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Beha\’alothekha 5768

Parshat Beha\’alotcha
(Zechariah 2:14 – 4:7)
June 14, 2008
11 Sivan 5768

In the second prophecy of the haftarah, Joshua, the High Priest, is arraigned before the angel of God. On his right side stands the Satan, acting as the prosecuting attorney who has come to challenge the acts of Joshua: \”He (God) showed me Joshua, the High Priest, standing before the angel of the Lord, and the Accuser (Satan) standing at his right to accuse him.\” (3:1)

The significance of this prophecy rests, in part, on determining exactly who is \”Satan\” in this prophecy? Rabbi David Altschuler (18th century Galicia) reports what would seem to be the pshat or plain meaning when he identifies \”HaSatan\” as \”the prosecuting angel\”. (Metzudat David) Rashi seems to follow this line of reasoning. Targum Yonathan, the 7th century Aramaic translation to the Prophets, offers a slighty different nuance. He identifies \”HaSatan\” as the personification of the sin that Joshua has committed which now stands before God pleading against its perpetrator. God ultimately sides with Joshua, purifies him and sends him on to lead the people.

The rationalist school offers an alternative approach. Saadiah Gaon (9th century Egypt, Eretz Yisrael, Babylonia), one of the giants of our tradition, seems to be the first recorded voices of this school. He writes: \”With regard to \’HaSatan\’, this refers, in truth, to a person… like in the case of Joshua ben Yehotzadak: \’and the Accuser standing at the right side to accuse him\’ and it is possible that this refers to Rehum the commander and Shimshai the scribe (two heads of the Samaritan community which was offended when the Jews returned from Babylonian at the end of the first exile and complained to the Persian king). Scripture here records their advocacy against Joshua (the High Priest of the returning Jews)\”. (MePerushei Rabbi Saadiah Gaon, p. 230) Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra ((12th century Spain) also follows this line of thinking: \”HaSatan refers to the \’enemy\’, someone like Sanballat or those who troubled Judea by writing accusatory letters against Joshua since they did not want the Temple rebuilt.\”

Both Saadiah and Ibn Ezra place this prophecy within an historical context and assume that it is an allegorical interpretation of those events. Joshua, as one of the leaders of the Jews who have returned from Babylonia, is confronted by the Samaritans who are not interested in this return. The complaints against the Jews are brought before God (the letters against the Jews sent to the Persian king) and God ultimately sides with Joshua and the Temple is rebuilt.

These two very different interpretations of this passage offer us one of the blessings of Torah study. Each message is so pregnant with potential meaning and multifaceted. One offers a look into the Jewish soul, its purification by God and its return to its mission in life. The other offers a look at the struggles of the Jewish nation in the world of realpolitik where every breath causes reverberations.

About This Commentary

This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in  Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva.  He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

The United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem offers students of all backgrounds the skills for studying Jewish texts. We are a vibrant, open-minded egalitarian community of committed Jews who learn, practise and grow together. Our goal is to provide students the ability and desire to continue Jewish learning and practice throughout their lives.
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