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Haftarah for Shabbat Hanukkah: Lighting the World by Gidon Rothstein

December 1, 2010 by  
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Zachariah, 2:14-4:7

It seems worth wondering why God decided Hanukkah needed a component of lights, based on the miracle of the cruse of oil.  The essential story of the holiday, after all, could have happened without that, with just the miracle of the military victory followed by the cleansing of the Temple and the restoration of the service there.

Even if we assume that God wanted to give some kind of open miracle, there is no obvious reason it had to center on oil or the Menorah.  We could easily imagine that when cleaning the Temple, the Hasmoneans found that the Syrian Greeks had defiled or blemished all the animals for sacrifice, with some miracle then providing the needed animals, producing a very similar holiday, but with a slightly different character. 

Of course, one simple response is that that’s just not what happened; when the non-Jews defiled the Temple, they went after the oil for reasons of their own, and the miracle simply responded to the facts on the ground.  Still, considering just how central the oil and lights have become to our experience of the holiday, this aspect of it seems to bear a little more thought.

That is particularly true given that tradition chose a section of Zecharyah that prominently features a Menorah for this week’s haftarah.  Rather than dovetailing with our menorahs, though, Zecharyah is told that the Menorah he sees in his vision is to tell the world that God’s Spirit, not might and strength, are what lead to conquest.  Zecharyah’s Menorah, in other words, relates as much to the military victory of Hanukkah as to the miracle of the oil lasting eight days.

Following God, The Point of It All

To better understand the role of the menorah in the haftarah, we should notice that the idea of God’s Spirit links back to the earlier verses of the selection, which had given different examples of recognizing the necessity of following God.  In the beginning, Jerusalem is told she’ll be able to finally and fully rejoice (celebrate her redemption) when God resides in the city, and many nations are gathered to her.  The marker of the complete redemption, then, is succeeding at bringing the whole world to commit to serving God, a commitment that will apparently come from the connection between God and the Jewish people.

The next part of the haftarah tells of Joshua the High Priest and his “dirty” clothing, understood by the commentators to symbolize flaws in his service of God, either his own or his descendants.  The persistence of flaws in one’s behavior or attitude seems to stem from underlying failings in one’s absorption of the belief in God, of God’s Spirit pervading that person.  Just like we don’t test gravity, or have a problematic relationship with it, those who fully know of God’s Spirit have no issue with it.

The solution advanced in the haftarah makes the same point, since Joshua is clothed in new, clean garments, and then reminded that if he follows God’s ways and paths, his family will all be able to continue serving God in the Temple.  Involvement with and acceptance of God’s Spirit are the key components of success.

The Menorah as Symbol of God’s Spirit

What we have, then, is the realization that the point of the menorah in the haftarah—and then, perhaps, the reason it became so central to our observance of the holiday—is that it stresses the focus on God’s Spirit.  What we haven’t discussed is why God chose that symbol to reveal to Zecharyah.

 While many have offered answers, I think the issue of the absolute speed of light offers another possibility.  In brief, most speeds are relative.  If I shoot an arrow at 50 miles per hour, and it goes past a car traveling at 30 miles an hour (interesting fact I heard this week: if a car hits a person while going 40mph, there’s a 70% chance the person will die; but if the car hits that person going 30, there’s an 80% chance of survival), people in the car will see the arrow as going by at 20 miles an hour.

A famous scientific experiment of the late 1800s, Michaelson-Morley, showed that that is not true of light, which always travels at the same speed regardless of the placement or speed of the observer.  That becomes especially interesting when we remember that Einstein built off this insight in his theory of special relativity, which argued that all the rest of space and time is relative.  The only Absolute, in Einstein’s physical world, was light.

A Partial Absolute the Symbol for the True Absolute

That nugget of scientific information melds nicely with the Torah’s report that creation began with God saying “יהי אור, let there be light.”  We are so accustomed to it that we may not often enough stop to wonder why light was chosen as the first reported piece of creation, when Heaven and Earth would have been a simpler and clearer choice.  If we believe that the Torah’s reports about Creation reflect what happened, at least somewhat, light seems to be the essential “stuff” of the universe.

One last fact, and then the point will be made.  Ancient and medieval thinkers struggled with how a completely Other God could create anything physical and came up with the idea of the creation of a כבוד נברא, a Created Glory, a being (an angel) extremely similar to God, but one significant step closer to the physical, in that it, too, was a created rather than Absolute Being; that being led to another, and another, and so on, until we got a world.

If, in that chain, light is the first physical substance, it would make sense that it contains a Godly element the rest of the physical world does not.  Its speed being absolute would be one such element, as, perhaps, would be its acting in some ways as a particle and some as a wave.

All of which suggests that perhaps it was no accident that the holiday unfolded in such a way as to make light central to the rededication of the Temple, and to our yearly commemoration of the events.  The light of the Chanukkah candles, and of Zecharyah’s menorah, blaze with the light of God, the light of rededicating ourselves to absorbing and involving ourselves with God’s Spirit.  Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanukkah.

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