only sought 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 and so should we.