Avraham ben Yaakov
KNOW YOUR BIBLE
EZEKIEL CHAPTER 33
Following his lengthy series of prophecies against Israel's various oppressors (chapters 25-32), Ezekiel now addresses his own people, who after losing their Temple and going into exile among the nations would only merit redemption and restoration through Teshuvah, repentance. The prophecy in verses 1-20 of our present chapter is a teaching about Teshuvah and how God deals with sinners and tzaddikim.
Verses 1-6 set forth the allegory of the watchman, who has the obligation to warn the people of a coming war. As long as he sounds his shofar of alarm, he has fully discharged his duty, and if the people of the city fail to heed his message and take appropriate precautions, they themselves bear full responsibility for all the harm that befalls them. Verses 7ff explain the allegory. The watchman is a metaphor for the prophet, who when he hears from the mouth of God about impending retribution (="war") has the obligation to warn the people in His name, in order that they should repent (see Metzudas David on v 7). "The sound of the shofar is the word of the prophet, as it says, 'Raise your voice like a shofar and tell My people their sin'" (Isaiah 58:1; RaDaK on v 7). If the prophet does indeed warn the people, he has fulfilled his duty, but if he fails to warn them he will bear the responsibility for their failure to repent and will be held to account.
However, the people had fallen into despair, and did not believe in the efficacy of repentance. "Thus you speak, saying, If our transgressions and our sins are upon us and we are wasting away in them, how should we then live?" (verse 10). Metzudas David explains what the people were saying: "In truth we have committed sins and transgressions and we are wasting away because of our troubles, which have not come upon us for nothing. But how can we live - how can we be saved from destruction? - because they did not believe that Teshuvah would help, and it was as if they were saying that therefore they would continue sinning, since they were lost anyway" (Metzudas David on v 10).
In answer to the people's despair, verses 11ff reveal God's ways of judgment, teaching that repentance ALWAYS avails the sinner. Righteousness brings LIFE to a person in this world and the next, while sin brings DEATH to a person in this world and the next. God is not cruelly vindictive, and has no desire for the sinner to die but rather that he should repent of his ways and live. God's "arm" is always outstretched to receive the penitent sinner.
On the other hand, even one who has spent a lifetime in the pursuit of righteousness is not allowed to become complacent. "The righteousness of the righteous shall not deliver him on the day of his transgression." (v 11). God will exact retribution from a wayward tzaddik who gives himself permission to sin in the belief that he can somehow "afford" it since any sin should be outweighed by his many past merits. "Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said, Even if a person was a complete tzaddik all his days but rebelled at the end, he looses his earlier merits, as it says, 'The righteousness of the righteous shall not deliver him on the day of his transgression.'. And even if he was a complete sinner all his days but he repented in the end, his wickedness will not be invoked against him any more as it says, '.but as for the wickedness of the wicked, he will not stumble in it on the day when he repents of his wickedness'" (Kiddushin 40b).
"Yet the children of your people say, 'The way of HaShem is unfair' - but it is their way that is unfair" (v 17). The people argued that "it was unfair to judge a person according to his later deeds, because they thought it would be more proper to take into account his earlier deeds together with his later deeds and weigh them against each other in order to reach a verdict" (Metzudas David ad loc.). At first sight it may indeed seem that people should be judged according to the aggregate of all their deeds, but in fact there is more compassion in judging them for their later deeds. This way the wicked person is able to repent and attain life even after a career of evil. And if a tzaddik lapses from his righteousness and sins, it is considered a benefit for him if he dies and is taken from the world, because then he can no longer sin (Metzudas David on v 19).
Righteousness and evil cannot simply be weighed one against the other because they are two entirely different categories. When a person carries out a mitzvah or good deed, he attaches himself to LIFE, gaining a reward that is beyond limits, above time. But when a person sins, he binds himself to this finite, time-bound world, which can only end in limitation and death. "Today if you will listen to His voice" (Sanhedrin 98a): Repentance must always be TODAY - not yesterday or tomorrow - because repentance is above time. There is only now.
"And it was in the twelfth year of our exile in the tenth month." (verse 21). This was in the twelfth year counting from the exile of King Yeho-yachin, with whom Ezekiel had come to Babylon , and who was succeeded by King Tzedekiah. Metzudas David (ad loc.) states that the years are counted from Tishri while the months are counted from Nissan. Thus the "twelfth year" began in Tishri, almost two months after 9 Av of the "eleventh year", which was when the Temple was destroyed. The arrival of the escaped fugitive in Babylon bearing the tragic news came in the "tenth month" of the twelfth year, i.e. Teves, nearly five full months after the event.
