The Valley of Dry Bones

richard mcbee dry bones Tomorrow, in synagogues around the world, wherever a Shabbat service is taking place, those attending (virtually or in person) may hear the chanting of Ezekiel 37:1-14, the Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones. This was the first Haftarah I ever chanted–six years ago, in Pesach 2014, on this very Shabbat–and it remains one of my most beloved passages in all of the Bible. I think of it now because of the triple timing: in terms of the Jewish calendar, the coronavirus, and my own life.

One day in shul, my eye fell on the text of this Haftarah, and it seemed I was reading my own life. So when I chanted it, after months of preparation, some people were startled by the emotion I brought to it. Some said that they would never forget it and that they cried. Others told me (not that day, but later) that you aren’t supposed to chant a Haftarah that way; it is supposed to be less musical, more like speech, and more toned down. I understand this and would do it differently now. But I didn’t do it to be dramatic; I did it because these verses were alive to me.

When I came to Judaism (I am Jewish by birth, on my mother’s side, but was not brought up Jewish), it was during a difficult time in my life when I wasn’t sure of the way. I had just finished my first book, but had accepted a teaching position that demanded everything I had. Now there was hardly time for writing at all. Also, I was lonely, not for company or social life, but for real companionship and understanding.

Through one thing and another, I found a few recordings by a cantor who I had recently learned of but had not met. I knew nothing about cantors at this point. I started listening to one of these recordings, the Blessing Before Haftarah, and found myself listening to it again and again. I started to learn it. I pored over the Hebrew letters and matched them with the sounds. This was my entry into Hebrew.

The cantor was the son of a Holocaust survivor who had died a few years before and was buried in a Jewish cemetery some eighty miles away. Out of gratitude that I could not explain yet, I rented a car, went out to that cemetery, bringing a little stone with me, found the grave, and placed my stone on top of it. (That is a Jewish tradition.)

That was my valley of dry bones. That day was big, overwhelming, and sad, yet something started to come to life right then and there.

ג  וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלַי–בֶּן-אָדָם, הֲתִחְיֶינָה הָעֲצָמוֹת הָאֵלֶּה; וָאֹמַר, אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה אַתָּה יָדָעְתָּ 3 And He said unto me: ‘Son of man, can these bones live?’ And I answered: ‘O Lord GOD, Thou knowest.’

 

But what  I love about the Ezekiel verses, or one thing among layers and layers of things, is that the life does not happen at once. It happens in stages, and through prophesy. God commands Ezekiel to go to the bones and prophesy over them; when he does, he sees the prophesy coming true and the bones coming together, and sinews and flesh joining with the bones. Then God commands him again, and through this prophesy, they start to breathe. But then what comes out of them, in God’s retelling, is a cry of pain: “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off. ”

Then comes the next prophesy: Ezekiel is to tell them that God will lift them out of their graves and take them to the land of Israel.

In the Hebrew text, command, prophesy, and vision exist in complex relation, as though in a dance or symphony. There is also play with the word ruach, which means “spirit,” “wind,” “breath.” In the ninth verse, you can feel the ruach and its meanings swirling around.

ט  וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלַי, הִנָּבֵא אֶל-הָרוּחַ; הִנָּבֵא בֶן-אָדָם וְאָמַרְתָּ אֶל-הָרוּחַ  {ס}  כֹּה-אָמַר אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה, מֵאַרְבַּע רוּחוֹת בֹּאִי הָרוּחַ, וּפְחִי בַּהֲרוּגִים הָאֵלֶּה, וְיִחְיוּ 9 Then said He unto me: ‘Prophesy unto the breath, prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath: {S} Thus saith the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.’

 

I understood at the time, and understand again today in a new way, that a person can come to life anywhere, in the bleakest of circumstances; not only that, but coming to life is painful. At first you may not know what is happening, but once you can breathe it, you understand what you are missing and longing for. But that too can come; life builds and builds, adding layer upon layer, sinew upon bone, wind upon wind, meaning upon word.

Today I tried to record a fresh chanting of this Haftarah, but my voice is a bit tired from the virtual seders (with Szim Salom on Wednesday night, and with my family last night). I was glad to try, though, and to spend a few hours with the text.

When I was first learning those words and sounds, and when I placed the stone on the grave, I had no idea, and no way of having an idea, that six years later I would be here in Hungary, putting together a makeshift seder plate, along with haggadah texts and melodies, so that I could co-lead two virtual seders out of necessity (and a joyful necessity it was). Who knows what will be asked of me and others in the coming weeks. But these verses and gatherings tell me that more levels of life and ruach are still to come.

Art credit: Ezekiel by Richard McBee, courtesy of TheTorah.com. I originally included Gustave Doré’s woodcut, but found McBee’s painting more appropriate here and more evocative of Ezekiel’s verses.

Photo credits: from the two virtual seders and my table. Hebrew text and JPS English translation courtesy of the Mechon Mamre website.

Update: I recorded it after all and uploaded it as an mp3. I preceded it with the Blessing Before Haftarah and followed it with the Blessing After Haftarah. (Some will say that the Blessing Before Haftarah should begin with a kadma, not a pashta. But I first learned it with a pashta and love it that way.)

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