After years of thoughtful internal debate, I began using “m’chayyei hameitim” (who gives live to the dead) in reciting the G’vurot prayer of the Amidah. I had come to an understanding of these words that could accept them on a metaphorical level without the need for accepting them as a physical reality. I came to believe that this metaphorical revival of the dead was something for which I could and would pray.There was no need to substitute “who gives life to all.” My understanding of all this also included an obligation on my part to insure that the memories of those who have died be kept alive through emulating their best actions and deeds and philosophies.This is a covenantal understanding – it takes effort, practice and belief on my part, along with G”d, to make it happen. The dead do indeed live – because of me. Because of us. I thought it interesting when, after many different approaches found in pre-final versions, the new Reform Mishkan T’filkah siddur decided to offer the words “m’chayyei hameitim” as an alternative when reading the G’vurot. (These words from the traditional siddur were expunged from earlier Reform siddurs and replaced with “who gives life to all.”) This hopefully inspires more people to ask the same questions I did, and begin to look at the concept of “reviving the dead” as an acceptable concept to include in prayer. Instead of the wholesale rejection of the idea as out of sync with modern scientific knowledge, it’s a nod to recognizing that people can come to understand and embrace such words and concepts with new – or even old – understandings. The 1885 “Pittsburgh Platform stated:
We reject as ideas not rooted in Judaism, the beliefs both in bodily resurrection and in Gehenna and Eden (Hell and Paradise) as abodes for everlasting punishment and reward.)
One can split hairs in discussing whether bodily resurrection is an idea rooted in Judaism. I personally believe the evidence weighs on the side of belief in bodily resurrection in Judaism quite heavily – whether one considers it metaphorical or physical. True, it is not attested to in Torah. Thus the Saducees rejected it, while the Pharisees accepted it. It was a good enough Jewish concept to merit inclusion as one of the Rambam’s 13 principles of faith. In fairness, I must point out, Maimonides was at best lukewarm to the idea of resurrection, and was pretty much silent on the subject of what happens to the body in the world to come. The rabbis struggled (and continue to struggle) with the the apparent conflict between bodily resurrection and the idea that only the soul is immortal. Can immortality of soul and body co-exist? Then throw into the mix the concept of the judgment of the soul which occurs upon the death of the body, and things get quite muddy indeed. That’s Judaism for you. No mixing of meat and milk, or wool and linen, but lots of mixing up of all sorts of other things and ideas. The mish-mash that is Judaism today is a result of all our attempts to find a place for practically every idea and concept. We have only ourselves to blame for that!) But I digress.
While the text of the G’vurot prayer speaks of G”d as reviver of the dead. it also describes G”d as “keeping faith with those who sleep in the dust.” At first I saw this as a conundrum. Does G”d revive the dead, or keep faith with them? Then I came to understand that these are not mutually exclusive ideas. It is through allowing them to relive (whether you understand that physically or metaphorically) that G”d keeps faith with those who sleep in the dust. Thus we can reconcile physical death and resurrection. It is also incumbent upon us to do as G”d does, and keep that same faith with those who sleep in the dust, and seek to enable them to live again.
Even given historical context, I cannot be completely certain that those who assembled the G’vurot prayer were speaking of actual physical revival of the dead. Their understanding may have been as metaphorical as my own. Perhaps far more nuanced, as well. even with all the thought I’ve given this, I’ve barely scratched the surface.
We all, individually, as as a people, a community, suffer from times of flagging spirits, times when we are effectively dead on the inside. Sometimes this is the result of things that happened to us, like exile or war or genocide. At other times, our internal deadness stems from internal causes. Hopefully, we have all experienced a resurrection from this period of being dead. It is then that we must ask from whence our redemption came? We are prone to believe that it usually comes from pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. It has become less fashionable to attribute our recovery from our darker times to some unseen, unknowable G”d. Nevertheless, every day I encounter people, myself included, who choose to acknowledge that powers and forces beyond themselves may have contributed to their revival.
Ezekiel’s vision of the revival of the dead in our haftarah, the valley of the dry bones story, became a cornerstone of Jewish belief in the centuries that followed. It changed Jewish burial practices, and certainly influenced those who created the G’vurot prayer. Yet it is just as likely that Ezekiel was speaking metaphorically (in fact it might be more likely. Metaphor was stock-in-trade for prophets.)
I cannot be writing this today without awareness that this Sunday is Easter. The founders of Christianity took the idea of bodily resurrection and ran with it. To extremes. (Does it really count as resurrection if the one resurrected was actually G”d in human form? Within Christianity are differing understandings of the divinity of Jesus, and those understandings do make a difference when considering the foundational importance of his resurrection.) It is an oddity that, in all the things that Judaism did to distance itself from Christianity as it rose to prominence, Judaism did not reject the concept of “m’chayyei hameitim.”
