The Bones of the Ephraimites

A midrash explains that the Israelites took an indirect route out of Egypt as to avoid seeing the dead bodies of their brothers.

Print this page Print this page

It will only stir more anger and misery and hate… Around 70 percent of Cambodia's population is under 30 years old. They didn't experience the Killing Fields, and they face enough challenges in their daily struggle to make ends meet.

Similarly with the Israelites, God worries that as they begin to move toward a new life, the people will confront the terrible toll of a previous attempt at freedom and will abandon their own journey. Yet Jewish tradition holds out hope that the horrors of the past may eventually be redeemed. The Talmud records the possibility that the bones of the Ephraimites were the same bones that the prophet Ezekiel later saw in his famous vision:

[God] took me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the valley. It was full of bones … there were very many of them spread over the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, "O mortal, can these bones live again?" I replied, "O Lord God, only You know."

Ezekiel's plaintive reply suggests to us the humility with which we must approach post-conflict justice, which "requires balancing pressing moral demands for action with a recognition of the practical and political limitations that characterize transitional contexts." We may assert as a matter of principle that societies ought to confront their pasts. We may advocate for such processes to take place. Yet we must proceed with the humble awareness that in such complex, emotional terrain, we cannot be certain whether or how a given process will help or hinder a developing society.

Only when the right conditions are joined by the right spirit can such a process succeed in helping a developing society to heal and move forward, thus fulfilling the words of Ezekiel's prophecy: "Thus said the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live again."

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Guy Izhak Austrian

Guy Izhak Austrian is a community organizer and rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary.