May 21, 2024
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[Although this Shabbat is also Rosh Chodesh Tevet, the haftarah’s theme connects to the holiday of Chanukah for, as we have noted in earlier articles, the haftarah reading is meant to tie into the maftir reading that deals with chanukat hamizbe’ach.]

The special haftarah reading for Chanukah is taken from the navi Zecharya and is well-known to many as it is read as the haftarah reading for Parshat Behaalotecha as well as for Shabbat Chanukah. The prophetic vision that closes the haftarah is known as “Neirot Zecharya,” a reading that, like the maftir, connects to the Chanukah theme, describing as it does the navi’s description of a golden Menorah.

It is interesting to note that Sefer Zecharya is both a unique and a challenging book. It is a challenging book because it is filled with the prophet’s visions whose messages are often difficult to decipher, and it is a unique sefer in that it is one of only three prophetic works that contain the prophecies delivered to the nation during the Bayit Sheni era (the books of Chaggai and Malachi being the other two). But its uniqueness can also be seen in its very content. Sefer Zecharya is a book of comforting words and encouraging messages. Very little of the book is made up of criticisms and condemnations of Israel, something that is common in almost every other work in Nevi’im Acharonim.

And there is a very good reason for that uniqueness.

The navi Zecharya spoke to “Shavei Tzion,” those Jews who returned to their land after spending 50 years in the Babylonian exile. They were but a small minority who heeded the proclamation of Koresh, as the bulk of the Jewish people chose to remain in the Diaspora. Led by Zerubavel and by the kohen gadol, Yehoshua, they arrived in Yerushalayim, poor and destitute, to face the numerous challenges that awaited them. They had to undertake the difficult (and expensive) task of rebuilding the Beit Hamikdash, they had to protect themselves from the neighbors who had taken over the lands surrounding Jerusalem, they were urged by their prophets to remove any foreign wives they had taken and to withstand the threats made by the foreign families of those wives. It was not a simple time.

Hashem knew well that this courageous minority was neither saintly nor sinless. But He also knew that they were the ones who suffered exile, those who lived among strangers and who longed to return home. It was not the time for censure or condemnation. In order to face the challenges and conquer them, this small and weak community needed the encouragement that only God could give them. And so we read the promise of Hashem that He will speak comforting words to them (1:13) and that He would return to Yerushalayim in kindness and rebuild the Beit Hamikdash (1:16). He shows the navi visions of how Jerusalem would grow beyond her borders with multitudes living there (2:8) and, as our haftarah begins, He reassures the nation that masses of people will yet return and God will grant them their portion in the Holy Land.

The final vision included in our haftarah, the vision of the Menorah, addresses the small remnant that had returned and that cannot imagine how their small and weak group could ever succeed in meeting the many challenges that faced them. It is a message that reflects the story of Chanukah as well, since the relatively few Maccabbim had to face the powerful Syrian/Greek forces and defeat them. And the theme of “lo v’chayil v’lo v’choach ki im b’ruchi” is symbolized by the seven-flamed Menorah that, as hinted to in the text itself (4:10), represented the “eyes” of God that are all-seeing and stand behind the people of Israel to support them in their task.

This vision of a Second Temple-prophet speaks clearly to me. It speaks to a generation that had suffered so in the Diaspora, and that returned to build their land when the majority did not, and that faced the challenge of defending themselves from hostile neighbors who had settled in their promised land. It is the words of the navi of how Hashem condemns the accuser (“satan”) who looks to criticize these people and tells him “yig’ar b’cha Hashem,” Hashem denounces you who choose to disparage these people; after all, “halo zeh ud mutzal me’esh,” they are SURVIVORS!!! They have survived the conflagration; they have survived the destruction; they have survived the holocaust!!! How DARE you condemn them??!!

Don’t you hear this message too?

There are times for criticism and times for encouragement. We dare not condemn those who have chosen to return and rebuild. We must encourage and comfort. And we must help.

Can’t you hear Zecharya’s words speaking to us today?

I certainly do.


Rabbi Neil Winkler is the rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel Fort Lee and now lives in Israel.

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