Friday, December 15, 2017

Haftarat Shabbat Chanukah: Balancing Light and light

Happy Chanukah, everyone! I hope that you are all finding - in the midst of this darkest season of the year - that the glowing candles of the Menorah, along with the shimmering Christmas decorations from houses all around, are bringing some light and some warmth into your lives. The Menorah
(or Chanukiah) always strikes me as one of our most powerful Jewish symbols. It carries great historical meaning; both for our people throughout the millenia, but also for many of us who have personal, warm, glowing family memories of lighting the Menorah in years (or decades) past. It is SO ubiquitous, in fact, and so tied up with Chanukah and/or the Ancient Temple in Jerusalem, that we rarely (if ever) stop and question what the Menorah actually means! What does it represent, with its many branches and little cups of oil? If you don't know the answer, don't feel bad. One of the first people ever to be presented with this image, 2,500 years ago, didn't get it either.

Though we read a regular Torah portion this Shabbat, Mikeitz, and continue the story of Joseph in Egypt, we add a short, final reading (maftir) from a different part of the Torah. This addition relates specifically to the holiday, to Chanukah, and then we continue with a Haftarah just for Chanukah as well. This may seem curious to
you, because the entire Torah - and indeed our Haftarah - are MUCH older than the holiday we're celebrating! Like hundreds and hundreds of years older!! But the rabbis found episodes in the Torah AND in the later prophetic writings that talked about OTHER dedications or rededications of holy spaces, and connected those ceremonies to the more modern Festival of Lights. Pretty crafty, those rabbis... So our Haftarah for Chanukah comes from the prophet Zechariah, who preached to the people around 530 BCE, when the Persian Empire conquered the Babylonian Empire, and allowed all the various groups enslaved by the Babylonians to return to their homes. Fifty years after their Temple had been destroyed, the Jews found themselves back in Jerusalem, planning a big reconstruction project! Enter Zechariah.

In his prophetic proclamations, Zechariah tells the people that God will return to Zion. He talks about the purification and investiture of the High Priests, and then shares a vision of a magnificent lampstand, a Menorah.
In chapter four, an angel approaches Zechariah and asks him what he sees. Zechariah responds: "I see a lampstand all of gold... the lamps on it are seven in numbers, and the lamps above it have seven pipes" (v. 2). The angel then asks him, "Do you not know what those things mean?" And Zechariah responds, "No, my lord." (6) I kind of find it comforting that even a Biblical prophet was puzzled by this. Indeed, even when we were first introduced to the Menorah, back in Exodus 25:31-40, the people were given instructions on HOW to build it, but not WHY! Zechariah's angelic buddy finally offers an explanation. The seven arms of the Menorah represent "the eyes of Adonai, ranging over the whole earth" (10), and commentators also connect the branches to the seven days of Creation; God's first gift to our planet.

I like those images, but I want to add another thought to it. Every year, we - humans - have to light the Menorah. It's not like the Eternal Light in our sanctuaries, burning perpetually. When Chanukah returns, year after year, we have to actively light the candles and bring God's Presence into our lives. This is further strengthened
by the miracles of our holiday, which also embody Divine-human partnership. Whether you focus on the military victory of the Maccabees over the Assyrian-Greeks, or the rededication of the Temple and the conservation of oil; when we work hand-in-(anthropomorphized) "hand" with God, amazing things happen! Even now, when something great occurs on Chanukah, people are inclined to say, "It's a Chanukah miracle!" I know it's a little tongue-in-cheek, but I think there's actually a serious lesson in there too. The message of Chanukah is the balancing act between self-reliance and faith in God. We need some of each. If we have zero faith, our actions often feel devoid of meaning. But if we leave everything up to God, and practice blind faith, we may ignore our own moral compass and allow zealotry to corrupt everything.

Chanukah reminds us to walk that middle line. As we light the candles, let us remember to maintain that vital balance. Bring God's light into our lives and our homes... and let our own light shine just as bright and vibrant as well. Chag Urim Sameach - Happy Festival of Lights!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Maor X on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of  on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Djampa on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of fruity monkey on Flickr

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