Monday, December 19, 2005

Vayeshev-Hanukkah (Haftarah)

This year (2001), due to an unusual calendrical configuration, the Shabbat of Hanukkah coincides with Vayeshev, while Parshat Miketz, which is almost always read on Shabbat Hanukkah, falls immediately after the end of this semi-holiday. As a result, the statutory haftarah for Vayeshev is not read, but is displaced by the haftarah for Hanukkah, whereas we do read the haftarah for Parshat Miketz—a rarity. (As befitting a year that served as the title for a science fiction movie, 2001 will be marked by several more halakhic oddities: its very first Shabbat will come at the end of a fast day—a rarity on Fridays; a three-day celebration of Purim; and Passover Eve, with the final eradication of hametz from our homes, will fall on Shabbat). In any event, as promised in our introduction, we shall discuss here both of these haftarot.

“You alone have I known of all the families of the earth”

The usual haftarah for Vayeshev, which will not be read this year, is taken from the second chapter of the prophet Amos (2:6-3:8), and is a classical example of prophetic chastisement of Israel. The book opens with a series of brief prophesies against various neighboring nations and city-states: “For three sins of Damascus / Gaza / Tyre / Edom / etc. … and for four I shall not turn back…” This section concludes with Judah, and then with Israel—and it is here that our haftarah begins. In a series of powerful images, the prophet decries the hypocrisy of the people for trampling upon the poor and afflicted, and then worshipping God in the Temple wearing garments taken in pledge from impoverished debtors, and drinking wine collected in penalty from those unfortunates who had defaulted on debts. He then points out that, despite the existence of prophets and Nazirites—mentioned here together as representing the cream of the people—these groups are not allowed to fulfill their mission in society (2:11-12).

The prophet Amos goes on to note the natural nature of prophecy: just as a lion does not roar unless he has prey, nor a bird fall into a trap unless it has been set, so too the prophet does not speak unless God has spoken; and if God has indeed spoken, “who shall not prophesy?!” (4:4-8). Interestingly, he presumes the existence of at least certain people with a receptivity to the divine word—but this was evidently assumed as axiomatic in that time and place.

A bit earlier Amos makes a significant theological statement about the nature of Israel’s chosenness. He begins, “You alone have I known of all the families of the earth” (3:2). Israel alone has enjoyed knowledge of God: an intimate, experiential closeness, described with the same verb as used of intimacy between man and woman. But, immediately thereafter, he continues by saying that no special privilege is attached to this being known, but that “therefore I shall visit upon you all your iniquities.” The covenant and the higher level of religious consciousness that goes with it only implies a heightened responsibility and a stricter ethical standard.

I remember, as a young man, being struck by the statement of a neighbor—a non-observant Jew, a very decent person, a highly cultured Jew from Austria who had fed to America after the Anschluss. He said that Jews were somehow “better” than other people—more intelligent, more refined, more sensitive, more cultured: a sentiment shared by many secular Jews of his generation. With all due respect to the memory of this fine man, I found something disturbing in this secular sense of superiority and chosenness. Such an attitude completely overlooked the second half of Amos’s dictum; moreover, coupled with the Jewish victim complex, it could easily be used to excuse unethical behavior on the part of Jews—a feeling that “God is on our side.” I leave it to the reader to reflect on the dangers of applying such an attitude to our present situation, fraught with ambiguities and complexities as it is.

“Sing and Rejoice o Daughter of Zion”

The haftarah read this week for the Shabbat of Hanukkah (also read for Beha’alotkha), is taken from the Book of Zechariah, 2:14-4:7—one of the last three of the biblical prophets. Superficially, this chapter was chosen for Hanukkah because of the vision of a pure golden menorah in the final section (4:2-7). However, on a deeper level, there is an inner connection between the moving portrayal of national revival at the beginning of the Second Temple and the situation of de facto national and religious renascence celebrated by Hanukkah. Zechariah, Haggai and Malachi, the threesome who represented “the end of prophesy,” addressed themselves to the small group of people who returned to the homeland following the Babylonian exile, the generation of the Return to Zion, ca. 516 BCE. This Return included the restoration of the monarchy and of priesthood, mentioned here by Zechariah. It is true that the story of the Hasmoneans, commemorated by Hanukkah, did not involve immigration or return from geographical exile; nevertheless, the situation prevailing under the Seleucid overlords, in which there was neither national autonomy nor the freedom to carry out either Temple worship or other aspects of the Torah, must have felt very much like a form of exile on ones own soil.

The central chapter describes Joshua, the high priest, as a “brand plucked from the fire.” His filthy clothes are removed, and he is then dressed with rich apparel and a clean turban on his head (3:2-5; We can imagine in this role, say, a Hasidic Holocaust survivor, casting off his prison clothes, growing back his beard and payot, and once gain wearing “real” Shabbat clothes.)

There is some difficulty in the interpretation of the last four or five verses. The prophet is shown a golden menorah (candelabrum) with a great bowl of oil on its top, and with seven lamps; there are two olive trees on its two sides, dripping oil directly into the bowl continuously. The prophet is asked by the angel if he knows what these are, and receives the rather cryptic answer: “not by power and not by force, but by my Spirit, says the Lord” (4:6). But further on, after the point at which our haftarah ends, the angel gives a fuller answer: the seven lamps are the “eyes of the Lord,“ which look throughout the whole earth, and the two olive trees are the “two anointed ones who stand by the Lord” (4:14)—that is, Joshua and Zerubbabel, the priesthood and monarchy, symbols of the sacred and the temporal realm, which here enjoy equal and balanced status.


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