Shabbat Shalom from Bruce Washburn:
Timing is everything. Here is this week’s Haftarah commentary.
Unity? Not in my Backyard!
Excitedly, Ezekiel, the prophet during the Babylonian exile, speaks of the glorious, united future of the people of Judah and Israel. This is a beautiful and easy-to-understand haftarah. What might be less clear is how Ezekiel’s audience understood his vision, and whether they shared his enthusiasm. Some glorious dreams are just that – dreams, and better left that way. We don’t really want them to come true.
By the time Ezekiel spoke his prophecy, the Kingdoms of Judah and Israel had been separated for about four centuries and the Kingdom of Israel had been gone for over 100 years. The relations of the two kingdoms had at times been acrimonious, even leading to war. Now Ezekiel is speaking about a joint future, and unity to come.
Ezekiel demonstrates this unity visually, with the two trees or wooden planks that he brings together in his hand. The interpretation of the symbol has not been unanimous by the mefarshim (commentators); Radak brings both his own, as well as his father’s understandings:
“After you take two trees and you write on each one a separate name…then you will bring them together one to the other and they will be in your hand together, as if they are one tree… And my master – my father of blessed memory interpreted: He told him to bring the two trees together and they will unite and become one tree by a miracle…” (Radak Ez. 37:17)
Two different visions are presented by Radak and his father. Radak suggests that unity could be a framework made up of several parts. He calls it “as if they are one”– we might call this a federation. Such unity allows the parts to be distinguishable, retaining some of their separate identities.
Radak’s father suggests a much more utopian reality: The two kingdoms will form a cohesive, united nation with no fault lines. He suggests that this would happen by a miracle, perhaps because it has never happened before. Jewish history, from its inception in this parashah, has been that of a nation that has functioned as a federation, a collection of tribes united in their general outlook but distinct in the details. At certain times unity was achieved sufficiently to create a united kingdom, but most of the time the fault lines were visible.
The people listening to Ezekiel watched his demonstration and asked: “What are these to you?” (Ez. 37:18) Their request for clarification of a simple visual prop might have been a question about the kind of unity he was speaking about, or they may not have liked either option. After all, unity, whether as a federation or as a cohesive nation, entails accepting others who claim to be like you but practice a little differently. It requires openness, tolerance, and some compromise by all involved. Some may not be comfortable with the future that Ezekiel paints. They prefer to live only with their own tree, leaving the prophecy as an [unfulfilled] dream.