To those reading the following, this began as a sermon that was delivered this past Shabbat, known as Shabbat Hanukah as it is the Shabbat during the Festival. The Haftorah, which was chanted beautifully by Sam Zucker, contains the famous passage that is sung around the world, and in our assemblies on the Sundays immediatley preceding the Festival of Lights. It is more of a study than "message" related and your comments and critiques are most welcomed.
One of the most important concepts of Hanukah is one of transformation; of impurity טמא to one of טהור, purity. In the prayer, “Amidah” (lit. standing) an insertion was made that stresses the role of God in delivering the הטמאים ביד הטהורים – those who are impure into the hand of the pure. The jar of oil is the answer to the Talmud’s question מאי חנוכה – what is Hanukah. This jar of oil became the raison d’etre of Hanukah.
Hanukah sets aside the use of human force, so as to free our people in order to worship our God and to learn, to study, and to keep the תורה. The Book of Maccabees is not part of the Jewish Biblical Canon. The Maccabees are not mentioned (rather the House of the Hasmoneans). Finally, individuals engaged in war are perceived by the Author(s) to be instrumentalities of God. The human effort, insofar as it relates to religious destiny, is not the thrust of the Hanukah.
This paper (once a sermon) focuses on the rabbinic selection of the Haftorah for Shabbat Morning that further emphasizes the themes of Israel, the “power of God”, ritual, and the rebuilding of the Temple in an imperfect world. It is taken from Zechariah III and IV.
Zechariah and Debbie Friedman z”l
One of the purposes of this posting is see the extraordinary difference between liturgical song, its use of sacred text and its emendations to reflect other themes. An interesting example of this phenomena, most reflected in the Reform Movement, but easily seen in denominations across the spectrum, is the popular song, “Not by Might-Not by Power”, a phrase taken from Zechariah 4:6. The actual text reads as follows:
ויען ויאמר אלי לאמר זה דבר-יהוה אל-זרובבל לאמר לא בחיל ולא בכח כי אם-ברוחי אמר יהוה צבאות:
And he answered and he said unto to me stating, “This matter of God say unto Zerubbavel, “Not by might, not by power, but by my spirit, stated God of hosts.”
In this beautiful and one of the most popular songs of Hanukah, this gifted songstress wrote the following:
Not by might
Not by power
But by spirit alone
Shall we all live in peace
The children sing
The children dream
And their tears may fall
But we’ll hear them call
And another song will rise
And another song will rise.
One notes several changes, particularly the tenor Friedman’s adaptation. Neither God nor Zerubbabel are mentioned. The context of the borrowed lyrics is entirely removed. The additions of “shall we all live in peace and the emphasis on children, tears, and hope (another song will rise) create a somewhat different message, and hence ethic, to those who learn and sing what has become an American Jewish spiritual. The song is beautiful both in melody and in lyric.
This work sees to examine the contextual setting of the lyric taken from the Book of Zechariah by focusing on Zechariah, Zerubbabel, Joshua the High Priest, so as to explore the text itself and its relationship to a Hanukah as a rabbinic festival that has endured until today.
The Book of Zechariah: Authorship and Events Described
Many scholars believe that the dating of the actual book is in two parts, and thus the work of two authors. First Zechariah covers chapters one through six and seems to describe historical events, though these are rightfully placed in a theological context, for this is prophecy. The first six chapters are thus likely to have been written circa 6th century b.c.e. Second Zechariah is later and seems to have been written (though none of this is certain and a critique is well beyond the work of this paper, circa. 5th century b.c.e.
Zechariah and his contemporary Haggai are Prophets of the Exile; that is they are living in Babylonia. It is roughly 520 b.c.e. and the Babylonian Empire has been conquered by Persia. Darius I is the King who follows Cyrus who had granted the Israelites living in his provinces a ‘right of return.’ However, there was a widespread revolution by several nationalities living under Persian rule and Darius must quell the unrest. This aroused great hope among the exilic people that is further heightened when Darius follows through on his predecessor’s pledge. He appoints Zerubbabel as the “Prince of Judah” (Governor) and Joshua as High Priest. Darius gives the exilic Israelites not only the right to return, but also permission to rebuild the Temple. According to historians, the Temple is completed in 515 b.c.e., though not without difficulty and disappointment as it lacked the splendor and majesty of the one built by Solomon with the assistance of Phoenician architects.
