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The Valley of the Dry Bones and the Advent of the Redemption, Part 1

April 16, 2014

The haftara of the intermediate Sabbath of the Passover festival is taken from Ezekiel 37, the classic vision of the Valley of the Dry Bones:

The hand of the LORD was upon me, and the LORD carried me out in a spirit, and set me down in the midst of the valley, and it was full of bones; and He caused me to pass by them round about, and, behold, there were very many in the open valley; and, lo, they were very dry. And He said unto me: ‘Son of man, can these bones live?’ And I answered: ‘O Lord GOD, Thou knowest.’ Then He said unto me: ‘Prophesy over these bones, and say unto them: O ye dry bones, hear the word of the LORD: Thus saith the Lord GOD unto these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and ye shall live; and ye shall know that I am the LORD.’  So I prophesied as I was commanded; and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold a commotion, and the bones came together, bone to its bone.  And I beheld, and, lo, there were sinews upon them, and flesh came up, and skin covered them above; but there was no breath in them. Then said He unto me: ‘Prophesy unto the breath, prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath: {S} Thus saith the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.’ So I prophesied as He commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great host. Then He said unto me: ‘Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel; behold, they say: Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off. Therefore prophesy, and say unto them: Thus saith the Lord GOD: Behold, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, O My people; and I will bring you into the land of Israel. And ye shall know that I am the LORD, when I have opened your graves, and caused you to come up out of your graves, O My people. And I will put My spirit in you, and ye shall live, and I will place you in your own land; and ye shall know that I the LORD have spoken, and performed it, saith the LORD.’

In the last chapter of Sanhedrin, the sages discuss whether this was merely a vision, or if the prophet actually resurrected those who had died, but that is irrelevant to the message: the eventual rebirth of Israel within his land.

At the moment I can not find the particular book I saw two years ago in our synagogue’s study hall, but I do remember something very important it contained: the Vilna Gaon’s explanation of this passage. The Jewish people were once compared to a healthy, living man, but the destruction of the Temple was as if that man had been suddenly decapitated. He thus lay there, dead, but was still recognizable. He was then left there for ages, and, as happens, his body slowly returned to the dust from whence it came. The various stages of decomposition are a metaphor for the growing horrors and tribulations of the Exile, until, at their peak, the people were scattered across the globe, with no discernible cohesiveness save for their name, which is analogous to the bones of the metaphorical man being scattered by the winds, leaving no indication that there had ever been a person at that place. However, the process of the Redemption, the reawakening of the Jewish people and their ingathering to their land, is analogous to the bones rejoining each other and the flesh returning to them. The process continues until the body is once again completely whole, but still inanimate, due to its lack of a soul. This is analogous to the stage before the end of the Redemption, when the nation will once again appear to be completely whole, but lack that which gives it life: the Divine Presence of which it was robbed when the Temple was destroyed. It is then that God will initiate the final stage of the Redemption and resurrect the dead man.

In the Da’at Miqra introduction to the book of Daniel, which is well-known for its description of the Resurrection, the editors make the point that Maimonides, who likely believed Ezekiel’s vision to be merely a vision and not an actual incident, also believed in the Amora Sh’muel’s description of the Messianic era as one devoid of the supernatural, much like the rest of the course of human history with which we are familiar (Laws of Kings and their Wars, 11:3 and 12:1-2):

One should not presume that the Messianic king must work miracles and wonders, bring about new phenomena in the world, resurrect the dead, or perform other similar deeds. This is definitely not true.Do not presume that in the Messianic age any facet of the world’s nature will change or there will be innovations in the work of creation. Rather, the world will continue according to its pattern. Although Isaiah 11:6 states: ‘The wolf will dwell with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the young goat,’ these words are a metaphor and a parable. The interpretation of the prophecy is as follows: Israel will dwell securely together with the wicked gentiles who are likened to a wolf and a leopard, as in the prophecy Jeremiah 5:6: ‘A wolf from the wilderness shall spoil them and a leopard will stalk their cities.’ They will all return to the true faith and no longer steal or destroy. Rather, they will eat permitted food at peace with Israel as Isaiah 11:7 states: ‘The lion will eat straw like an ox.’ Similarly, other Messianic prophecies of this nature are metaphors. In the Messianic era, everyone will realize which matters were implied by these metaphors and which allusions they contained. Our Sages taught: “There will be no difference between the current age and the Messianic era except the emancipation from our subjugation to the gentile kingdoms.”

They then cite the part of the traditional poem sung on Sabbath mornings in the Yotzer Or blessing prior to the Sh’ma (Sacks translation):

(A) None can be compared to You, Lord our God, in this world,    (B) and there is none besides You, our King, in the life of the World to Come.

(A) There is none but You, our Redeemer, in the Messianic Era,   (B) and there is none like You, our Savior, at the Resurrection of the Dead.

The parallelism (A to A and B to B) of the poem alludes to the fact that The Messianic Era will be the natural, historical culmination this world, and the resurrection of the dead is something supernatural that will only take place in the next.

That is, if someone asks me, “what, as a Jew, do you mean when you say you believe in the Resurrection?” I answer that based on all of the above and more, there are two concepts in which I believe: The eventual rebirth of the Jewish people as a sovereign nation in the Land of Israel, in this world and reality as envisioned by the prophets, and the resurrection of dead individuals in the next world, a reality that no one can comprehend, a reality that will follow this one once Human History comes to its inevitable end.

(Part 2)

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