December 15, 2001
The Ramban, the 13th century Spanish sage, distinguished between two types of miracles, “nes nistar” – “hidden miracles” and “nes nigleh” – “revealed miracles”. Hidden miracles are those where God’s role in the story is not readily recognizable. Rather, God’s hand is merely implicit in the plot of the story. The story of Purim, found in the book of Esther, represents this kind of miracle. “Revealed miracles” are those events where the supernatural is apparent. God’s splitting of the sea in the story of the redemption from Egypt is an example of this type of miracle. The story of Hanukah is a paradox. The miracle of the single cruse of pure olive oil, which miraculously fueled the menorah in the Temple for eight days, seems to represent an example of the revealed miracle, while the victorious battles of the Hashmonaim over the more powerful Syrian Greek armies seems to be of the hidden type.
Perhaps the most overlooked miracle of Hanukah for the religious Jew today happens on the level of individual redemption and renewal. The rabbis have seemingly distinguished this third type of miracle in their choice of the special haftarah for Hanukah. Zechariah recounts a prophetic vision of the trial of the high priest, Joshua, before the divine tribunal. Joshua, who was the high priest soon after the return from Babylonian exile, was confronted by Satan the accuser, for apparent wrongdoing. God defends Joshua, chastising Satan for castigating this returned exile. The sins of Joshua, whom God describes as “a brand plucked from the fire” (Zechariah 3:2), are unclear. He is described as being clothed in a “filthy garment” which seems to be symbolic of his fallen condition. What was his sin? According to Targum Jonathan, the seventh century Aramaic translation of the prophets, his sin was that he did not rebuke his sons for having taken foreign women as wives. Abraham Ibn Ezra, the 11th century Spanish commentator, proved that this opinion was historically incorrect. Mordechai Zar-Kavod, a modern commentator (Daat Mikra), has suggested that he was accused of either a flaw in his lineage or of having taught the Torah improperly.
What is more important though is that God allowed for Joshua’s renewal – “The latter [an angel] spoke up and said to his attendants, ‘Take the filthy garments off him!’ And he said to him: ‘See, I have removed your guilt from you, and you shall be clothed in priestly robes.’” (Verses 4-5) It is possible that the tradition recounts this story of Joshua on Hanukah, even though it happened generations before the events of the Hashmonaim, in order to teach us that God provides for human beings to be “miraculously” redeemed. No situation is beyond the scope of God’s redeeming power. The message of Hanukah is that there is no room for dispair. In each of us it is possible for the Divine light to inspire us to be living examples of this third type of Hanukah miracle.
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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