April 10, 2024
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Parashat Vayeishev, Shabbat Chanukah

This year we observe the only Shabbat Chanukah on Parashat Vayeishev and not Parshat Miketz—something that occurs only 10% of the time. Nonetheless, the haftarah remains as on every Shabbat Chanukah, the one taken from Sefer Zecharya and read on Shabbat Chanukah and on Shabbat Parshat Beha’alotcha. Despite our familiarity with the perek itself, few of us understand the chapter in totality, because, in truth, it is a very difficult one to comprehend. In fact, I believe that the primary purpose of each haftarah is different—with each reading focusing on a different teaching.

Rav Moshe Lichtenstein provides us with a key to understanding the selection by describing the mood and temperament of the people at that time. The navi Zecharya spoke to those Judeans who had returned from the Babylonian exile and faced tremendous challenges in rebuilding their lives. Beyond the necessary efforts to restore their homes and their very way of life, they were discouraged by their belief that the destruction of the first Beit Hamikdash and their subsequent exile was proof that Hashem had cast them away from Him—thereby destroying any hope for their forgiveness. Additionally, they faced those surrounding nations who continued to provoke both Israel and their God.

For this reason, the haftarah’s opening pesukim are directed toward these nations who provoked Israel with the claim that Hashem had abandoned and forsaken them. It is in these verses (2: 14-17) that the navi emphasizes how Israel should rejoice for Hashem had, once again, returned to Yerushalayim and to His people. He doesn’t simply repeat the Torah’s promise that Hashem will “dwell in your midst” but, more importantly, he tells the surrounding nations they would know that Hashem has returned and renewed His selection of Yerushalayim.

In the second part of the haftarah, Zecharya’s primary interest is in Israel itself and in their special relationship with God—a relationship which remained even after the exile. That lesson is taught through the prophecy addressed to Yehoshua, the Kohen Gadol, and through Hashem’s message to Zerubavel, the scion of the Davidic dynasty and the political leader of the returnees. The message to Yehoshua addresses Israel’s fear that they could not be truly redeemed since they were sinful and undeserving of redemption. The vision of Yehoshua standing with the angel and before the “Satan” mirrors the ongoing “debate” over the possibility of geula. The Satan stands as the prosecutor, opposing Israel’s redemption due to their sinfulness, while the angel—representing God Himself—defends Israel and reprimands Satan for daring to attack the few who had just survived a conflagration (“ud mutzal me’eish”). In doing so, God teaches Yehoshua and His nation that the promised redemption will indeed arrive despite the sins, in light of the suffering Israel had endured.

The vision granted to Zerubavel—the Governor of Yehuda—is the familiar one that closes the haftarah. It a vision of the seven-branched menorah that was meant to be a message to Zerubavel and, consequently, to the nation itself, that the political leadership must subordinate itself to the spiritual leadership, for, as the closing words teach us: “lo v’chayil v’lo v’choach-ki im b’ruchi…, Israel’s strength is not to be found in physical strength but in their very spiritual power.”

Once we comprehend the meaning of Zecharya’s visions, we better appreciate Chazal’s choice for this Chanukah reading. The parallels between Zecharya’s generation and that of the Chashmonaim some years later, are powerful. The Judeans of the Chanukah era, a time of the post-defilement of the Beit Mikdash, miraculously survived their struggle against the Syrian/Greeks and, like their brethren before them, faced the challenge of restoring proper Temple worship of Hashem. It was most tempting for future generations to see the remarkable military success of the Maccabim as the primary reason for the miracle, so our rabbis established the haftarah of the menorah to remind them of the message given to Zerubavel:: “lo v’chayil v’lo v’choach-ki im b’ruchi…”

And the navi’s message should echo in our ears today because I believe that Hashem’s condemnation of the Satan presents us with challenges: How could anyone condemn the “ud mutzal me’esh,” the few who survived the conflagration? How could any sensitive person criticize the generation of survivors that rebuilt lives and a homeland after experiencing the worst Holocaust in the history of mankind? And how can any person denounce the one Jewish State that has struggled for 75 years against multiple attempts of their neighbors to annihilate it … and to do so while building a moral and just country? And how can any human being defend the slaughter of innocents, babies and elderly, descendants of that “ud mutzal me’esh”?

Who? Only a Satan!

And so if we see Zecharya’s visions as a message for us as well, we might understand why our rabbis made sure it would be read twice each year. Maybe, in that way, more will understand the hidden messages of Chanukah—and life!


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

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