The Haphtorah of the first day of Shavuot is taken from chapter one of Ezekiel. As is usual on Sabbaths and festivals when a Haphtorah is read, there is a connection and similarity between the reading from the Torah and the reading from the Prophets.
The reading from the Torah on the first day of Shavuot is about the Revelation on Mount Sinai and the Giving of the Torah. G‑d descended on the mountain accompanied by His Heavenly Chariot and Heavenly Court. It was an awe-inspiring moment when Israel received the Torah and was consecrated as a "kingdom of priests and a holy nation" - a prophet among the nations of the world.
In the Haphtorah the prophet Ezekiel tells us how he was likewise consecrated as a prophet. In a prophetic vision he saw a Divine revelation:
"Now it came to pass in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, in the fifth day of the month, as I was among the captives by the river of Chebar, that the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of G‑d (Ezek. 1:1)."
Ezekiel describes the Heavenly Chariot and the visions which he saw when the heavens opened to him. It was then that G‑d made him a prophet and ordered him to carry the message of G‑d to the people. Whether the people listened to him or not, even if they placed obstacles in his way, the prophet was to carry out his mission without fear.
When the spirit of the prophecy came upon Ezekiel, he was standing by the river Chebar, a tributary of the Euphrates in Babylon. It was in the fifth year of the First Captivity, which had taken place during the reign of King Jehoiachin (Jechoniah).
Ezekiel was born in Jerusalem in a priestly family. His father's name was Buzi. When Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, carried off King Jehoiachim and the "flower" of Judah into exile in Babylon, Ezekiel was among this "First Captivity." In Jerusalem Nebuchadnezzar set up the deposed king's uncle Zedekiah on the throne, and made him swear allegiance to Babylon. This was in the year 3317, eleven years before the destruction of Jerusalem. (The Prophet Habakkuk flourished at that time in the Holy Land. The third chapter of Habakkuk is the Haphtorah of the second day of Shavuot.)
The first exiles in Babylon settled down to a new life in captivity. Ezekiel kept the spirit of Judaism alive among them. But the practices of idolatry which proved Judah's undoing were deeply rooted among the exiles. The widespread idol worship of their conquerors seemed about to engulf them. Some of the exiles thought that G‑d had sold them out to the Babylonians and that there was no longer any sense in keeping up the Torah and remain Jews.
It was Ezekiel's stern mission to denounce his brethren, both in Babylon and in Judah, who persisted in their sinfulness, and to warn them of the due consequences if they did not repent. The prophet was reluctant to accept this mission, but he had no choice. Thus we read:
"So the spirit lifted me up, and took me away, and I went in bitterness, in the heat of my spirit; but the hand of the L-rd was strong upon me. Then I came to them of the captivity at Tel-abib, that dwelt by the river of Chebar, and I sat where they sat, and remained there among them seven days in a state of stupor.
And it came to pass at the end of seven days, that the word of the L-rd came unto me, saying, Son of man, I have made thee a watchman unto the house of Israel: Therefore, hear the word at my mouth, and give them warning from me (3:14-17)."
Ezekiel had a difficult task in convincing his fellow exiles that the captivity was but temporary punishment for their disloyalty to G‑d. He warned them that if they abandoned their faith, they would be committing national suicide. He sternly rebuked them and constantly reminded them that their fellow Jews in Judah would share their fate for the same reason that had brought disaster upon them. Many scoffed at him.
There were those who thought that no repentance could help eradicate the sins of their fathers. Ezekiel takes pains to reject this mistaken attitude. Sincere repentance will wipe the slate clean for the sinner himself. These are his words: "If a man be just, and do that which is lawful and right... hath walked in my statutes, and hath kept my judgments, to deal truly; he is just, he shall surely live, saith the L-rd G‑d.
If the wicked will turn from all his sins that he hath committed, and keep all my statutes, and do that which is lawful and right, he shall surely live, he shall not die. All his transgressions that he hath committed, they shall not be mentioned unto him: in his righteousness that he hath done he shall live.
... Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, saith the L-rd G‑d. Repent, and turn away from all your transgressions; so iniquity shall not be your ruin. Cast away from you all your transgressions, whereby ye have transgressed; and make you a new heart and a new spirit (Chapter 18).
There were some Jews who thought that the Jewish people should not be different from other nations, and would be better off if they copied the way of life and customs of their non-Jewish neighbors. These dangerous ideas had to be rooted out, and it was not easy nor pleasant for the prophet to do it. He told them that not only was this wrong and evil, but that it would not work. The prophet's warning was sharp and clear:
And that which cometh into your mind shall not be at all, that ye say, We will be as the nations, as the families of the countries, to serve wood and stone. As I live, saith the L-rd G‑d, surely with a mighty hand, and with a stretched out arm, and with fury poured out, will I rule over you (20:32-33).
