Shabbat Hanukkah: Bring Light!

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Hanukkah

This year the calendar falls out such that there are two Shabbatot
during the week of Hanukkah, so we have two special haftarot taking
the place of the usual haftarah for each week.

This week we read from the prophet Zechariah, who lived at the time
when the Second Temple was being built (about 520 years before the
common era) after the first exile. Zechariah has a great vision of a
rebuilt and restored Temple service, so it’s easy to see how that
connects with Hanukkah, which remembers the rededication of that same
Second Temple a few hundred years later. In particular, in Zechariah
4, there is a vision of a golden menorah (lampstand), which again
provides an obvious connection to Hanukkah.

Somewhat subtler is the verse in Zechariah 4 which explicates the
vision of the menorah:

“This [the preceding vision of the golden menorah] is the word of the
LORD to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit —
said the LORD of hosts. Whoever you are, O great mountain in the path
of Zerubbabel, turn into level ground! For he shall produce that
excellent stone; it shall be greeted with shouts of ‘Beautiful!
Beautiful!'” (Zech. 4:6-7)

OK, once again, I can hear you asking: what’s a Zerubabbel? The answer
is, not a what, but a who: Zerubbabel was the grandson of an earlier
king of Judah, and he himself was a leader of the community that came
back from exile and started working on the Temple. Thus, when the
prophet says that the vision of the menorah is a word to Zerubbabel,
it means that the prophet is conveying to the leader of the community
a vision of what he must do, along with encouragement that he can
accomplish it.

Note that the Temple and its lights will be rebuilt “not by might, and
not by power, but by My spirit.” Some have seen in these words a
subtle hint on the part of the ancient rabbis that however much we
might admire the Maccabees, we ought not rely on military means to
secure redemption for our people. (That argument probably made a great
deal of sense in the time of the Roman occupation of Palestine but
it’s probably a moot point after the establishment of the State of
Israel.)

Another quite beautiful interpretation of “not by might, and not by
power” comes from Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, who lived in Germany in
the late 1800’s. He says that this prophecy teaches that when our
efforts are oriented towards holy ends, we should never be discouraged:

“Let every human circle know, every individual person, even the
outwardly weakest and smallest, that as soon as he is penetrated with
My Spirit, and thereby places himself in the service of justice,
brotherly love, and holy living, he has the strength of giants in
accomplishing his work. . . .”

With this interpretation, what was in Biblical times the work of
building a physical structure is expanded to include all who toil to
create a more sacred world. It’s not by physical might or power of any
kind that the Divine Presence is made real to us, but by openness of
the soul and orientation towards the Holy. That’s a great message for
Hanukkah: that our work of justice and compassion is not held back by
the fact of our being ordinary, flawed human beings. We can accomplish
great things with nothing more than humble and open hearts- and
thereby bring light to the world.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanukkah,

RNJL

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