Ezekiel and I: Thoughts on Netzavim Vayelech and Therefore Choose Life
Last week, I pointed out that there was a ceremony of offering of the 2nd tithe for the poor, in which we were told to declare that nothing had been set aside for the dead or for mourning. I pointed out that the emphasis throughout the Torah is life, not death.
This week, we have the portion of Netzavim-Vayelech. Moses is driving home his final pitch to the children of Israel:
I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed ( Deut 30).
The choice, it is very clear, is in our hands, and this is the very theme of our season, the month of Elul, leading into the Aseret Yemai Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance.
There yet remains, in this idea of choice and consequence, one thought: Moses is constantly speaking to the people as a group. In the Torah, very little is actually said about responsibility and consequences to the individual. Indeed, in Jewish thought, we always have the metaphor that we are all in one boat together. We float together or we sink together.
Is there a “Me” in this picture, as opposed to an “Us”?
Yet, as we have come to recognize, individual responsibility became a corner stone of Jewish thought and with it, individual thought, rather than “group think”.
It gradually made its way into the Jewish psyche, so that in the old Soviet Union, where Jews had been removed from contact with Judaism, the head, Nikita Khrushchev( remember the one who banged his shoe on the desk at the UN) could complain of our fellow Jews:
"They are all individuals and intellectuals. They want to talk about everything, they want to discuss everything; they want to debate everything--and they come to totally different conclusions."
How did we get to be this way? How is it that we have been singled out as proponents of individual difference, of individual responsibility?
To answer this, we look to a prophet who taught and wrote long after Moses, who taught and wrote when all the predictions by Moses of the failure of the people and of exile had come true, the Prophet Ezekiel. It is this prophet who lays the groundwork for individual responsibility, choice and consequences. He is the father of Jewish ego psychology; that is some twenty-five hundred years before Freud’s adversary, Alfred Adler, discovered the power of conscious rational choice.
In two earlier sermons I had mentioned Isaiah and Jeremiah as molders of contemporary Jewish and universal thought-Isaiah for the messianic concept, and Jeremiah and the response to catastrophe.
Now, I will examine Ezekiel as the founder of ego psychology.
Unfortunately, he has always been plagued by bad press-he is always picked on as the most unusual, most bizarre of the prophets. If anyone writes on flying saucers in antiquity, Ezekiel's vision of the heavenly wheeled winged creatures always earns a full page or two. When our fundamentalist neighbors try to predict the end of days, when world powers obliterate each other with nuclear weapons, it is always based on Ezekiel's vision of the War of Gog and Magog. Whenever life after death is discussed, there is Ezekiel with his vision of dry bones growing skin and coming back to life. He is now perhaps best known for Ezekiel Bread, based, the manufacturer claims, on the ingredients Ezekiel used in his loaf.
To be frank, he almost failed to make it into the Bible. When the early sages where deciding what to include, they were perturbed at Ezekiel’s many prediction which had failed.
His assets, however, outweighed his liabilities, and, instead of his works being buried, they were preserved, for our benefit.
Ezekiel was a man of tremendous imagination and a marvelous flair for dramatics; hence his unusual imagery. However, behind the highly colorful depictions in his writings, there lurked real substance.
It is Ezekiel who gives great weight to the idea that the individual is responsible for his or her own actions.
Let's transpose our minds from that of twentieth century sceptics to ancient middle easterners. What thought had we of ourselves and our actions?
The Hittites, a few centuries before Ezekiel, had a poem, in rough translation, as follows:
"Men and gods are all alike. If the servant angers his master, then they kill him, his wife, his children, brothers, sisters in-law, the whole lot. If a man angers his gods, then he doesn't punish him alone. No, he destroys his wife, children, descendant’s cattle and harvest as well."
In other words-what I do is of no significance-I get punished for the other guy’s faults.
Standard law in Mesopotamia, today’s Iraq and Syria, just in those lands where Ezekiel was sitting in Exile, had laws that applied this complaint and put it to practice: a murderer could offer a substitute to be executed in his place, for example-son, brother, wife, slave; it really didn't matter who was punished, as long as someone was, and justice was thereby done.
