Haftarah Parshat Miketz
November 30, 2013
27 Kislev 5774
This special haftarah for Shabbat Hanukkah relates a prophecy concerning Joshua the High Priest, who served as high priest after the return from Babylonian exile. He is pictured standing before an angel in a celestial courtroom with Satan standing at his right side serving as his prosecutor. God defends Joshua against the charges of Satan and acquits him, describing him in these words: The Lord rebuke you, O Satan, may the Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you? For this is a brand plucked from the fire (ud mutzal me’eish).” (3:3) Joshua’s sins and the reason for describing him as a “brand plucked from the fire” are left unstated.
Targum Yonathan, the Jewish Aramaic translation of the Prophets, states that Joshua’s sin was that his sons, who were also priests, married women inappropriate to the priesthood. This interpretation took hold both amongst the sages of the Talmudic period on through the Middle Ages. Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, master of the plain meaning of the text, describes Joshua as one undeserving of this harsh treatment since he “was plucked out of the exile”.
The following midrash relates a much more “colorful” interpretation to these questions. The prophet Jeremiah relates the story of two false prophets, Ahab ben Kolaiah and Zedekiah ben Maaseiah who used their status to commit adultery. As a consequence of these sins, these men were handed over to Nebuchadnezzar for punishment. (See Jeremiah 29:21-23). For some reason, the sages saw fit to use their story to explore the fate of Joshua the High Priest. (I must note here that when the sages interpret midrashically, they do not see themselves bound to the restraints of historical reality.)
Rabbi Eleazar, son of Rabbi Yose Hagalili says: ‘Israel said before the Holy One Blessed be He, Master of the Universe, if we repent who will testify for us.’ God replied to them: ‘If when you do something bad I testify against you, if you do something good I won’t testify for you?’ What did Ahab and Zedekiah do? One of them would go to a woman and say to her: ‘I have seen in my prophecy that my friend will come to you and together you will bring forth a prophet in Israel.’ This one said thus for that one and that one for this one. They attempted this rouse on the wife of Nebuchadnezzar. She said: ‘I cannot do such a thing without consulting with my husband.’ After she consulted with her husband, he asked: ‘Is such a thing possible? The God of that people despises such behavior. Rather I will test them like I tested Daniel’s friends (by fire) If they are saved, fine, and if not, they are false prophets.’ What did he do? He put them in bronze roasting pot filled with holes and set a fire under them. When they saw that they were in trouble, they implicated Joshua ben Yehotzadak the High Priest with them. They thought that perhaps his merits would save them. What did God do? They were burnt but Joshua was saved. This explains why Joshua is described as a “brand plucked from the fire”. (Adapted from Pesikta deRav Kahana, Mandelbaum edition, pp. 372-4)
The point of the story, of course, is to show how God “testified” against the wicked and “saved” the innocent “with his clothing slightly scorched”. It also comes to rail against corrupt religious leaders and to remind them that there will be comeuppance. Still, for us, it is important to note that sometimes there are trials in life, even for the righteous like Joshua. Zechariah’s prophecy comes to tell us that one must have faith and courage for ultimately the “brand will be plucked from the fire”. Light will ultimately make its way through the darkness.
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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