Haftarah Parshat Behaalotecha
June 9, 2012
19 Sivan 5772
Zechariah’s visions are fantastic and mind boggling. In one of the visions found in this week’s haftarah, Joshua the high priest is transported to the Divine courtroom where one agent is appointed to defend him while another angel, the Satan, is charged with prosecuting him for his sins and/or failings. In his defense argument, the defending angel pleads for mercy for his client, arguing that his client is an “ood mutzal may’eish – a brand plucked from the fire” (3:2). The text of the story assumes that the reader understands this reference, but its plain meaning has been lost.
One Talmudic reference suggests that this verse might refer to the destruction of the First Temple: “Said Rabbi Yochanan: ‘Eighty thousand priests fled into the fireplaces of the Temple and all of them were burnt up, and of all of them only Joshua son of Yotzadak the high priest remained’, as it is written: ‘is not this man a brand plucked from the fire’.” (Jerusalem Talmud Taanit 4:8 69b)
The Babylonian Talmud offers a more fantastic explanation. It places Joshua, the high priest, in a story about two false prophets mentioned in Jeremiah who were about to be punished by Nebuchadnezzar for immoral behavior (See Jeremiah 29:22-3): “’Because they have done vile things in Israel, having committed adultery with their neighbors\’ wives etc.’ What did they do? They went to Nebuchadnezzar\’s daughter. Ahab said to her, \’Thus said God, “Have relations with Zedekiah;\”\’ while Zedekiah said to her, \’Thus said God, \”Surrender yourself to Ahab.\”\’ So she went and told her father, who said to her, \’The God of these (the Jews) hates immoral behavior: when they [again] approach you, send them to me.\’ So when they came to her, she referred them to him. \’Who told this to you?\’, the king asked them. \’The Holy One, blessed be He,\’ they replied. But I have enquired of Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, who informed me that [what you have asked of my daughter] is forbidden.\’ They answered, \’We, too, are prophets, just like them: God did not speak to them, he spoke to us.\’ \’Then I desire that you be tested, just as Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah were,\’ the king retorted. \’But they are three, while we are only two,\’ they protested. \’Then choose whomever you wish to accompany you,\’ the king said. \’Joshua the High Priest,\’ they answered, thinking, \’Let Joshua be brought, for his merit is great, that he may protect us.\’ So he was brought, and they were all thrown [into the furnace]. They were burned, but as for Joshua the High Priest, only his garments were singed, for it is said, ‘And he showed me Joshua the High Priest standing before the angel of the Lord’ (3:1); and it is written, ‘And the Lord said to Satan, the Lord rebuke you, Satan’ (3:2). He said to him, \’I know you are righteous, but why should the fire have affected you at all; [After all,] Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah were not affected.\’ \’They were three,\’ said he, \’but I am only one.\’ \’But,\’ the king replied, \’Abraham [too] was only one.\’ \’No wicked were with him, so the fire was not empowered [to do him any harm]; but here, I had wicked men with me, so the fire was enabled [to do its work],\’ Joshua retorted. People say, \’If there are two dry logs and one wet one, the former burn the latter.\’ (Adapted from Sanhedrin 93a)
This clearly anecdotal explanation of the description of Joshua as a “brand plucked from the fire” comes with a poignant message. Even those with “clean hands” get “singed” when they associate with less reputable sorts. This may be the price of living in the real world but it is still disquieting.
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.
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