Then one day Ezekiel received the sad prophecy he dreaded so. It was on the tenth day of the month of Teveth, in the ninth year of the First Captivity. Many miles away, in the land of Judah, Nebuzaradan, the general of the Babylonian armies, began his siege of the Holy City. At that very moment Ezekiel was informed of the calamity in a prophetic vision, and was ordered to record the date and the event, and to bring the sad news to his fellow-exiles.
The sad news was confirmed, and the Jews in Babylon realized that truly a prophet of G‑d was Ezekiel the priest.
The prophet's call for repentance, purity and holiness, was frequently repeated.
The sad news of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Beth Hamikdosh reached the exiles in Babylon, and before long scores of thousands of Jews joined their brethren in the Babylonian exile.
When everything seemed lost, Ezekiel saved the day. He was no longer the stern preacher, but a consoling father full of courage and hope. He turned his harsh words against the cruel neighbors of Judah who rejoiced and gloated over Judah's downfall.
Ezekiel takes to task, in turn, the peoples of Ammon, Moab, Edom and the Philistines, foretelling their doom. He further prophesies that proud Tyre will be humbled, and the "great crocodile" (i.e. Pharaoh) will be dragged out of the Nile and slain. Egypt, which has always been a "broken reed" for Israel, will be laid waste.
Nebuchadnezzar, the instrument of G‑d to punish Israel, will serve-also as G‑d's sword to bring to account all the wicked enemies of the Jewish people. But, while Israel's nations will be completely destroyed, Israel will survive and attain a higher spiritual level than ever before.
Of the future redemption of the Jewish people, and of the ingathering of the exiles from the lands of their dispersion, the Prophet Ezekiel has the following Divine message:
"Thus saith the L-rd G‑d; I do not this for your sake, O house of Israel, but for mine holy name's sake... and the nations shall know that I am the L-rd. For I will, take you from among the nations, and gather you out of A the countries, and will bring you into your own land. Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean... A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you... And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them. And ye shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; and ye shall be my people, and I will be your G‑d (cb. 36:22-28)."
During this time, after the destruction of Jerusalem and of the Kingdom of Judah, the Jewish exiles lapsed into deep despair. Torn from their land and spiritual center, they felt like living corpses, wondering if the Jewish people would ever revive. In those crucial days, the Prophet Ezekiel came forth with one of his most powerful prophecies, namely the prophecy of the Valley of Dry Bones. The prophet found himself in a valley where dry bones were strewn all over. He was to prophesy that the dry bones would be resurrected. Soon an amazing sight evolved before his eyes. A storm broke out and caused the bones to join limb to limb until they became skeletons. Presently the skeletons were clothed with flesh and skin. The dead bodies were revived by the spirit of G‑d, and a mighty host rose on its feet before the prophet's eyes. Here are his words:
"The hand of the L-rd was upon me, and carried me out in the spirit of the L-rd, and set me down in the midst of the valley which was full of bones... And He said unto me, Son of man, can these bones live? And I answered, O L-rd G‑d thou knowest. Again He said unto me, Prophesy upon these bones, and say unto them, O ye dry bones, hear the word of the L-rd. Thus saith the L-rd G‑d unto these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live...
Then He said unto me, Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel: behold, they say, Our bones are dried, and our hope is lost: we are cut off. Therefore prophesy and say unto them, Thus saith the L-rd G‑d; Behold, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel. And ye shall know that I am the L-rd... And I shall put my spirit in you, and ye shall live, and I shall place you in your own land: then shall ye know that I the L-rd have spoken it, and performed it, saith the L-rd (Ch. 37-1-6; 11-14)."
In this way the prophet told his fellow-exiles that Israel was to be revived to new life and glory.
One of the great calamities of the Jewish people, which eventually led also to the destruction of the land and exile, was the split which occurred during the reign of Rechavam, the son and successor of King Solomon. The people and the country were then divided into two kingdoms: The Northern Kingdom of the Ten Tribes under Jereboam, the son of Nevat, of the Tribe of Ephraim, and the remaining two Tribes of Judah and Benjamin, which remained loyal to the House of David and Jerusalem. The Northern Kingdom was the one to suffer destruction first, at the hand of the Assyrians, while the Southern Kingdom of Judah survived for another 133 years until it was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar.
Ezekiel now prophesied that the breach between the Kingdom of Judah and that of Ephraim (the Ten Tribes) would be healed. There would be one united nation, restored to its land. The Beth Hamikdosh would be rebuilt, and Israel would enjoy unity with G‑d as never before.