Is not the entire story that we tell at Pesakh a story of the resurrection of a people with “crushed spirits?” When the Jewish people are revived after all those years in slavery, is this not also as if the generations that preceded them are revived? Israel’s resurrection reaffirms the covenant made between G”d and those of our ancestral progenitors, thus affirming their beliefs, hopes, and prayers. In this way, they live.
I have, for some time now, given far less importance to an idea I once firmly embraced, that it is significant enough that we, as a Jewish people, are still here. Mir zenen doh. Yet when I think of the many times in our history, including recently, that we have been revived and resurrected, I am humbled, and awed that we have somehow once again come back from the dead. However, if we are revived, brought back from death, and do not continue to contribute positively to tikkun olam (repair of the world) but simply live on our laurels, believing that our mere resurrection is enough to make us worthy, then, for me, it is as if we were never revived, or that our revival was pointless. It is not enough that Judaism survives. Judaism must continue to be a proactive light to the nations.
I believe we are at a threshold again. Death once more threatens us. It is not the death of war or genocide. It is a death born of disunity, of flagging faith, of crumbling infrastructure, of universalistic challenges to particularism (and I do not use particularism as a pejorative – particularism is not, in my understanding, without value to society.)
Our next resurrection depends not only upon G”d but upon us. We must believe that new life can be given to our old and weary bones – and we must be an active participant in the process of making that happen, and not stand around waiting for G”d or some promised world to come.
In Ezekiel’s prophecy, it is so that we will know that G”d is G”d that G”d will lift us from our graves and bring us home. That’s a fitting sentiment at Pesakh, when we have the example of the plagues and crossing of the sea of reeds as demonstrations of G”d being G”d. I can understand the need to re-instill a spirit of belief in G”d among those people who feel as if they are dead, and yes, mighty acts are useful demonstrations to support this cause. Nevertheless, I cannot help but believe that there is more purpose to this than simply demonstrating G”d’s existence and power. Does a parent always fully explain to a young child the exact nature of the lesson? Sometimes we simplify, or divert or distract from actual intent. There’s more to what G”d is doing than meets the eye.
When G”d asks Ezekiel “can these bones live?” Ezekiel responds “Oh G”d, only You know.” Then G”d tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones, and behold, they live. It was in response to Ezekiel that the bones arose. G”d may have been the unseen actor behind the scenes, but without Ezekiel, this would not have happened. How much more clearer can it be made that such resurrections require the full participation of humanity, and cannot depend solely upon G”d? Ezekiel is our stand-in in this story. Without Israel’s participation, no revival of the dead is likely to occur. (We can debate whether or not G”d can and would revive the dead without our participation, yet this seems a distraction, a tangent.)
So I ask you, dear readers, can the bones of Israel live? Do we have the mettle to do what needs to be done so that we can live again? To be fair, I must ask you to consider if you believe that we are once again at a point where we need revival as a people. In some ways, we are thriving. I am concerned that if we do not reverse certain trends, that we will not survive. I remind us, those of us who care enough to study and think about Judaism, that we are still but a small segment of the Jewish population. We’re involved, we’re active, we try and put our beliefs into action. It’s easy for us to forget we may be a minority. What of all the Jews who feel cut off, or have cut themselves off from the community? What of those Jews who might not even consider some of us “real Jews?” This disunity, this disconnection, it threatens us, and it is part of us, and it is slowly killing us.
וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלַי בֶּן־אָדָם הָֽעֲצָמוֹת הָאֵלֶּה כָּל־בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל הֵמָּה הִנֵּה אֹֽמְרִים יָֽבְשׁוּ עַצְמוֹתֵינוּ וְאָבְדָה תִקְוָתֵנוּ נִגְזַרְנוּ לָֽנוּ:
Then G”d said to me: Mortal, these are the whole House of Israel.They say: Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost; we are cut off!
The whole House of Israel. When any part of us atrophies, when any part of us is dried up, has lost hope, feels cut off from life, then all of us are affected. All of us must do our part so that all our bones may live, now and evermore.
©2013 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Pesach 5772 – Don’t Believe This
Pesach 8th Day 5772 – The Bread of Freedom
Shabbat Hol HaMoed Pesakh 5771-Admat Yisrael
Shabbat Hol HaMoed Pesakh 5769 – Valley of the Dry Economy
Pesach VII 5768 – Department of Redundant Anamnesis Department
Hol HaMoed Pesach 5767-Not Empty
Intermediate Shabbat of Passover 5766-A Lily Among Thorns
Pesach VII 5761 (Revised 5765)
Hol HaMoed Pesach 5764-Dem Bones & Have We Left Gd behind? (5578-60)
Hol Hamoed Pesach 5763-No Empty Gestures (Redux 5762)
5761-Pesach VII-Redundant Anamnesis