B’ha’alotecha: New Garments

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beha’alotecha

This week’s Torah portion and haftarah both speak of lighting the
lampstand in the ancient Temple (which is one of the links between the
two texts) and I have to say it’s an appealing image after a mostly
cloudy and dark week here in the Hudson Valley.

The Torah portion is B’ha’alotecha, which has many topics and laws,
but begins, as noted, with the commandment to Aharon, the HIgh Priest,
to light a seven-branched menorah [lamp] in the ancient Sanctuary. The
haftarah, from the book of Zecharia, lived at the end of the period of
the first Exile (about 538 BCE) and conveys a hopeful message to the
Israelites about the rebuilding of Jerusalem and a re-lighted menorah
in Jerusalem’s Temple. That’s also why this haftarah is read during
Hanukkah- so if after reading this commentary you have a craving for
jelly doughnuts, now you know why.

There’s another interesting set of images in the haftarah, concerning
the High Priest of the day, who the prophet sees as dressed in filthy
clothes, standing before the “Accusing Angel,” who is in turn rebuked
by an “angel of the Lord:”

“Now Joshua was clothed in filthy garments when he stood before the
angel. The latter spoke up and said to his attendants, ‘Take the
filthy garments off him!’ And he said to him, ‘See, I have removed
your guilt from you, and you shall be clothed in [priestly] robes.’ ”
(Zechariah 3:3-4)

One commentary suggests that Joshua, the High Priest, represents the
spirit of the nation in exile- that is, as I understand it, the
“filthy robes” are the condition of humiliation and alienation of a
defeated people. The “Accusing Angel,” then, is that natural human
tendency to say: because of their sins, they deserved their suffering,
and do not deserve redemption.

According to this reading, that harsh view of history is what is
rebuked by the “angel of the Lord.” The High Priest, representing the
people, is to be clothed in new garments- that is, given a new spirit,
a renewed confidence and sense of moral purpose. Note, please, that
the “angel of the Lord” doesn’t tell us why Joshua deserved his new
garments, but that’s the way of Divine hesed [lovingkindness]: it
forgives, takes back and reconciles without needing to answer all the
objections of “the Accuser”- that is, the impulse to keep account of
every misdeed and failing.

Sometimes it seems that the loudest voices representing “religion” are
those of strict judgment- self-appointed keepers of public morality
who claim to speak for God and never miss an opportunity to do so in
front of a microphone. The prophet Zechariah, however, gives us an
entirely different perspective: it’s the Accuser who is rebuked, while
the orientation of the Divine is seen in the “new garments,”
representing the redemptive act of disregarding previous failings in
order to renew covenantal relationship and lift up the people in love.
That, to me, is a truer message of prophetic religion, one applicable
to individuals and nations, in the past and in this very day.

Shabbat Shalom,


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