The Prophet Ezekiel speaks of the future reunification of the Jewish people in the following prophecy:
The word of the L-rd came again unto me, saying, Thou Son of Man, take thee one stick, and write upon it, "For Judah,"... then take another stick, and write upon it, "For Joseph," the stick of Ephraim...And join them one to another into one stick; and they shall become one in thine hand. And when the children of thy people shall speak unto thee, saying, Wilt thou not tell us what thou meanest by these? Say unto them, Thus saith the L-rd G‑d... Be hold, I will take the children of Israel from among the nations, whither they are gone, and will gather them on every side, and bring them into their own land: And I will make them one nation in the land upon the mountains of Israel; and one king shall be king to them all: and they shall be no more two nations, neither shall they be divided into two kingdoms any more at all. . . so shall they be my people, and I will be their G‑d. And David my servant shall be king over them; and they all shall have one shepherd: they shall also walk in my judgments, and observe my statutes, and do them. And they shall dwell in the land that I have given unto Jacob my servant, wherein your fathers have dwelt; and they shall dwell therein, even they, and their children, and their children's children for ever. Moreover, I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant. My tabernacle also shall be with them: yea, I will be their G‑d, and they shall be my people. And the nations shall know that I the L-rd do sanctify Israel, when my sanctuary shall be in the midst of them for evermore (ch. 37:15-28)."
One of the famous prophecies of Ezekiel in regard to the final redemption of Israel is the prophecy about "Gog and Magog" who will lead other nations against Israel, but suffer a final debacle upon the mountains of the Holy Land. This will be the final reckoning with Israel's enemies, preceding the final redemption. Of this world shaking event, the prophet said:
"And it shall come to pass at the same time when Gog shall come against the land of Israel, saith the L-rd G‑d, that my fury shall come up in ml face... in that day there shall be a great shaking in the land Of Israel... And I will call for a sword against him (Gog) throughout all my mountains... and I will rain upon him, and upon his hands, and upon the many peoples that are with him, an overflowing rain, and great hailstones, fire, and brimstone. Thus will I become great, and sanctify myself; and I will be known in the eyes of many nations, and they shall know that I am the L-rd.
Thou, Son of Man, prophesy against Gog, and say, Thus said the L-rd G‑d: Behold, I am against thee, O Gog, the prince of Rosh, Meshech, and Tubal: And I will turn thee back, and lead thee astray, and will cause thee to come up from the north parts, and will bring thee upon the mountains of Israel: And I will smite thy bow out of thy left hand, and will cause thine arrows to fill out of thy right hand. Thou shalt fall upon the mountains of Israel, thou, and all thy bands, and the peoples that are with thee... And I will send a fire on Magog, and among them that dwell securely in the isles: and they shall know that I am the L-rd. So will I make my holy name known in the midst of my people Israel; and I will not let them profane my holy name any more: and the nations shall know that I am the L-rd, the Holy One in Israel (ch. 38:18-39:7)."
The prophet described in detail the New Jerusalem, the New Beth Hamikdosh and the New Priesthood which would eventually flourish under the reign of the House of David, the true Moshiach.
But what were Jews to do in the meantime?
Ezekiel was a great teacher. He taught that the revival of the whole nation could come only through the revival of each individual. Every Jew individually was responsible for his life and conduct and had at the same time a responsibility towards the entire nation. The secret of Redemption lay in absolute loyalty to G‑d and His Torah. G‑d is always ready to forgive the sinner who returns to Him in sincere repentance. "I delight not in the death of the wicked, saith the L-rd, but that he return from his evil way and live," Ezekiel taught and preached again and again.
Under Ezekiel's influence, the exiles built synagogues and houses of Torahstudy in Babylon, and the spirit of Judaism was kept very much alive. When Ezekiel died, he was sadly mourned by all Jews, but his prophecies remained to inspire them forever.
After Nebuchadnezzar's death, his son Evill-Merodach ascended the throne of the mighty Babylonian empire. He released King Jehoiachin from prison and treated him kindly.
Jehoiachin remembered the prophet Ezekiel who was buried between the rivers Chebar and Euphrates. Accompanied by scores of thousands of Jews, Jehoiachin went to his grave. There he built a tomb, and nearby a synagogue. From far and near Jews made an annual pilgrimage to Ezekiel's tomb and prayed at his grave. The synagogue was always full of worshippers and students of the Torah. It was known as the Synagogue of Ezekiel and jehoiachin. Every year on the Day of Atonement a special scroll of the Torah, written by the prophet's own hand, was taken from the Ark in that synagogue and read, and a perpetual light was kept burning there for many, many years.