It is true that Ezekiel didn't break ground entirely on his own
Biblical law had long before held that, when it comes to crime, only the guilty could be punished-the sons could not be held accountable for the crimes of the fathers, and the individual had long since been accorded the possibility of choosing right from wrong.
Nevertheless, it was still only an embryo of an idea.
The courts could not punish the sons for the sins of the fathers, but God could. Entire families could be held liable out by divine decrees for the sin of one member. It’s there in the Ten Commandments; it’s there in the revelation to Moses at the Golden calf.
In Ezekiel’s time, the popular slogan was: The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children have their teeth
it has already been determined by ancestral deeds and misdeed. Why bother being a righteous, decent person-it won't do any good anyway.
When Ezekiel hears this proverb, he explodes:
"What mean you by this proverb! As I live, says the Lord God, you shall no longer use that proverb. Behold, all souls are mine. The soul that sins-it shall die, but if a man be just he shall surely live."
Ezekiel continues his lesson to the public gathered to hear him: A just man can have a wicked son-that son will get no credits for the father's sainthood. But a wicked man can, in turn, have a righteous son. Nothing that the father did wrong can be held against the son.
With one fell swoop, Ezekiel throws out of consideration ancestral history as a determinant of human fate. He also makes impossible the entire concept of original sin, upon which Christianity has hung its peg.
Ezekiel moves even further. The worst person, he contends, is endowed with free choice--he can change his actions and become a saint. Even a saint has free choice-he can become a sinner.
In short, in the eyes of both God and man, people are individuals, free to choose right and wrong, and responsible for the rewards and consequences of their deeds and misdeeds.
It is possible to call Ezekiel's words a declaration of independence of the individual-independence from the weight and burden of ancestral wrong-doings and independence even from one's own past. You and I are at any moment radically free to choose.
The Rabbis recognized this move. The Talmud sums it up: Moses said “ He visits the guilt of the parents upon the children “( Ex.20:4) and Ezekiel came and overturned that.” The person who sins, only he shall die.” ( Ezekiel 18:4). ( Talmud Makoth 24a).
It is a heavy notion, one that took yet many centuries to take hold in Jewish thought, and one which is still not fully accepted today. In action and deed too much of humanity respond to reality with the despair that they themselves are of no consequence in the order of things.
That is behind the idea of pre-destination that is found in some streams of Christianity and very much so in classical Islam.
Every dictatorship on the face of the earth is the consequence of such a submission to fate, such an abdication of individual responsibility and choice.
In my freshman week in college, our required reading was the novel by the behavioral psychologist, BF Skinner, Walden II. In this description of a perfect society, by this most influential of American psychologists, everyone is preprogramed for specific roles and functions. All of life's choices are intelligently chosen for the individual by the programmer.
That was the generation of Hippies, free this and free that, the generation most individualistic, yet it was just this work, which spoke of the disappearance of the individual, which was the most popular.
There are many who say we should go that route.
Freudians claim we are but an amalgam of instincts and mournful childhood experiences. The behaviorists say that we operate on the same principals as their laboratory pigeons and rats. Sociobiologists claim our behavior is determined by genetic patterns. Classical Marxists place our mode of thinking to our position in the class struggle.
But we, as Jews, have to keep room for ourselves in all of this. We look back at that ancient dreamer, Ezekiel, and constantly must remind ourselves that we are, each of us, responsible for our lives, and even as we are part and parcel of our families, our communities, and our world, we play that part well only in so far as we deal with ourselves with responsibility.
Nikita Khrushchev paid us a back handed compliment, about us being such terrible individualists; why couldn’t we be like the rest of the proletariat, sheep to follow the leader in a flock. I am sure that Pharaoh in ancient Egypt had the same complaint—after all, why weren’t we happy to be slaves like the rest of the Egyptians? Haman in Persia had the same complaint: their laws are different!
We should not let these miscreants down!
This Rosh Hashanah, as good students of the Prophet Ezekiel, let us be sure to live up to the Prophets expectations, each of us taking responsibility. Let us fulfill the challenge of Moses, our teacher,” Therefore Choose Life.” So may it be. Amen.