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Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Parashat Beha'alotcha - the Haftara

Beha’alotcha - the Haftara
Zechariah 2:14-4:7
Reading date: 6th June 2009 – 14th Sivan 5769

Our Highlighted Haftara Text
"He said to me: What do you see? I said: I see a lamp stand all of gold with a bowl on its top; there are seven lamps on it, and on its top there are seven pipes for the lamps. By it are two olive trees, one on the right of the bowl, and the other on its left.” Zechariah 4:2-3

The menorah is a symbol of the Jewish people's faith that has endured.

This is the only passage from the book of Zechariah chosen for the Haftarot. Zechariah's vision of the menorah connects the haftara to the Torah's description of the golden menorah. This passage was also chosen by the Rabbis to be read on the Shabbat of Chanukah as well. The Rabbis deliberately play down the Maccabees military victory by choosing Zechariah's vision: "Not by might, not by power, but by My spirit."

The prophet describes our restoration to the land, here described uniquely as ‘admat kodesh’, 'Holy Land.' The term “Holy Land”, is a Christian title for the Land of Israel but Israelis usually call it, ‘Ha'aretz’ (The Land). Zechariah's vision of peace (inviting each other to the "shade of grapevines and fig trees"), not only includes YHVH dwelling in our midst, but many nations recognizing YHVH and becoming one of His people.

In 586 BCE, the first Temple of Solomon was destroyed and the Jews had been exiled to Babylonia by Nebuchadnezzar. After his defeat at the hands of Cyrus (539 BCE) Cyrus allowed the exiled Jews to return. Although they encountered adverse economic and political conditions, construction was completed in four years. Zechariah lived during the reign of Cyrus's successor, Darius I. The 'Jewish province' of Babylonia (Yehud) was led by the governor Zerubavel (a descendant from the House of David) and the High Priest Joshua.

We know little about Zechariah's personal life, except for the name of his father Berachiah, and grandfather, Ido. The book is difficult, with a clear distinction between chapter 8 and 9, leading some scholars to suggest that it is the work of two individuals.

The Temple, Jerusalem, and the land of Israel were central to the ancient Israelites. The original exiles believed that they had been exiled from YHVH's presence. While the captors taunted the Israelites: "Sing us a song of Zion," their response was, "How can we sing Adonai's song on foreign soil?" Although later, the Rabbis indeed imagine that YHVH too was exiled along with the Jewish people, the original idea is that the Almighty was rooted to the land.

Zechariah's vision (and reassuring message to Zerubavel the appointed governor), not only promises that Adonai will restore the Jewish people back to the land, but that the Almighty will reside among them. The Hebrew (shachanti betocheich) echoes the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and Ex. 25:8. If we are not in the land, we are disconnected from YHVH. (Contrast this with the fact that although our connection to the land has remained central, much (most?) of the ‘Nation of Israel’ has developed on foreign soil: the Exodus, Sinai, and the development of the Talmud.)
Although Solomon builds the First Temple, the permanent replacement for the portable Mishkan, the Almighty’s love affair with Solomon is short-lived. Ultimately Solomon disappoints: he builds shrines to the gods of the two most hated enemies of Israel, the Moabites and the Ammonites (I Kings 11:7). The fragile united kingdom of Solomon's monarchy falls apart, and the long list of kings of Israel and kings of Judah are not favored by YHVH. How many kings (besides Saul, David and Solomon) can the average person name? Who knows Asa, Jehoshaphat, Ahaziah, Yoram? Instead of political authority, the central biblical figures in this era are the prophets. Contrast the little known kings with our familiarity with Elijah, Isaiah, Amos. YHVH's authority rests with those who speak with His voice. Kings, Temples, even the land do not guarantee fulfilling His destiny. The Bible focuses its attention from secular leaders and political power to a new kind of religious voice.

In the words of archaeologist, Avner Goren,
"God relates to us on two levels: the level of faith and belief, and the level of nationality and being a people. As a nation, you need land. But as a religion, you do not. ... Moses is the most central figure of the religion, even though he never sets foot on the land. David and Solomon are the greatest leaders of the nation, but they are moral degenerates and disappointments to the Almighty. The lesson of the second half of the Bible is that physical land, political power, even the Temple, are not the ends for YHVH's people. Following His Torah is the goal."
Israel Mattuck would agree: "In the ancient world a 'nation' comprised a religion, political unity and often common descent. For the Prophets, religion had the central place in the Hebrew nation. All their thought about Israel has to be understood in the light of their belief that it was a people of religion."

Although we mourn the destruction of the Temple, and our people's exile to Babylon, it was there, with the prophets, that the tribal and cultic practices of a small band of Israelites were transformed into the universal and ethical beliefs of the Jewish religion, and what we would call Judaism was born. Zechariah's final image is the menorah flanked by two olive trees (now Israel's official emblem). Like the eternal flame, it is a symbol of the Jewish people's faith that has endured.

Shabbat Shalom

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