Haftarah Parshat Vayeshev
November 30, 2002
The most obvious connection between this week’s haftarah and the festival of Hanukah is Zechariah’s vision of the golden menorah described at the end of the haftarah. There is however a more subtle connection. Zechariah’s vision in the third chapter concerns the “kohen hagadol” – the high priest, Joshua, who stood accused by Hasatan (the Adversary) of certain unknown offenses which should have disqualified him for office. God rebukes the Satan and reaffirms Joshua’s legitimacy. At the end of this vision, the angel of the Lord foreshadows the coming of a divinely sent messenger: “hatzemach -the branch”. Joshua is then presented with an even more obscure vision: “For mark well this stone which I place before Joshua, a single stone with seven eyes. I will execute its engravings – declares the Lord of Hosts – and I will remove that country’s guilt in a single day.” (Zechariah 3:9) This purifying act will, in turn, lead to the familiar utopian vision in the next verse: “On that day – declares the Lord of Hosts – you will be inviting each other to the shade of vine and fig trees.” (verse 10)
Medieval commentators have consistently linked these visions to historical figures and events from the period of Zechariah. Rashi associates the Satan’s criticism of Joshua with the intermarriage of his sons to non-Jewish women and God’s acceptance of Joshua to his rectification of this situation. The vision of the stone is understood to refer to the halting of the rebuilding of the Temple. The seven eyes, according to Rashi, refers to God’s defense of the building of the Temple against those who stood in the way of its reconstruction. Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra, the 11th century Spanish exegete, lent to these visions geopolitical significance. He identifies the Satan with Sanballat, the Persian governor, who delayed the rebuilding of the Temple. God’s rehabilitation of Joshua represents God’s removing the impediments to the rebuilding of the Temple. The seven eyed stone represents the plumbing stone used in the process of building the Temple.
Rabbi Isaac Abrabanel, the 15-16th century Bible interpreter and statesman, rejects these earlier interpretations. He asserts that, on historical grounds, the association of these visions with contemporaneous events is untenable since, according to his thinking, Joshua the high priest, was already dead. Instead he suggests that Joshua symbolically represents his descendent, Mattathias, the Hasmonean of the Hanukkah story. As priests, Mattathias’ family took upon itself the restoration of the Temple after the Greeks had contaminated it. The Satan, according to Abrabanel’s retelling of this vision, represents the Greek enemy. Joshua’s sin symbolically represents what for Abrabanel was an unconscionable sin, the combining of the roles of high priest and king. The stone with the seven eyes represents the rebuilt Temple which, under God’s protection, will be without sinners, so that the ideal condition found in the last verse will come to pass.
It is noteworthy that Abrabanel, the statesman, noted the unsavory possibilities which might arise from the admixture of state and religion. He knew this all too well from his experiences during the Inquisition in Ferdinand and Isabella’s Spain. This offers an important message during the Hanukkah season for the continued health of both religion and state.