The haftarah for the first day of Shavuot is of the most hallowed portions of the Bible. Known as Mirkevet Yechezkel, “the Chariot of Ezekiel,” the reading speaks of the revelation to Ezekiel in which he saw the entire gamut of divine beings in what he describes as a “chariot.”

This text is actually the primary source in the Tanach for the mystical element of Torah, known in the Jewish vernacular as Kabbalah. In fact, the Talmud and early Jewish works refer to Kabbalah as Maaseh Merkavah, “the Workings of the Chariot.”

Read With Awe

The reason we read this on Shavuot—the day the Torah was given—is because the Sinai event saw the revelation not only of G‑d Himself but of the entire G‑dly sphere as well.

Because of the awesome nature of this reading, the custom is that it is read in the synagogue by a “great and wise” man. In addition, the Code of Jewish Law records the custom that anyone reading the haftarah quietly along with the reader should stand while doing so.1 These facets are not replicated in any other haftarah of the year.

Ezekiel’s Metaphysical Imagery: A Model for Kabbalah

The narrative in Ezekiel speaks in physical terms about a completely spiritual reality. It is impossible to interpret any part of this description in a literal way, as it is only an allegory for metaphysical concepts. In fact, according to Avodat HaKodesh2 this is exactly what transpired in Ezekiel’s vision: he was shown images of the physical, while understanding the G‑dly ideas to which they corresponded.

This style is replicated in most Kabbalistic works, where much of the teachings are also taught via physical metaphor. The sages throughout the ages warned that the student of Kabbalah must “divest the words from their physicality” and be knowledgeable enough to do so.

In recent times, one of the great achievements of Chabad chassidic teachings was to do just that. All the key and foundational aspects of Kabbalah are dissected and thoroughly explained in such a way that the human mind can grasp at least the concept of a certain spiritual idea. Many of the phrases in this haftarah are explained in Chabad Chassidut at great length.

Why the Vision of Ezekiel?

Despite the above explanation of the connection between the haftarah and the holiday, a closer analysis still leaves room for discussion. After all, the primary occurrence at Sinai was the the revelation of G‑d Himself and the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people. The experience of the Divine “chariot,” as lofty as it is, can be considered only of secondary importance.

A contrasting reading that, on the surface, might have been more appropriate is a portion of the book of Isaiah (ch. 6) that is read as the haftarah for the portion of Yitro, the portion that contains the Torah reading for Shavuot. There Isaiah is predominantly occupied with the revelation of G‑d to him, but also briefly describes the “chariot” as the setting in which he “sees” G‑d. This, it seems, would make for a much more accurate description of what the Jews witnessed at the giving of the Torah.

All this is on top of the most obvious question of all:

For the vast majority of people, this haftarah is completely incomprehensible. The point of the public haftarah reading is not merely for the select few who have an understanding of the profound meaning of the verses; it is for the benefit of everyone.

It follows that there must be something in this haftarah that encapsulates the concept of the Sinai event itself, and that although the details are incomprehensible, there must be an overall underpinning of the narrative that can be understood by every Jew.

To explain:

The revelation of G‑d at Sinai was not something meant just for that time; it was rather the beginning of an entirely new world order. The revelation of G‑d was to inaugurate the process whereby the physical world could become a G‑dly place.

No detail in the physical world is isolated from G‑dly reality. On the contrary, the existence of this world is a material manifestation of a G‑dly counterpart that exists in a spiritual setting. But although the physical stems from the spiritual, the Midrash3 tells us that before the giving of the Torah, there was no real ability for G‑dliness to penetrate and elevate the physical world. The corporeal cannot essentially perceive the G‑dly, as it is entirely distant from it.

An example for this can be seen even within physical existence itself: any attempt to explain the simplest math equation to a stone will be completely futile. Now, although both logic and a stone are components of the physical world, nevertheless one is entirely cut off from the reality of the other. This is infinitely more so with regards to G‑dliness: the world, by definition, is finite. G‑d and everything about Him is infinite. For the finite and the infinite to connect is impossible. It cannot begin to happen.

Nevertheless, with the giving of the Torah this was actually made possible. G‑d, who has no limitation whatsoever, “came down” within His creation. Thus, at that moment, the possibility for the elevation of the physical to the G‑dly was created.

This idea is the entire theme of our haftarah. Although the exact details are rather obscure, the overall content is Ezekiel’s vision of physical images that not only did not obstruct the vision of G‑d, but on the contrary were the very means by which the prophet perceived G‑dliness.

Isaiah and Ezekiel: Villager or City Kid?

The above is also the reason why on the holiday, the reading from Ezekiel is preferred over the one from Isaiah. The Talmud, analyzing the two prophecies, comments that “Isaiah can be compared to a man who dwells in the city who saw the king, and Ezekiel—to a villager who saw the king.”4

A man who dwells in the capital is not greatly excited over the pomp and circumstance around the royal palace; he sees it daily. The villager, on the other hand, becomes very excited by all the extravagances of royalty. Simply speaking, the Talmud is referring to the fact that Isaiah was a prophet in the Land of Israel and thus was accustomed to Divine encounters, whereas Ezekiel prophesied in the diaspora, and there it is a great novelty to have the ability of experiencing anything G‑dly at all.5

On a deeper level, though, the Talmud can be saying this: For a person who grew up in the city, or better yet in the palace itself, all the pomp and circumstance of royalty is just the way in which the king goes about his affairs. For these people, what matters is the king himself; the rest of it is just background. This was Isaiah, who spoke of the “chariot” only as the milieu in which G‑d was seen.

The level on which Ezekiel spoke was that of a villager who has altogether no concept of royalty. Witnessing the immense pageantry around the king arouses tremendous excitement within this simple man. It is actually through this experience that he gains entry into knowing what royalty is altogether, which serves as the entry point in beginning to appreciate who the king himself is.

The event at Sinai began the elevation of the physical world to the G‑dly. For this reason we specifically choose the text of Ezekiel, which comes from the perspective of the “villager”—the plane on which anything G‑dly is a novelty. For the physical to be elevated, it must first be imbued with the feeling that there is something higher than itself, that in fact its physical self is just the “image” of a Divine reality. This is the point of entry in taking the creation to its primary objective, the revelation of G‑d Himself within it.

As said, although the details of this in the text of Ezekiel are obscure, the above is the premise of the entire narrative. The ideas themselves have been explained and expounded upon in chassidic teaching. The study of Chassidus enables the person to see G‑dliness within creation, which in essence fulfills the purpose of creation itself.6