Haftarah Parashat Beha’alotekha
June 2, 2018 | 19 Sivan 5778
Zechariah was a prophet of visions. Angels presented him with symbolic images, asking him to interpret them. Generally, he was baffled by the vision’s significance until the angel explained it to him. In the last of the visions in this week’s haftarah, Zechariah is symbolically awakened by an angel: “The angel who talked with me came back and woke me as a man is woken from sleep. He said to me: ‘What do you see?’ And I answered: ‘I see a menorah all of gold, with a bowl above it. The lamps on it are seven in number, and the bowls above it have seven pipes; and by it are two olive trees, one on the right of the bowl and one on the left.’ I, in turn, asked the angel who talked with me: ‘What do these things mean, my lord?’ ‘Do you not know what these things mean?’ asked the angel who talked with me; and I said: ‘No, my lord.’ Then he explained to me as follows: ‘This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit’ said the Lord of Hosts.'” (4:2-6)
Zechariah’s generation was confronted by a quandary. They had just returned from the Babylonian exile after seventy years. Life was rough. There were great debates over the community’s priorities and there was a lot of insecurity. Rabbi Yosef Kara, a younger contemporary of Rashi (12th century France), clues us in on what this vision may be about: “Initially when the work of rebuilding the Temple had ceased, there was despair of [ever rebuilding it], since there were those who contended that it should not be rebuilt, [as we learn from Zechariah’s contemporary, the prophet] Haggai: ‘[Thus said the Lord of Hosts: There are people who say: The time has not come for the rebuilding of the House of the Lord.] And the word of the Lord through the prophet Haggai continued: Is it a time for you to dwell in your paneled houses, while this House lies in ruins?” (Haggai 1:3-4) The angel came to Zechariah to awaken us from our sleep, that we should no longer despair [rebuilding it]…” We learn from this that people were unsure about how to shape their future and where to turn for answers.
When things get tough, it is easy to become despondent and to sink into incapacitating despair. For Zechariah’s generation that meant that Shivat Zion (the return from exile) might never have rebuilt the Second Temple community. In our days, it could mean the Jewish communities of the diaspora succumbing to the forces that pull people away from Jewish faith and life. In Israel, it could mean being overwhelmed by all the naysayers who come to undermine the great Jewish experiment in controlling our own fate as a people.
The angel has an important message for those who would give in to despair and lose the optimism necessary to carry on: “Not by might, nor by power, but by My (God’s) spirit’ said the Lord of Hosts”. Faith in God will carry us through.
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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