There is a sense of despair as well during this period. The rebuilding of the Temple is daunting enough, and the unrest in Persia further complicates the efforts of reconstruction. We are told in various prophetic works of a sense of despair, that the task of rebuilding the Temple cannot be accomplished. This is the setting in which the words of the Prophet Zechariah are cast:
Rebuilding of the Temple
The rebuilding of the Temple requires two essential elements. One is a King who has as his ancestry, the Davidic line thus ensuring the rightful path to the Messianic era. The other is that the High Priest must be a descendent of David. Even in the best of circumstances, it is now 700 years after the death of Aaron and 500 years since David’s passing. Is it possible that Zerubbabel is actually from the Davidic line, despite the appointment from Darius? Surely, there would be doubt as to whether such was the case.
The second issue is the appointment of the High Priest. The Kohen Gadol must be from the line of Aaron. It is one of the few such positions in Judaism that can only be claimed through ancestry. The line must be ‘pure’ and uninterrupted. 700 years, at best, have elapsed since the death of Moses’s brother. Could this Joshua be the true descendant? If he were not, if he bore some type of iniquity, would this mean that the Temple, instead of sanctifying God, would become a hilul, a desecration because Jewish law had not been strictly followed?
Just from these two central issues, we can begin to draw some understanding as to the selection of Zechariah by the Sages for Shabbat Hanukah. The first is Zionism. The Sages, in the sense that they set-forth in our liturgy and festivals, the importance of a return to Israel as a homeland, were Zionists. One can even argue that these Sages were indeed political Zionists. The second feature is the centrality of the Temple, combined with toraiitic law that becomes the ideal. In choosing this Haftorah for Shabbat Hanukah, it links prior historical paradigmatic events with those of historical events, each through their lens as being the work of a High Power, and not by the power or might of a human being.
By setting forth the historical context of both Zerubbabel and Joshua the High Priest designation, the stage is set-forth to address the issue of the religious right to move forward and to construct the Second Temple.
Zechariah Chapter III and IV
The Haftorah begins with a vision of the Prophet that casts Joshua’s iniquity before God. The priest is thus טמא – that is impure. By casting Joshua in such uncleanly terms because of his iniquity, though it is not made clear what precisely this sin is, he appears before the Heavenly Tribune with Satan as the accuser. One can conjecture that it may be his ancestry or the iniquity that led to the first Exile by Babylonia some 65 years earlier (See Jeremiah). Some type of prophetic encounter is required so as to render Joshua the High Priest טהור – ritually clean so that the Temple rite can be reinstated. Zechariah III:6-7 provides:
ויעד מלאך יהוה ביהושע לאמר: כה-אמר יהוה צבאות אם-בדרכי תלך ואם את משמרתי תשמר וגם-אתה תדין את ביתי וגם תשמר את חצרי ונתתי לך מהלכם בין העומדים האלה:
And the Angel of God did bear witness against Joshua, stating: So says the God of House, “If you with walk in my ways and if you will guard my watches, and also you adjudicate my house as well as guard my courtyard, I will give unto you walkways among those that are standing.”
In this verse, one can see that the iniquity, as set-forth by Satan (the accuser before the Heavenly Court) is removable and indeed is about to render the High Priest Designee Joshua pure, so that his work may be authorized by Heaven. It makes no mention of lineage, but rather emphasizes adherence to the laws of God. These include both righteous living (walk in my ways) and strict following of the laws of Temple worship (adjudicate my House and the guarding of the courtyard).
The Chapter concludes with a messianic outcome; one that is somewhat unique when compared to the enormous blessings and abundance described in Deuteronomy. Here, it is a beautiful, elegant, and imagery of simplicity.
ביום ההוא נאם יהוה צבאות תקראו איש לרעהו אל-תחת גפן ואל-תחת תאנה
And on that day (a messianic reference), the God of hosts states, you shall call out to each man to his neighbor under the vine and under the fig tree.
One sees at the conclusion of Chapter 3 and beautiful vision of a time when each person shall sit with another under the vine and fig tree, for such will be the peace of the land. It follows in the same tone of the Book of Deuteronomy that peace and tranquility can only occur when the Children of Israel take care when adhering to the laws of Torah in all aspects.
