Dry Bones, Moist Land, and Vital Prayer
Dry Bones, Moist Land, and Vital Prayer
On the Shabbat that falls during Passover, we read the prophecy of the dry bones. The prophet Ezekiel experiences an unusual vision and declares an unusual prophecy. God walks him to a valley that is filled with bones and instructs him to declare to these bones: "I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live again" (Ezekiel 37:5). Ezekiel complies, and “the bones came together, bone to matching bone . . . and there were sinews on them, and flesh had grown, and skin had formed over them" (37:8); but the reconstructed bodies still did not have breath. God instructs Ezekiel to call to the ruach (wind/spirit/breath), saying: "Come O ruach, from the four winds, and breathe into these slain, that they may live again" (37:9). What a dramatic prophecy! The wind complies, "and the ruach entered them, and they came to life and stood up on their feet, a vast multitude" (37:10).
Now God explains the vision to the perplexed Ezekiel, saying that the dry bones are the whole House of Israel, who are now in a state of confusion and despair but shall be revived in the future. This is almost the only place that the Hebrew Bible talks about resurrection, and even here, it appears in a vision, a prophecy.
Why do we read the prophecy of the dry bones on Passover? If the story of Passover speaks of God's mighty hand, this prophetic reading speaks about God's spirit. And indeed, for us to be a free people, Passover, the festival of freedom, requires more of us than military or physical strength. Maybe this is why this prophecy is recited annually in the central memorial ceremony for the Holocaust at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and in many other memorial services. It reminds us that sometimes heroism is g'vurat haruach, “heroism of the spirit.”
Let us go back to the ruach, the “wind,” in its literal meaning. Six months of the year we declare in G'vurot, "Divine Powers," the second blessing of the Amidah, that God causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall (Mashiv haruach umorid hagashem). The wind appears in the blessing as the manifestation of the power of God. But we stop saying this prayer at Passover, the festival that marks the end of winter and the beginning of the dry season in Israel; instead we say that God causes the dew to fall (Morid hatal).1
The transformation between the winter declaration (Mashiv haruach umorid hagashem) and the summer version (Morid hatal), is traditionally marked in a special ritual in the synagogue. The prayer leader is dressed in a white robe (kitel) and then sings the prayers in a heartfelt and moving melody. The ritual ends with three blessings:
For blessing and not for curse
For life and not for death
For abundance and not for scarcity
After each blessing the congregation responds with "Amen."
From this point on—from Pesach to Sh’mini Atzeret (the concluding day of the Sukkot season)—rain is not considered a blessing and the crops need the sun's warmth. So is the situation in Israel. Humorous stories depict of Jews in Europe going to the shul on Passover to recite the prayer for the dew marking the end of winter, while foundering in deep snow. This prayer, as well as the prayer for rain recited on Sh’mini Atzeret, envisions life in the Land of Israel. Even if you, your ancestors, and your descendents, are not physically there, you are always virtually in the Land of Israel. According to this view, religiously, it is the weather in the Land of Israel that matters and not the weather the land where the worshipper lives.
Needless to say, this view—emphasizing the centrality of the Land of Israel, its climate, soil, and agriculture—was, at one time, foreign to Reform Jews. Rabbi Dr. David Ellenson2 shows how the German Reform prayer books toned down the references to Israel in the case of this blessing, as well as in many other matters. Later, many American Reform siddurim deleted the references to rain and dew altogether.
In the last century we see a gradual growing interest and sense of responsibility on the part of Reform Jews in North America toward Israel. While the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform expresses total lack of interest in it: "We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine . . . nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state," the 1999 Pittsburgh Statement of Principles speaks in an utterly different voice: "We are committed to Medinat Yisrael, the State of Israel, and rejoice in its accomplishments.”3
This shift is reflected in the Reform liturgy as well. Among many other changes—large and small—relating to Zion and Israel, Mishkan T'fillah includes the daily acknowledgement of the season: Mashiv haruach umorid hagashem in the winter and Morid hatal in the summer.4 Reciting these words gives us an opportunity to reflect on ha'aretz, “the earth,” our world, and can also provide a moment of connection to Ha'aretz, the Land of Israel.
This liturgical shift that caused the inclusion of the ancient words relating to the seasons is a sign of the vitality of Reform Judaism; matters that were deemed irrelevant and even disturbing in the past are now revisited, reexamined, and sometimes reinstituted in our worship. Perhaps this is also a manifestation of Ezekiel's prophecy on the vitality of matter that may seem "dead," but may be worthy of revival and resurrection. Let us hope that this ruach will always continue to blow.
1. Rabbi Rick Sarason writes: "The Ashkenazic ritual does not include the summer insert morid hatal on a daily basis, but the Sefardic ritual does. In modern Israel, under the influence of the Sefardic rite, this has become common practice in most prayer books, including Reform ones,” see “Festival Morning Service Amidah: Insertions for Rain and Dew,” Ten Minutes of Torah, http://tmt.urj.net/archives/4jewishethics/041212.html
2. David Ellenson, After Emancipation: Jewish Religious Responses to Modernity (Cincinnati, OH: HUC Press, 2004), pp. 223-236
4. Mishkan T’filah, ed., Elyse D. Frishman (New York: CCAR, 2007), p. 78
Rabbi Dalia Marx is an associate professor of liturgy and Midrash at the Jerusalem campus of HUC-JIR. Her new book is Tractates Tamid, Middot and Qinnim: A Feminist Commentary, published by Mohr Siebeck.
Our Talmudic sages debated whether Ezekiel's vision of the dry bones was a parable for his day or an actual resurrection. As a parable, the exiles in Babylonia were the metaphoric dry bones and Ezekiel's vision promised that they would be returned to Israel with ruach Elohim-the breath of God animating their resurrection (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 92b).
Ezekiel's vision can also be applied as a parable for today.
Retelling our story of redemption during Passover we are to consider contemporary enslavements. During the February NFTY Convention in Los Angeles, Rabbi Rick Jacobs and NFTY President Evan Traylor delivered a joint d'var Torah wherein Rabbi Jacobs apologized that the Convention was held at a hotel with disputed labor practices. He told about the Reform Movement's commitment to triple checking that workers in hotels where we hold our kallot are treated fairly and with dignity, according to Jewish ethics. Unfortunately, injustice is too common in legal workplaces as well as in circumstances of human trafficking, domestic violence, bullying, poverty, and prejudice. Those whose rights are abused are the dry bones in Ezekiel's vision.
What reanimates dry bones? As in Ezekiel's vision, it is ruach Elohim-the breath of God.
Judaism demands we notice injustice and fight it. Because we were slaves in Egypt and God freed us with a mighty hand, we are to extend our hands to help those in need.
The parable of Ezekiel's vision parallels the message of Passover: where we see dry bones of affliction, we can offer ruach Elohim, that is, breathe out God's message of justice and mercy, and act upon these values for the resurrection and reanimation of life in our world.
Rabbi Vered L. Harris , RJE, is the rabbi of Temple B'nai Israel in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
Chol HaMo-eid Pesach, Exodus 33:12-34:26
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 657-661; Revised Edition, pp. 592-596;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 508-512