Ezekiel’s Shavuot mystery tour

From the imagination of the prophets came a new spiritual literature


Sometimes the link between the Torah portion and the accompanying haftarah can be subtle and, if you don’t know it already, hard to discern. But there are no prizes for the answer on the first day of Shavuot on Friday.

Complementing the awesome revelation of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, which is read from the Torah, is Ezekiel’s vision of the chariot of angels. The prophet beholds a quartet of celestial beings, each with four faces, four wings and glittering hooves hovering above a wheel; together they form a chariot that bears aloft the Divine Presence.

The flashing fire that forms the backdrop to this extraordinary spectacle mirrors the pyrotechnics of Sinai. It is the most enigmatic haftarah of the year and trying to fit the details together is like doing a surreal jigsaw puzzle. When Moses encounters the glory of God in the cleft in the rock, the Torah provides no description other than record it happened as if it could not be put into words. Ezekiel treats us to a literary son et lumière.

His vision became the focus of an early branch of mysticism named after it, Merkavah, the Chariot, whose followers sought to ascend through the heavens to witness the glory of God. As Reuben Ebrahimoff, the “Haftorahman” nicely put it, they endeavoured to “ride with God through eternity”.

Mysticism has usually been considered an elite pursuit in Judaism, reserved for the wisest hearts and purest souls. The Talmud offers the cautionary tale of four great rabbis who delved into sacred mysteries but only Akiva survived intact.

So what is this esoteric episode doing as an haftarah? Significantly, the rabbis have lifted it from its immediate context. The haftarah consists mostly of the opening chapter of Ezekiel’s book. The chariot is a vision of Divine glory, but symbolises something else. The Temple has been sacked. Ezekiel is one of the exiles carried into Babylon.

The image he sees represents the Divine Presence departing from Jerusalem, which has fallen because the people have sinned. In the second chapter, Ezekiel receives his prophetic mission to speak to his “rebellious” nation. But this is omitted from the haftarah. Instead, this ends with a verse from the third chapter, where Ezekiel says, “Then a spirit lifted me up and I heard behind me the voice of a great rushing, ‘Blessed be the glory of the Lord from His place’.” It is an uplifting conclusion.

But compare this with the Torah’s account of the revelation on Sinai, a unique and unprecedented event. The Torah may be God’s greatest gift to the Jewish people but it is not followed with any grand celebration. There is no verse that says — unlike Solomon, after he dedicated the Temple —“And Moses made a great feast for the people”. The Bible does not even dedicate Shavuot to this epiphany. It is the rabbis who transformed an agricultural thanksgiving festival into a commemoration of the receipt of the Torah.

According to the Midrash, the Israelites are likened to a bride about to go to her groom when, as the Torah says, Moses brings them “towards God”. But this is a trembling bride. When the Ten Commandments are given on the smoking mountain, the people plead with Moses to do the talking, crying “Let not God speak with us lest we die”.

Another midrash views the experience as so traumatic it proved fatal, leaving God having to revive the people with the dew created to resurrect the dead in messianic times. And far from a day of jubilation, another midrash casts an ominous scene, which intriguingly raises the theological question of how much choice the people really had; God suspends the mountain over them “like a barrel”, warning He will bury them under it if they do not accept the Torah.

In contrast, the haftarah finishes on a note of blessing. Ezekiel is writing at a time of loss but he is also fashioning one of the instruments that enabled the people to survive when the Temple had gone. Through the poetry of the prophets, the centre of Judaism moved from a physical place to portable literature. Instead of the sanctuary, they created a temple of the mind.

The rabbis took the concluding phrase from the haftarah, “Blessed be the glory of the Lord” and incorporated it into the most elevated part of the daily liturgy, the Kedushah, just as they did with the verse, “Holy, holy, holy,” chanted by the angels in Isaiah’s vision of glory, which is read as the haftarah when the giving of the Torah on Sinai is recited during the annual sidrah cycle.

We may not be able to reach prophetic heights or follow the flights of the mystics but for a moment at least, we are invited to sing along with the angels.

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