The Haftarah read on Shabbat Chol HaMoed Pesach is the famous prophecy of the dry bones that come to life. Yechezkel is shown a valley filled with very dry bones and commanded to prophesy that they should revive themselves. He does so and the bones start developing sinews and flesh and growing skin. All that is missing is the spirit that Yechezkel seems unable to give them. God urges him to give prophecy that they should be revived in spirit as well as body. Indeed this is what happens and the bones start to live again.
“He said to me ‘These bones are the entire house of Israel, that they have said that our bones are dried, our hope is lost and it has been decreed on us’”. God promises that He will open up our graves and bring us to our land and we will know that He is God.
There are two arguments among the commentators regarding this chapter and the images that Yechezkel relates in this piece of prophecy.
The Gemara (Sanhedrin 92b) brings a number of opinions that discuss who were these people that Yechezkel revived and brought back to life. “Rabbi Elazar said that the dead that Yechezkel brought back to life stood on their feet and proclaimed a song and then they died. Rabbi Elazar the son of Rabbi Yossi from the Galil said that the dead that he revived went to live in the land of Israel and married women and had children. Rabbi Yehudah ben Betera stood up and declared that he was a descendant of these people and that the tefilin that he used were given to him by his grandfather and originally belonged to them”. The Gemara also brings the opinion of Rabbi Yehudah that the entire scene was a parable and a prophetic vision.
So the first argument relates to whether this actually happened or whether it is a vision.
Rashi comments on the Gemara (ad loc. s.v. “Mashal hayah”) that the parable relates to the exile and eventual redemption of the Jewish people. “Like a dead person who comes back to life, thus Israel will return from exile”. However, other commentators disagree and hold that this is a parable for the resurrection of the dead. The Abarbenel comments that the prophecy cannot be talking about the ingathering of the exiles as if so then the prophet should have said it clearly and not employed a cryptic parable. “He already prophesied of [the ingathering of the exiles] without the use of a parable” (Abarbenel on Yechezkel 37:1).
This is the second argument, then, as to what the parable relates to, either to the ingathering and redemption of the Jewish people, or the resurrection of the dead.
The Midrash seems to suggest that Yechezkel actually revived the dead in the valley of Dura. This was on the same day that Nevuchadnetzar attempted to kill Chananyah, Mishael and Azariah by throwing them into a furnace. (See Daniel 3) “Rav Avdimi of Haifa said that on that day there were six miracles; the furnace cooled down and the furnace broke etc. and the wind blew down the statue and Yechezkel revived the dead in the valley of Dura. Rabbi Pinchas said that the same wind that knocked over the statue was the wind (or spirit) that revived the dead” (Shir HaShirim Raba 7:16).
This is an interesting reenactment of the beginning of the nation. In the same way that the Jewish started with the destruction of the idols in the hands of Avraham (see BeReishit Raba 38:13) so will the nation be rebuilt by destroying the idols.
The Gemara already stated that one “who rejects idolatry it as though he accepts the entire Torah” (Kidushin 40a). Idolatry is the antithesis of Judaism. This is because idolatry dictated a passive submissiveness to the gods. They controlled everything and Man could only attempt to appease them.
The Torah taught us differently. We are not to have a passive and purely subservient relationship with God. Rather, we are to “act with God” and God gives us the power to influence and change our own situations.
This explains the interesting exchange between God and the prophet at the beginning of the Haftarah. God addresses the prophet with a question “Will these bones live?” Yechezkel answers as best he can “God, You know.”
The Midrash relates that God asked four people questions and they gave less than satisfactory answers. He asked Adam why he had broken the one commandment and eaten from the Tree of Da’at. Adam answered “The woman that You gave me she gave me from the fruit” (BeReishit 3:12). He asked Cain where his brother Hevel was, and even though Cain had killed him he answered “I do not know” (ibid. 4:9). God asked Bila’am who the people were who came to visit him. Bila’am answered with great pride “Balak ben Tzipor the king of Moav sent them to me” (Bemidbar 22:10). When spies came to Chizkiyahu from Bavel, the prophet Yeshiyahu asked him who they were, after he had already shown them around the palace. The king answered “They came to me from afar, from Bavel”.
Only Yechezkel answered God in the appropriate manner. When God asks him here whether the bones will live, he replies “You know”. (BeReishit Raba 19:11).
The Midrash explains this with a parable to a hunter who holds in his hand a small bird. He asks someone whether it is alive or dead. The man answers that is up to the hunter to decide. Thus Yechezkel says that it is in God’s hands whether these bones, whether the Jewish people, live or die.
If this is the case then the continuation of the Haftarah is problematic. God does not answer Yechezkel as to whether they will live or die. Instead he commands him to prophesy to the bones and they will come to life. The prophet does this and indeed the bones are revived, eventually even receiving a new spirit due to his prophecy.
If it is all in the hands of God then why does He need Yechezkel to give prophecy. The message is clear. Ultimately all is in the hands of heaven, but God wants Man to act and take responsibility for his own actions. People do not find themselves in situations; they put themselves there.
If Yechezkel will take the initiative then the bones will come back to life. It is in God’s hands, but it is up to you to start the process.
This is seen from another Midrash that speaks of three keys that are guarded by God. These are the key to birth, as it says, “God opened her womb” (BeReishit 29:31), the key to rain “God will open for you His storehouses, the heavens, to give you rain in the proper time” (Devarim 28:12) and the key for the resurrection of the dead. This last one is learnt from a verse in our Haftarah “You will know that I am God when I open your graves”. (Midrash Tehilim Chapter 74)
The Midrash then adds, “When He wants He gives them over to the righteous people”.
God preserves power over these three items, but even they are given over to the control of Man in time of great need. This is the message to Yechezkel. You can free yourself and revive the people if you want to. God gives Man the power to give life to the very dry bones. All is not lost; it is the hands of Man to revive himself.
How is this done? The Yerushalmi supplies an answer. “Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair said – zeal leads to cleanliness, cleanliness leads to purity, purity leads to holiness, holiness leads to humility, humility leads to the fear of sin, the fear of sin leads to saintliness, saintliness leads to the Divine spirit, the Divine spirit leads to the resurrection of the dead” (Yerushalmi, Shekalim 3:3). The last stage is proved by the verse from our Haftarah “I will put My spirit among you and you will live”.
It can be seen from this list that the eventual resurrection of the people is caused by simple acts of zeal to perform the mitzvot and purity of action. Each and every person can at least contribute to the redemption by following the list. Small changes have big results in the domino affect of character development. The end is resurrection brought about by simple people.
The Gemara adds two more stages to the beginning of the list. “Torah leads to care, care leads to zeal etc.” (Avodah Zarah 20b). It all starts with Torah. If we would affirm a total devotion to Torah and cleave to her words we could revive ourselves and change the Jewish people for good.
It is in our hands.