In the absence of today's instantaneous relay of news via satellite, etc., it was all the more remarkable that Ezekiel had already been informed of the news through holy spirit and told it to others the evening prior to the arrival of the fugitive. This was in fulfillment of God's promise to him in his earlier prophecy about the loss of his wife, symbolizing the destruction of the Temple , that "on that day, the fugitive will come to you to cause you to hear it with your ears. On that day your mouth will be opened and you will speak, and you will be dumb no more" (ch 24 vv 26-7). With the actual arrival of the fugitive now bearing a first-hand eye-witness report of the very destruction that Ezekiel had specifically prophesied, the people would know that he was a true prophet.
But even after the destruction of the Temple , the people could still not believe that they had lost the Land of Israel (vv 23f). Indeed, a residue of "the people who had nothing" still remained in Judea tending the vineyards and fields (Jeremiah 39:10) until the assassination of the Babylonian-appointed governor, Gedaliah ben Achikam. They apparently believed that they could retain their hold on the land, arguing that "Abraham was one yet he inherited the land, whereas we are many - to us the land has been given as an inheritance" (verse 24 of our present chapter). Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai explained that they were saying, "If Abraham, who was only given one commandment (circumcision), inherited the land, how much more so should we, who have received many commandments, receive the land as our inheritance" (see Rashi on v 24; see Tosephta Sotah for other midrashim on this verse, and Likutey Moharan, Intro to Part II, for Rabbi Nachman's inspiring explanation of the phrase "Abraham was one"). But God's reply to the people was that "You eat with the blood and lift up your eyes to your idols and shed blood - shall you then possess the land?" (v 25). Verses 27-29 warn that the land would be completely destroyed because of their sins. Those who want Israel to remain intact in our land today should take heed.
In verses 30-33 God warns Ezekiel not to be deceived by the outwardly pious manner of those in Babylon who came to him to enquire about the latest word of prophecy, because they too were still far from genuine repentance, looking on his prophecies scornfully as "a song for flutes by one who has a pleasant voice who can play the instrument well - for they hear the words but they do not carry them out" (v 32). But harsh reality would finally bring them to know that they had a prophet in their midst.
THE SHEPHERDS OF ISRAEL
The prophecy in this chapter is an indictment of the corrupt leadership of Israel which applies until today. The leaders are supposed to be the "shepherds" who feed and pasture the flock of the people, but instead they feed themselves, taking the fat, the meat and the wool of the best and healthiest for themselves, while abandoning the weak, sickly, broken, scattered and lost (cf. Zechariah 11:15-17). The failure of the leaders has left the people like a scattered flock exposed to the ravages of wild beasts.
Verses 7-10 warn the shepherds that God will depose them from their position of leadership.
In the very beautiful passage of comfort in verses 11ff, God promises that in place of the corrupt leadership of the people, He Himself will pasture the flock. This corresponds to His promise that when the people will repent, "HaShem your God will turn your captivity and have compassion upon you and will return and gather you from all the nations. If your outcasts be at the utmost parts of heaven, from there will HaShem your God gather you and from there will He fetch you." (Deuteronomy 30:3-4). These promises that God extends personal providence to each and every one of us in order to bring us to follow His ways should be a comfort to all those who feel they can still find no true leader of flesh and blood to guide them.
"And as for you, My flock. behold I judge between one lamb and another" - between those with powerful fists and the weak" (verse 17 and Rashi ad loc.). It is not sufficient for the corrupt leaders to be removed: the people at the grass roots must change their ways and enter the mode of helping one another instead of each being bent on the pursuit of his own selfish interests at the expense of everyone else.
"Is it a small thing to you that you have eaten up the good pasture but you must also tread down with your feet the residue of the pasture lands?" (v 18). It is permitted to eat and enjoy, but the individual citizen must realize that it is immoral for him to wantonly consume, despoil the environment and squander resources instead of protecting and preserving them for the common good. Similarly, it is immoral for farmers to destroy produce in times of a glut in order to keep prices "stable" at the same time as many people are starving. In vv 20f God warns that He will bring the strong and mighty to judgment for oppressing the weak. This is the compassionate diametrical opposite of the philosophy of Nietzsche.
"And I will establish one shepherd over them, namely my servant David" - "i.e. a king from his seed" (v 23 and Rashi ad loc.).
"And I will make them and the places around My hill a blessing" (verse 26) - "And I will cause them to dwell around My Temple, and they will be blessed" (Targum ad loc.).
"But you are My flock, the flock of My pasturing, you are ADAM" (v 31) - "You are called ADAM but the idol worshipers are not called ADAM" (Yevamos 61a). All true members of Israel are encompassed under the noble form of ADAM - "and upon the likeness of the throne was the likeness of the appearance of ADAM upon it from above" (Ezekiel 1:27).
BACK TO KNOW YOUR BIBLE HOMEPAGE
By Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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