Haftarah Parshat Beha’alotecha
June 10, 2017 / 16 Sivan 5777
Zechariah is a prophet who yearns for the universal recognition of God. He is well aware that the world is not perfect and that the situation as it is does not provide the signs and wonders which might bring about the realization of God’s rule in the world. In his vision, he prophesizes the day when this might happen: “Be silent, all flesh, before the Lord! For He is aroused (ne’or) from His holy habitation.” (2:17)
The word “ne’or” derives the verb root “ayin vav reish” meaning “to wake up” or “to rise up”. What will wake God up, as it were, that will be recognized by all? The consensus among the medieval commentators is that God will arise to save Israel and bring justice to its enemies. In other words, God’s recognition is conditional on His saving His people from their enemies.
The sages were well aware that people call upon God in times of trouble and that their prayers are only sometimes answered. The following midrash makes this quite clear. According to this midrash even King David did not always have God’s ear: “Rabbi Pinhas said: Five times, David attempted to cause the Holy One Blessed be He to rise up in the book of Psalms: 1. ‘Rise O Lord! Go forth to meet him. Bring him down. Rescue me from the wicked with your sword’ (17:13); 2. ‘Rise up and save me, My God’ (3:8); 3. ‘Rise up in Your anger’ (7:7); 4. ‘Rise up Lord, raise Your hand, do not forget’ (10:12); 5. ‘Rise up, Lord, let not men have power’ (9:20). The Holy One Blessed be He said to David: ‘My son, even if you try to cause Me to rise up any number of times, I will not rise up. When will I rise up? When you see the poor robbed and the impoverished groaning’, as it is written: ‘Because of the groans of the plundered poor and needy’ (12:6). Rabbi Shimon bar Yonah said [regarding the community of Israel and Jerusalem]: ‘Now I will rise up’ – All the while that she (Israel) mourns, wallowing in ashes, as it were: ‘Arise, shake off the dust, sit [on your throne], Jerusalem’ – at that time: ‘Be silent, all flesh, before the Lord for He is roused from His holy habitation.’ (Zechariah 2:17)” (Bereishit Rabba 75:1 Theodore Albeck ed. p. 877-8)
What interests me most in this midrash is the debate over what does grab God’s attention. According to Rabbi Pinhas, God is aroused by injustice to the poor. Rabbi Shimon ben Yonah, on the other hand, postures from the verse from our haftarah that only Israel’s welfare concerns God. The conjectures of these two sages are fascinating in that they foreshadow contemporary debates over what should be our concerns – should our concerns be universal or particular? This debate allows us to ponder the truth of both positions. The bigger task is negotiating between them.