Chapter III and Its Relation to Hanukah
The prophetic message is that human beings are imperfect. The Aaronide line is not clearly delineated in this Book, and the issue never addressed. Rather, the attention is focused on the future Israel. This means that the keeping of God’s ways, a good and just court, will provide the walkway. This path will then lead to a society where everyone sees everyone as one’s neighbor תחת גפן ואל תחת תאנה - under the vine and under the fig tree; a peaceful and content society, each one being a neighbor to the other. Joshua’s authority is established, but not necessarily his lineage.
Human imperfection in the form of the priestly lineage, uncertain at best, is a fact when measured against the dictates of the Torah and the resulting exile. The Prophetic vision is required because it points to the underlying purpose of the דיני תורה – the law of the Torah. For the people returning to Israel from Exile in order to rebuild their country and their nation, a Divine Message was required that would grant absolution from a possible disruption in lineage.
Chapter III would transform Joshua the High Priest from טמא to טהור, from being ritually disqualified to being ritually pure, and thus be in a state to minister in the Temple once completed. Its conclusion is a messianic peacefulness, consistent with the reward that is subscribed to the Children of Israel for living in the land of the Covenant, by being the guardians of Torah.
The Menorah is then described as a symbol for Zerubbabel who has been appointed Prince of Judah by Darius, the Ruler of Persia. According to some scholars, Zerubbabel seems to have disappeared only after 5 years of his appointment. So like Hanukah and its requirement of the Menorah, at an earlier time, 400 years earlier, the Menorah is used in conjunction with a Davidic King whose credentials, like Joshua the High Priest, are questionable. This too is given the same type of non-answer as in Joshua the High Priest.
Chapter IV does not directly answer the question of Zerubbabel’s ancestry as being from King David. As in the prior chapter, perhaps a characteristic of prophecy in general is its lack of specificity on matters of law. Instead, the prophetic message is the placement of symbol (Menorah) and ideals (not by might and not by power but by my spirit) in the unfolding of history and circumstance. The message to Zerubbabel is the following:
זה דבר-יהוה אל זרובבל לאמר לא בחיל ולא בכח כי-אם ברוחי אמר יהוה צבאות
This is the matter of God unto Zerubbabel stating, “Not by might, not by power, but by my spirit stated the God of Hosts.
Uncertainty remains, but the spirit of God is unchangeable as it is pure and perfect in all regards. The reign of the Children of Israel in a land of its own will only be through God and that will be determined not by might, not by power, but by “my spirit sayeth the Lord of Hosts.”
The message of Zechariah has endured and speaks to the Jewish peoples long after this 2nd Temple, which provided service to our ancestors for 445 years before it too was destroyed. Unlike physicality, ideals can be eternal. In an imperfect world with imperfect circumstances, there will be paradox and contradiction that can lead to confusion and despair. For a religious people, matters can be resolved through appeal to the Divine so that the laws of Heaven can be moderated to enable a people to move forward.
The Prophet Zechariah implicitly proclaims both Joshua the High Priest and Zerubbabel to be the rightful ones, approved by the Divine Spirit to move the people forward with their mission. But in keeping with the tradition, this, however, can only occur if they are to walk in God’s ways and to be ever watchful of Torah. This will create the society of where collectively the people will see one another as neighbors and join together under the vines and under the fig trees and to acknowledge the spirit of God.
This is a powerful message resonates for us today, whether in Israel, American life, or our own Jewish communities. There are those among us who believe that neither the Jewish people nor humanity can ever achieve these standards of Torah, be they ritual or law. It can create, as perhaps it did for those returning from Babylonia, a sense of despair, even if temporary that we struggle to overcome. Likewise, on a personal level, all of us have inner standards that we have set for ourselves and we often fall short.
The Prophetic Message of Hanukah is one of relationship to God in its purest form. It is a vision that celebrates God’s spirit, focuses its attention on ideals, and finds a mechanism for setting aside the dictates of law so as to affirm the arguably more important ideals that it is promulgating. This inner-triumph of Hanukah, focusing on purity even in light of imperfection, is a timeless one. It teaches us that there will come a time when all of us will sit together beneath the vine and the fig tree as neighbors and thus fulfilling the light that the Menorah of Zechariah urges us at this time of year to reflect, to ponder, and to consider.