Every year on Shabbat Chol Ha’Moed Pesach, (the intermediate Sabbath of Pesach) we read a selection from Ezekiel 37 as our Haftarah. In Ezekiel 37, the prophet finds himself placed amidst a valley filled with bones. The bones are very dry, and the prophet wonders if the bones will ever live again. God challenges Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones, predicting that God will be able to bring the bones together, cover them with flesh, and form skin over them (37:5-6). Soon thereafter, the bones take the shape of human forms and come to life (37:10).
Ezekiel’s experience is not merely an episode from a horror movie. Rather, the image of dry bones coming to life symbolically represents the Jewish people and the nation of Israel. God breathes life into dry bones and Go will ultimately redeem the Jewish people. Such an occasion will enable Jews who are living and dead, Jews who reside in Israel and those who live in the Diaspora, to gather together at the moment of Messianic Redemption.
To our post-modern sensibilities, the ideas of resurrection and ingathering may seem a tad distant. But in the most literal interpretations of traditional Judaism, Jews pray for both an ingathering o exiles and the resurrection of the dead many times a day. Prior to the Sh’ma in the morning service we read, v’havieinu l’shalom mei-arba kanfot ha’aretz, (gather us in peace from the four corners of the earth), and in the second passage of the Amidah we praise God’s power to give life to the dead (m’chayyei ha-meitim). The ideas of resurrection and ingathering to the land of Israel are retained in our liturgy and ideological structure.
Yet taking these ideas literally is only one way of approaching traditional theology. To say that God gives life to the dead is a difficult concept for many of us to grasp. But affirming that belief in God may provide comfort, shelter, inspiration, and guidance in times of difficulty and tragedy is quite powerful. To say that God will, one day in the future, carry Jews from all corners of the earth and resettle them in Israel is also quite an esoteric idea. But affirming that belief in God may act as a vision of hope for the unity of our people and the redemption of the world is a spiritually nourishing idea.
We are often told that prayer without action and faith without praxis are both utterly meaningless. But the story of Ezekiel 37, like the story of the Exodus, is one of belief in the awesome power of God to redeem and heal. Ezekiel 37 is presented as a reminder of the presence of God in history, and the continued presence of God in our midst. We need only to open ourselves to the possibility of God in order to discover God’s beauty and power.