Last month saw the start of the 2016/17 academic year at Yad Ben Zvi, with a brand new series of Bible study tours linked to Project 929, about which I have written several times in the past.
Since, last month, we finished reading the book of Ezekiel, last month’s study trip focused on that period of Biblical history. Ezekiel is the only one of the prophets to have lived outside of the Land of Israel, in Babylon and so the first part of the tour took place in the Israel Museum’s archaeology wing, where we studied exhibits relating to the Babylonian conquest and occupation of Israel, as well as life in the Holy Land in the century preceding that event.
For example, we had a glimpse of the justice system in the years preceding the Babylonian occupation. Unlike most ancient historical documents, in which the voice we hear is typically that of the rulers, the generals, the high and the mighty, the so-called “Reaper’s Plea”, written in ink on a potsherd, brings before our eyes the plight of a simple farmhand.
“Let my lord, the governor, hear the plea of his servant. Your servant is working in the harvest; your servant was at Hasar-Asam (when the following incident occurred). Your servant did his reaping, finished, and stored (the grain) a few days ago before the Sabbath (or: before stopping work). When your servant had finished (his) reaping and had stored it a few days ago, Hoshayahu ben Shabay came and took your servant’s garment. When I had finished my reaping, at that time, a few days ago, he took your servant’s garment. All my companions will vouch for me, all who were reaping with me in the heat of the sun: my companions will vouch for me (that) truly I am guiltless of any in[fraction]. [(So) please return] my garment. If the governor does not consider it an obligation to return [your servant’s garment, then have] pity upon him [and return] your servant’s [garment] from that motivation. You must not remain silent [when your servant is without his garment].”
The author of this letter has performed what he believes to have been his fair quota of labour but his supervisor apparently thinks otherwise and has confiscated his garment, and is holding it until the farmhand fulfils his obligation – in defiance of Biblical law, as expressed in Exodus 22:25-26:
“ If thou at all take thy neighbour’s garment to pledge, thou shalt restore it unto him by that the sun goeth down; for that is his only covering, it is his garment for his skin; wherein shall he sleep? and it shall come to pass, when he crieth unto Me, that I will hear; for I am gracious.”
We can learn several things from this man’s heartfelt plea. For one thing, it is clear that he knows his rights. For another, we can deduce that, not only does he know the law is on his side, but that he has sufficient faith in “the system” to apply to the authorities with, presumably, a reasonable expectation of obtaining justice.
Our visit to the Israel Museum was a short one, no more than a couple of hours, intended merely to give us an idea of the way people lived in the Land of Israel at the time Ezekiel was prophesying. From there, we proceeded to the place which, more than any other, symbolises the 20th century embodiment of Ezekiel’s best known prophecy – the Vision of the Dry Bones. That place is, of course, Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial Museum and Campus.
I think most of us, if asked to visualise the Holocaust, would immediately see in their mind’s eye a picture of the piles of corpses that greeted the Allied Forces who liberated the death camps, or of the horribly emaciated survivors, no more than skin and bones.
And I think that most of us who have read the Bible, would immediately think of the words of Ezekiel 37:1-14 and, in particular, verse 11:
“Then He said unto me: ‘Son of man, these bones are the whole House of Israel; behold, they say: Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off.”
It is no coincidence that Yad Vashem is situated on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, linked by a path to the Mount Herzl National Military Cemetery, where the Founders of the State of Israel, as well as Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern political Zionism, are buried. Mount Herzl is the largest of Israel’s all-too-many military cemeteries and its proximity to Yad Vashem is charged with symbolism.
So too is the Children’s Memorial, perhaps the most moving of all the exhibits at Yad Vashem – commemorating the one and a half million Jewish children murdered in the Holocaust by the Nazis and their collaborators.
Outside the entrance is a symbolic representation of trees cut down – all different sizes, representing the children of all ages who never grew to adulthood, their lives cut short by the monstrous evil of the Nazi butchers.
As you walk into the underground cavern which houses the exhibit, you may notice (depending on the time of day) that the sun striking the roof creates a pattern of bars on the floor, reminiscent of railway tracks. As you first enter and pause, to let your eyes become accustomed to the dim light, you will see many portraits of child victims of the Nazis. Then, a circular path leads you down into the darkness, illuminated only by the light from six candles (one for each of the six millions Jews who perished in the Holocaust), which is endlessly reflected in mirrors, thus symbolising the many millions more who were never born, because of the lives which were snuffed out, like so many candles, before they had time to bring children into the world. And in the background, you will hear, in Hebrew, English and Yiddish, the names, ages and places of residence of some of the murdered children.
When you enter the main exhibition hall, you will first see items which show the richness of Jewish life in Europe before the Holocaust – because it is only by understanding what there was before that you can begin to comprehend the magnitude of what was lost. And you will notice that, as you move further and further inside, the floor slopes downward – like a descent into hell.
It also gets darker and darker – but when you reach the end, you step out of the doors to be confronted with a view of the future, a spectacular panorama of the city of Jerusalem, capital of the reborn State of Israel.
Ezekiel’s prophecy does not end with the despairing cry of the host of dry bones, declaring their loss of hope. It continues with a promise to open the graves of the House of Israel and to bring them up to the Land of Israel. The poet Naftali Herz Imber, who wrote the words of what became, in the course of time, the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah (The Hope), echoing and reversing the words of the prophecy, defiantly declared: “Our hope is not yet lost, the hope of 2000 years”.
The Hope still lives.