Ezekiel – Chapter 23

Oholah and Oholibah

By Rabbi Jack Abramowitz

Once again, G-d spoke to Ezekiel. He told the prophet a parable about two women, sisters. (The women are the two Jewish nations: Judah and the Ten Tribes of Israel.) They behaved promiscuously in Egypt. (Promiscuity is the common metaphor for idolatry.) The sisters’ breasts were fondled by the Egyptians. (See the end of this synopsis for an explanation of this metaphor, as it is too long for a parenthetical note.) We’ll call the sisters “Oholah” and “Oholibah” (respectively, “Her Tent” – referring to Samaria, capital of Israel – and “My Tent is in Her” – referring to Jerusalem, capital of Judah). Oholah (Samaria) cheated on G-d with the idols of Assyria and she continued to long for Egypt, who was her “lover” before she “married” G-d at Sinai. So G-d let Assyria have her. They revealed her shame, killed her children and made an example out of her.

The younger sister, Oholibah (Jerusalem) saw this, but did she learn from it? No! She exceeded her sister’s promiscuity! She still pursued Assyria, as well as the Chaldeans. The Babylonians came to her “bed” and they became lovers, but she rejected them. (This refers to the rebellion against Babylonian rule.) G-d became sick of Oholibah, as He had with Oholah. And she, too, longed for Egypt, the “lover” of her youth. So, G-d gathered Oholibah’s lovers against her, as He did against Oholah: the Babylonians, the Chaldeans and others, as well as the Assyrians. They will attack and judge Oholibah. They will disfigure her face as a punishment for her promiscuity (to make her unattractive to future lovers), enslave her children and scorch the land. They will take her ornaments, referring to the vessels of the Temple. In this way, Oholibah will be prevented from future promiscuous behavior and give up her longing for Egypt.

G-d will hand Oholibah over to her enemies, who will take all of her handiwork and leave her naked, revealing her shame. All this will happen because she followed in her sister’s footsteps, therefore she will share her sister’s fate. She will become drunk, miserable and confused. Jerusalem will drink from the cup of Samaria and drain it, becoming so disoriented that she will inflict harm upon herself.

G-d says that since they have forgotten Him, they will have to bear the consequences for their actions. He then asks Ezekiel if he will judge the actions of the sisters, who strayed after idols and whose hands are full of blood. They also violated the Sabbath and defiled the Temple with idols, which they would show off to foreign dignitaries. They were on a fancy bed, with a set table before them, using the incense and oil of G-d for idolatry. Multitudes came from neighboring nations and they “made themselves up” for their visitors. G-d said that He would bring an end to this behavior. Lovers came to Oholah and Oholibah, but righteous people will try them for their crimes. They will be subjected to the horrors of being stoned and stabbed and bereaved of their homes and children. G-d will abolish this promiscuity and no one will ever wish to emulate them.

Now, as to the metaphor of the breasts. Such a metaphor would normally be easy to gloss over in a synopsis that doesn’t cover every single word of a chapter. However, in this case, it is a recurring metaphor that appears four or five times, so it is important to understanding the chapter. As in Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs), breasts symbolize the two tablets of the Ten Commandments, or in other words, Torah. While the Torah had not yet been given while the Jews were still in Egypt, there were still Jewish standards of behavior above and beyond those of other nations. This observance was neglected in Egypt because of the influence of the idolators among whom they lived. This is the meaning of the Egyptians groping the breasts of the Jews – their idolatry contaminated the Jews’ performance of G-d’s will. However, it is important to note that the imagery is one of “foreplay,” rather than intercourse. Idolatry is commonly presented as adultery. In Egypt, though the Jews were affected by the idols of their neighbors, they didn’t “go all the way” into idol worship, they merely dabbled. (Still not good, but relatively innocent compared to what was to come, and more easily overcome.) Also, this happened before the Torah was given at Sinai, so Israel was still “single,” rather than “married.” (Again, still not a good thing, but not as serious a sin as marital infidelity.)

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