December 20, 2003
The First Shabbat Of Hanukkah
Modern Jews have taken over the festival of Hanukkah and made it in their own image. It is not uncommon to hear an American Jew describe Hanukkah as the first known struggle for religious freedom – an appropriate title for a society proud of the freedoms offered by their adopted homeland. Israeli Jews, both religious and secular, celebrate Hanukkah as a heroic example of the Jewish struggle for national independence – a paradigm for our modern struggle to regain our homeland after it had wrested from our hands long ago. The question then must be asked: what was the message of Hanukkah for the rabbinic sages who lived in the formative period of the religious life of our people after the destruction of the Second Temple? This, of course, is not an easy question to answer because our data is relatively sparse. But, we have some indication from the haftarah which was chosen for the first Shabbat of Hanukkah.
The most obvious link between the haftarah and the festival of Hanukkah is found at its conclusion where the prophet Zechariah has a vision of a golden menorah (Zechariah 4:1-3), but the beginning of the haftarah is even more telling: “Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion, for, behold, I come and I will dwell in your midst (v’shachanti b’tocheich), said the Lord. And many nations shall join themselves to the Lord in that day, and shall be My people, and I will dwell in your midst.” (verse 2:14-15) It is striking that the rabbis chose the idea of ultimate reconciliation with God as the theme which opens this haftarah. It appears that what the rabbis yearned for in their thoughts about Hanukkah was the reestablishment of the kind of intimacy with God that is implied in the words – “I will dwell in your midst”.
That this ideal is foremost in the minds of the rabbis of the 3-4 century in the land of Israel is further dramatized in the following parable meant for Hanukkah: Rabbi Azariah in the name of Rabbi Simon said: “There was a king who became angry at a noble woman and drove her out and expelled her from his palace. After awhile he wanted to bring her back to the castle. She said: ‘Let him renew the earlier situation and then I will consider returning to the castle. So, too, in former times, the Holy One, blessed be He would receive the sacrificial offerings on high, as it is written: ‘And the Lord smelled the sweet odor [of the sacrifice]’ (Genesis 8:21) But now He [God] will accept them down below. (adapted from Pesikta deRav Kahana 1:1)
In this parable, the king obviously represents God and the matron, the people of Israel. The exile from the castle symbolizes Israel’s exile from either the land or the Temple which was caused by a falling out between the people and God. According to the parable, God ultimately cannot bear to be parted from His people and consequently invites them back. When this occurs, God not only renews His relationship with the people but recreates it with an intimacy which was previously lacking.
Against the backround of this parable we better understand the selection of this week’s haftarah. The rabbis celebrated Hanukkah as a time of reconciliation and intimacy with God. They yearned for a return to this intimacy and hoped that God would graciously provide it for them. Hanukkah for them symbolized this return. May we also be blessed with this Divine blessing during this Hanukkah season.