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"The Heavens opened, and I (Ezekiel) saw visions of G-d." (Ezekiel 1:1)
The prophet Ezekiel was a kohen - a priest who spent his earlier life in the Holy Land. His period of recorded prophecy, however, took place after his enforced exile to Babylon - during the period before and after the Destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE. His Divine communications were addressed to both those Jews already exiled in Babylonia, and to the people of Jerusalem.
As a kohen, the text shows that he was very conscious of matters of ritual purity, so exile must have been extremely difficult for him. Yet R. Zadok HaKohen (Peri Zadik 5, Sukkot) brings the tradition that 'though (the Israelites) went into exile to Babylon in bitter spirits, Ezekiel had joy. He felt that G-d would put greater holiness on Israel in Babylon.'
Basing himself on the Zohar, R. Zadok explains that the prophet's joy resulted from the Vision of the Divine Chariot - which the Haftara recounts in detail. This revelation showed that despite exile from the Holy Land, G-d was mobile and would move His presence with them - being with His people wherever, and in whatever circumstances, they were. G-d may be sensed and give divine communication even in Babylon, on the banks of the Chebar (likely to be the Habur, a northern tributary of the Euphrates), and not just in Jerusalem.
The Book of Ezekiel begins in drama, and climaxes in crescendo. It is a long message with powerful, vivid, and ultra-brilliant images. Its opening - the subject of the Haftara - takes the student straight into the excitement of storms, lightening and fire: the heavens open, and Ezekiel dramatically experiences G-d's words and power. The Almighty calls on him to be a prophet to carry His message to the people through communications emanating from the celestial mobile angelic composition of His throne. The prophecy continues to warn the Jews in the darkest terms of His judgment on them, for their having abandoned Torah teachings and basic morality, preferring false prophets, and an idolatrous and grossly self-indulgent lifestyle. It then leaves the Israelites, removing its focus to the doom of the various nations that misled them, including Egypt. By the time the prophecies of Ezekiel return to the, they become warmer and more kindly. Words of threat are replaced with words of comfort and hope: promising a brighter future for the Israelites, and their revival and unification within the Holy Land, with, after the defeat of the nation of Gog, a fully restored Temple and nation.
Receiving his call from G-d by the River Chebar in Babylon, the prophet sees a Chariot that moves on four living creatures, each having a human form, two pairs of wings, and a head with four faces - man, lion, ox, and eagle - and the copper-colored hoofs of a calf. Each creature moves forward without turning, following the face in the direction as directed by the wind or by the spirit (ruach, 1:12). These beings seem to be like burning coals, with fiery torches flashing between them, and a brightness like lightning, with radiance flashing back and forth like lightning itself.
Beneath each celestial being is a wheel fixed into another wheel crosswise which revolves in the desired direction. They were made of precious stone, with seeing eyes, all alike, and each one like a wheel within a wheel. These wheels move with the creatures and leave the ground with them. And the spirit of the beings was also in those wheels.
Over the creatures' heads, and stretched over their wings, appeared a kind of smooth flooring on which rested the throne of G-d's glory. The prophet says he heard their wings move with the sound of great waters, or with the voice of G-d - like the noise of a great army. The sound was coming from above that cover, when the figures stood still and relaxed their wings, and there above them was visible a sapphire-like throne with a human from above it. Then Ezekiel sees the Chashmal - (brilliantly entered into Modern Hebrew as 'electricity', but not the actual meaning of that word which in fact is unknown). That Chashmal has fire round it, coming from around and above the great Being's loins and, from its lower part, also fire and brightness all round.
The brightness was 'like the appearance of the bow which shines in the clouds on the day of rain… That was the appearance of the Presence of G-d Himself. When I beheld it, I (says Ezekiel) flung myself down on my face. And I heard the Voice speaking.' (1:28) And that Voice - the one of the Almighty Himself - gave Ezekiel his first mission: to prepare the people for the final destruction (2:3) of the First Temple and Jerusalem - which, based to the text (1:1), would have taken place some six years after the vision.
The Haftara jumps some twenty verses, and concludes with Ezekiel being taken by Divine Power to carry out that very painful mission - to communicate G-d's word to the Jews. Transported in the vision to where he is to be in contact with the people of the exiles (nearby in Tel Aviv, in Babylon), Ezekiel hears a great roaring sound saying, "Blessed be the glory of the L-rd from His place." (3:12) Though G-d's Presence will remove itself from the Temple, that area will still be the source of blessings to the world, even though the blessings themselves will be fewer (Malbim).
Ezekiel implies great difficulties in conveying what he sensed to the reader. He cannot describe the Chariot as he experienced it. Instead he talks in similes - 'as the appearance of…' 'the shape of…', and 'looked like…'. He thus makes it clear that his descriptions should not be taken literally, and that his account is constrained by expressions bounded by the limits of human experience.
Essay on the Haftara
Talmudic and post Talmudic literature refers to this first chapter of Ezekiel as the Maaseh Merkava - the 'Topic of the Chariot'. Nowhere in the description does the Prophet use that word, although it is implied as he describes the mobile construction that appears to be the throne of G-d. The earliest explicit version of the Chariot is found in the work of Ben Sirah (second century BCE), where he writes that 'Ezekiel had a vision of the Glory (of G-d) which was revealed enthroned on the Chariot of the Cherubim' (Ecclesiaticus 49:8): since then, that vision of Ezekiel has been described as the Maaseh Merkava.
This first chapter of Ezekiel has become the source text of the Kabbala - Jewish mysticism. It is complicated by its being written in similes (see above): Ezekiel, with all his literary genius, did not find the words to express his vision of the Divine Chariot. The Talmud declares that it should be handled with extreme care, and not to be discussed in any detail among the uninitiated. The Mishna (Chagiga 2:1) rules that the Maaseh Merkava ought not be expounded even to one student unless he is a sage, and knows it anyway. When R. Johanan ben Zakkai (first century CE) heard its explanations developed by his student, R. Eleazar ben Arach 'fire came down from Heaven and encircled the trees which began to sing (praises of G-d) (Chagiga 14b). In another case, a certain Galilean sage was visiting Babylon. As he began to discourse and expand on that passage to the audience 'a hornet came out of the wall, stung him on the forehead, and he died.' (Shabbat 80b). A further story recounts a young child who was learning that passage and, presumably in his purity and innocence, momentarily got the insight and meaning of the word 'Chashmal' (see above) 'whereupon fire went forth from Chashmal and burnt him.' (Chagiga 13a).
Indeed Mendel Hirsch (1833-1900; son of S. R. Hirsch), in his work The Haftarot (1896, translated I. Levy, 1971) brings the text in full, but refused to translate it. He echoes the attitude of the Talmud, stating that a translation on its own would only lead to misunderstanding. (It may however be suggested that he was being especially careful, given the fact that his readers, however devout, were living in the Age of Rationalism of late nineteenth-century Germany.)
Judah Halevi, (Kuzari 4:3) explains the text symbolically. The Presence of G-d - signified by the Chariot - is not static and frozen, but mobile and dynamic. The Shechina (intense Divine Presence) is not permanently confined to Jerusalem, but it can move and be perceived even on the banks of the Chebar in Babylon, some six hundred miles away. The beginning of the narrative underlines that concept. There, Ezekiel first sees a 'great storm'. It was coming from the north - from Babylon, the then superpower of the entire Middle East. Although the Babylonians lived to the east of Judah, they would have invaded from the north for geographical reasons. Unlike the direct route through the Syrian Desert, the upper Euphrates river basin and the coast of the Levant were fertile, with sources or water. It is that storm - the gale coming in from the north, which activates the whole vision in which the Prophet demonstrates that the throne of G-d is in motion between Jerusalem and Babylon. Thus, although the Temple would be destroyed, G-d would not forsake His people, but He would follow them into exile and remain with them as long as they were there.
However, that rational explanation is far from being the complete picture. This is illustrated by very fact that the study of the opening chapter of Ezekiel caused so much concern to the Rabbis of the Talmud.
Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg (below), however, suggests a historical explanation that underlay much of the Talmud's concern. The Talmudic period saw the flourishing of two movements that were certainly known to the Rabbis: namely Mithraism, and the rise of the early Christian Church. Mithraism was a secret religion, and was very popular among the Romans and their colonists. It was based on some special claimed revelation of the heavenly operations, the zodiac, and the power of the god, Mithras, who presided over those workings. Mithras was usually represented as a young man slaying a bull, symbolizing his own control over the heavens. The Jews, whilst not accepting Mithras himself as a supreme being, appear to have included certain practices which brought them too close to Mithraism for the comfort of the Rabbis. For example the floor of the early sixth-century synagogue at Beth Alpha shows an outstandingly well-preserved mosaic of twelve constellations around the Chariot of Helios - the sun chariot. The mosaic shows that that chariot was drawn by four horses (that is the recurring number used in the Haftara's description of the living creatures in the Vision of the Chariot) and driven around the four quarters of the heavens. Thus the Rabbis of the Talmud saw Mithraism as a distinct threat to those Jews inclined to speculate on mystical matters. And the vision of Ezekiel could have been misemployed to promote that form of paganism. The Christian record shows strong influence from their understanding of the text of the Haftara. Indeed, Ezekiel's vision of the man, the lion, the bull (ox), and the eagle were taken up to represent the four disciples (cf. Rev. 4:7). The Rabbis knew very well that the early Christians, as recorded in the Book of Revelations, used the opening chapter of Ezekiel as basis of Church doctrine. And they dreaded that converts to Christianity would use Ezekiel's vision as a text to persuade others…
However it may be argued that there is a more fundamental, basic reason for the Rabbis' opposition for the detailed study of the text - applicable to all generations, even to this very day. That is because a person who correctly reads the text with appropriate understanding will be taking His miracles of Divine intervention for granted. This point is developed below.
Isaiah, almost a century and a half previously, had a similar vision when he received his Call from G-d. He calls to him in an extremely powerful, awe-inspiring, and vivid angelic setting, though not recorded in the same detail as the vision of Ezekiel. The angels are living and active: calling to each other: "Holy, holy, holy"… (Isaiah 6:3)
But Isaiah - who undoubtedly comprehended what he experienced, did not break out in smiles and deep spiritual satisfaction in having penetrated the beyond. He knew that he belonged to the imperfections of this world, not to the perfections of the Heavens. "Woe is me," he said, 'for I am destroyed!" As a human being, his contact with perfection made him deeply ashamed of himself at that moment. He saw his own human frailties under very high magnification. Even though he may well have lived an exemplary life by his own lights, and indeed, in terms of what G-d expected of him.
Therefore the angelic beings intervened - 'one of the fiery angels (seraphim) flew over to him with a coal in his hands. He touched his lips and said: "Look - this has touched your lips. Your sin has been removed and your offence atoned for!"' (6:7) That action - a product of Divine intervention - turned what was infusing great dread and trepidation into a positive experience.
What underlay his deep distress was the reality of being only human, something over which he had no control. He was created to be a man amongst man, not a man amongst angels. Yet G-d gave him a function comparable to angels - to be His messenger to the errant people of Israel and Judea. And a messenger has to know his Sender to commit himself to endure the hazards and change in lifestyle involved to carry out that task.
Isaiah did not ask G-d to put him in touch with the beyond. G-d did so because He judged that it was necessary in his, and in the Israelites' circumstances. And having done so, He personally intervened to send His angel to turn something that naturally caused him the deepest distress, sadness, and feelings of inadequacy, into something positive and personality-building for the task in hand. That was the miracle.
The Talmud, then, urges us to realize that we are not Isaiah or Ezekiel. On one had, we need to know that perfection and total obedience to G-d as exemplified by the celestial beings are part of the Creation. That increases our feeling that, no matter what happens to us, we are in His hands all the time. Our human reality and form accepts that in general terms - as recorded in the texts of Isaiah and Ezekiel. They are not difficult texts to read at an utterly literal level. But a person should not to delve too deeply into the Maaseh Merkava. For such is the nature of the human being is that if he has suitable sensitivity, he will become deeply distressed - in modern terms, causing deep and lasting damage to his entire psychological make up and personality. As a human without the call from G-d, he may not rely on G-d to personally intervene to rescue him as He did to Isaiah, and by implication, to Ezekiel.
Unfortunately, psychologists frequently find themselves dealing with patients whose distress has its roots in too intense mystical literature and encounters. Their souls have been spiritually burnt and in some cases, with third degree burns. Our path then is to see G-d through the repeated miracles with which He keeps us, and nature alive, and in His very subtle ways He guides the lives of each and every one of us, according to our own unique individuality.
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: email@example.com for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
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This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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