Hol Ha-Moed Pesach – May shattered hopes be reborn

Shabbat Hol Ha-Moed Pesach

Exodus 33:12-34:26

Numbers 28:19-25

Ezekiel 37:1-14

The readings for this Shabbat, the Shabbat during Hol Ha-Moed Pesach, bring us spectacular images of healing. The shattered tablets of the covenant are replaced with new ones. God and the Israelites reconcile following their most egregious act of faithlessness. And in the haftorah, the prophet envisions a valley of dry bones that come to life.

The first set of tablets were shattered (just before the start of our reading) when Moses, luminous as he descended from his mountaintop encounter with God, saw the people passionately engaged in the ultimate idolatrous celebration. Suddenly the tablets, inscribed with the radiant holiness of God's words, grew leaden in his arms, and he shattered them. For a time, it seemed that the relationship between God and Israel might be shattered as well. But with intercession by Moses, God is persuaded to forgive. And then God, as if having planned it all, commands Moses to prepare another set of tablets. This set would reach its destination, and be received as the gift that God intended.

Still, tradition has it that the shards of the first set of tablets were kept, carried with the people throughout their desert journey. The people had received the tablets with divine teaching inscribed on them whole. Yet the memory of the shattering, of their utter failure of faith, of God's willingness to forgive, were all still a part of the story. The failure, Moshe's anger, God's punishment, their terror, were as much a party of the journey as God's willingness to forgive, to replace, to move on. It is a rich portrait of healing.

Then comes the haftorah, the unbelievably spectacular vision of a valley filled with dry bones that suddenly come to life at God's command. With incredible drama, God has Ezekiel survey the ghastly scene: a valley strewn with bones. The ultimate picture of death and despair. Unbelievably, God predicts that the bones will begin to breathe, will grow sinews and skin.

God speaks, and as the prophet watches, the bones begin to grow into living things. The prophet obeys God's command to call upon the wind to give the breath of life to these bones. Hope against hope, the bones rise, they live and breathe. As they emerge out of their graves, the whole House of Israel, in the eyes of the prophet, is reborn.

What are we to make of this incredible story? This must be more than a simple-minded fairy tale. I think, actually, that this text is even more than a poetic expression of the Jewish belief that life continues after death, although one could certainly read it that way.

The rabbis said that on some ultimate day of Rebirth, all of the dead would be resurrected, and that day would be Pesach. On some mythic future Pesach, the world will be so utterly transformed that death will be vanquished. The bones will knit together and rise and breathe, and come to life again.

Passover is the time we recall the greatest known day of God's redemptive activity in the world. We are once more in the midst of celebrating the transformation of slavery, suffering and constriction, into freedom, expansiveness and hope. In that annual celebration, looking back at a time of great liberation, we dare to hope — as surely as we open the door for Elijah — that liberation will come again, that hope will triumph in unimaginable ways.

Our tradition associates healing with redemption. As in the prayer we recite in the daily Amidah (silent prayer) — "Refa'einu HaShem veneirafei; hoshi'einu venivashei'a" (Heal us, O God, and we shall be healed; save us, O God, and we shall be saved) — every moment of healing is a moment of salvation. So the days of Pesach, dedicated to the memory of past episodes of liberation, bring us hope of new life and rebirth and healing.

This day we read of shattered tablets that are renewed and replaced; we envision dry bones that mysteriously come to life when all hope has died. We are asked to turn our celebration of Pesach into a celebration of hope that healing and freedom and ease may come again. May it come soon. Amen.