Resurrection and Reform Judaism:
Understanding M’Chayeih Meitim and
Ezekiel’s Vision of the Dry Bones in a Reform Jewish Context
Rabbi Jared Saks
April 10, 2009 – 17 Nisan 5769
One of the things that I really like about Mishkan T’filah, as a rabbi, is that a new format demands renewed attention. In Judaism we are taught not to pray from memory, but, even when we know the prayers well, to use a siddur, a prayer book, and pay attention to the words on the page. Our new prayer book demands that kind of attention. Our readings change week to week, depending upon who is leading the service and what that leader’s mood is. And even the Hebrew has changed.
In the first prayer of the T’filah, the Avot v’Imahot, the prayer that praises God as the God of our ancestors, we have changed the order of Leah and Rachel, Jacob’s wives. We used to say “Elohei Leah v’Elohei Rachel,” but now, we say, “Elohei Rachel v’Elohei Leah,” allowing us to honor our matriarchs in the way in which we honor our ancestors in Judaism, by acknowledging their deaths, their yahrzeit. Rachel died before Leah. In the Yotzer, the prayer we recite about creation in the morning restores the line “Or chadash al tzion ta’ir, v’nizkeh chulanu m’heirah l’oro, Shine a new light upon Zion, that we all may swiftly merit its radiance.” This line restores a prayer for the Land of Israel, which the Reform movement rejected in our earlier days. Today, we pray for the well-being of Israel and its inhabitants, so we’ve returned that line to its place.
But there is one change in our liturgy that if I were to ask most of you, you would probably say does not mesh with your idea of what it is to be a Reform Jew. In the Gevurot, the second prayer of the T’filah which praises God’s power, there are options within the text, words that traditionally are said, but that the Reform movement rejected a long time ago. Take a look at page 50 of your prayer book, at the words of the G’vurot. There is a word that appears in parentheses throughout the Hebrew text. What is it? Meitim. We say, as we did tonight, “m’chayeih hakol, You give life to all,” but this word meitim changes the prayer to praise God “m’chayeih meitim, who revives the dead.” Reform Judaism doesn’t hold resurrection of the dead among its beliefs. Neither do most Reform Jews. So, why offer this alternative in Mishkan T’filah, the new Reform prayer book? Is it simply to let us know how other people are saying it? That’s not the way that Reform Judaism works. If we put something out there, it’s because we want it to be useful and meaningful for Reform Jews.
This Shabbat’s Haftarah reading might lend us some insight into this change and guide us toward a new understanding of “m’chayeih meitim, who revives the dead.” This Shabbat is known as Shabbat Chol ha-Mo’ed Pesach, the Shabbat during the days of the festival of Passover. Because it is a special Shabbat, it comes with a special Torah reading and a special Haftarah reading. The Haftarah reading comes from the prophet Ezekiel who writes (in Ezekiel 37:1-6):
The hand of the Eternal was upon me, leading me out by God’s spirit and setting me down in the middle of a valley. It was full of bones. God led me all around them. There were a great many of them spread on the surface of the valley, and they were very dry. God said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O God Eternal, You alone know.” Then God said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: You dry bones, hear the words of the Eternal. Thus says the Eternal God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will put sinews on you, and cover you with flesh, and spread skin over you. I will put breath into you, and you shall live. Then
you shall know that I am the Eternal.
In the Talmud, the Rabbis debate this text. Did Ezekiel actually resurrect the dead by invoking God’s name or is this story just a parable? Some say that they are the tribe of Ephraim who were so eager to leave Egypt that they left early and were struck down by enemies in the wilderness. But because of their efforts, God resurrected them when the Israelites made their way out of Egypt during the first Passover. We might be able to imagine, metaphorically, what it would have been like for the Ephraimites to have striven for freedom and not achieve it, but then be able to look back, with renewed strength, upon the remains of their failed efforts of the past. We, too, have struggled and been overcome, only to resurrect our ideals and try again.
When our ancestor Joseph faced death, he had our people promise to take his bones with him out of Egypt. Even if he wouldn’t live to see freedom, he wanted to know that his bones, at least would see freedom. When I was a child, my father used to sing a song to me that he learned working in inner-city Newark, New Jersey, a song that recognized the freedom that only came with death for American slaves:
The poor old slave has gone to rest,
we know that he is free
his bones they lie, disturb them not,
way down in Tennessee
This was the only freedom that Joseph would know. Our Passover story tells us, “Bechol dor v’dor chayav adam lirot et atsmo k’ilu hu yatza miMitsrayim, In every generation a person is obligated to see himself as if he went out of Egypt.” Rabbi Lisa Grushcow teaches, “Al tikra ‘atsmo,’ ela ‘atsmotav’ – In place of ‘himself,’ read, ‘his bones’: In every generation a person is obligated to see his bones as if he went out from Egypt.
But Joseph’s bones almost didn’t make it. According to one midrash (Tebat Marqa, cited in James L. Kugel, In Potiphar’s House: The Interpretive Life of Biblical Texts, pp. 138-39), the pillar of fire and cloud that guided the Israelites stood in their way, preventing their exit. Serach daughter of Asher was the one who remembered that they needed to get Joseph’s bones. The weary Israelites barely had enough strength to get themselves out of Egypt, let alone Joseph’s bones, and asked Moses in the wilderness, “Where there no graves in Egypt, that you took us out to die in the desert” (Exodus 14:11)? They needed to be revived and resurrected in the wilderness, along with the Ephraimites.
Even Ezekiel understood his words as metaphorical (Ezekiel 37:11-12):
Then God said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole House of Israel. They say: Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost; we are cut off from life! Therefore prophesy to them and say: Thus says the Eternal God: I am going to open your graves, My people; I will life you out of your graves and bring you home to the land of Israel.
It wasn’t a literal resurrection of which Ezekiel spoke, it was directed at a weary, exiled people. He lived during the time of the Babylonian exile. The Jewish community around them thought they didn’t have the strength to wait for a return to the Promised Land. They, like the Ephraimites, couldn’t wait any longer. But Ezekiel promised them that God would restore their strength.
This, perhaps, is the message that we Reform Jews can take from the alternative text in the G’vurot. It is not a prayer, I believe, of literal resurrection. Rather, it is a prayer that allows us to acknowledge the times when we haven’t thought we had the strength to push forward, the times when we forgot what we needed to go ahead, like the Israelites had forgotten Joseph’s bones, but when God provides us with a Serach daughter of Asher, someone or something that gives us the drive to push on. It took tremendous perseverance and fortitude for our ancestors to make their way out of Egypt. And we have to see ourselves as we, too, went free out of Egypt, we and our weary bones, and with that redemption were given new life. May we continue to find new strength and new life. Shabbat Shalom.
Barzilai, Gabby. Redemption, Resurrection, and Passover. Bar-Ilan University’s Parashat Hashavua Study Center, April 10, 2004.
Fishbane, Michael. The JPS Bible Commentary: Haftarot. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2002, pp. 426-430.
Gordon, Jonathan. On Viewing the Bones of Idealism. Union for Reform Judaism’s Torat Hayim/Living Torah, April 19, 2003.
Grushcow, Lisa. Parshat Beshallach: HUC Senior Sermon, January 24, 2002.
Romm, Ed. Shabbat Hol Hamoed Pesach. Jerusalem: The United ynagogue Conservative Yeshiva Haftarah Commentary, April 11, 2009.