Parasha / E-Letter

Parashat Mikeitz: Some Hanukkah Thoughts on “Not by Might, Not by Power”

1 Comment 13 December 2017

In this week’s dvar Torah, Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom considers the words of the prophet Zachariah, read in synagogue each year on Shabbat Hanukkah.

Children returning home to Aida Camp (Bethlehem) from school, with the Israeli separation barrier in the background.By Mrbrefast – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

By Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom

Tear gas is still smelled in Bethlehem and elsewhere, many of the wounded (one Israeli, dozens of Palestinians) are still hospitalized, and the graves of four people killed (in Gaza) are still fresh. Twice last year did we hear the words of the prophet Zachariah read as a haftarah in our synagogues (on Shabbat B’ha’alotcha, and Shabbat Hanukkah), and they’ll be read again this Shabbat, on the fourth candle of Hanukkah, barely a week after the 45th American president officially recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Some may thus find their faith in Israel’s path vindicated, while others may find it undermined; it behooves us to examine what Zachariah meant then, and what we can learn from it today.

1. The full verse (Zachariah 4:6) reads:

He [the angel] answered me, saying, “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might, not by power, but by my spirit, said the Lord of Hosts (Zeva’ot).”

The historical context is the last quarter of the 6th century before the common era, and Yehud (Judea) is ruled by the Persians, who have appointed Zerubbabel, a grandson of Jehoiachin, one of the last kings of Judah, as governor over the local Jewish community. The words “might” and “power” are a hendiadys, two words that combine to mean one thing, in this case, military might, which is being denied to Zerubbabel in favor of God’s spirit. Previously in the prophecy is Joshua, the high priest, being prepared to function in the Temple, whose rebuilding the Persians are allowing, while granting the Jewish province only partial independence.

2. By choosing this prophecy as the haftarah for Shabbat Hanukkah, the sages of late antiquity were likely prioritizing spirituality buttressed by ritual, and continuing the biblical tradition that was wary of godless military might. As powerfully expressed in Deuteronomy 8:

11 Take care lest you forget the Lord your God and fail to keep His commandments, His rules, and His laws, which I enjoin upon you today. 12 When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in, 13 and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, 14 beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Lord your God…17 and you say to yourselves, “My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.” 18 Remember that it is the Lord your God who gives you the power to get wealth, in fulfillment of the covenant that He made on oath with your fathers, as is still the case.

3. Older readers of this post may recall that one of the first activities of Rabbis for Human Rights was a public lighting of the Hanukkah candles on Dec. 2, 1988, during the dark days of the repression of the first Intifada by excessive military might. Since then, the mounting deaths of over ten thousand people (on both sides, but the overwhelming majority being Palestinian civilians), the wounding of more than hundred thousand Palestinians, the destruction of tens of thousands of Palestinian homes…the list of Palestinian human rights systematically violated is too long and too depressing to be brought here; with the Israeli populace more tolerant of unlawful and excessive use of force – witness the public demand to pardon El-or Azariah, the Israeli soldier who executed the neutralized and immobilized Abdel Fattah al-Sharif – and the increasingly wide berth given to the Israeli government by its chief ally, it is clear that the need for RHR is greater than ever, at the same time that our ability to fulfill our sacred calling is constantly dwindling. Some are calling for RHR to retreat to less controversial areas, but that would be a betrayal of our very raison d’etre.

 

4. Where the call for justice against the abuse of might and power is thankfully (and finally?) gaining strength is in the humbling of sexual transgressors. While removing the biggest violators of human dignity, especially when it comes to subjugation of entire populations is concerned, may be beyond us at this stage, Zachariah’s words have bearing on our behavior in our own households and places of work. Ever since the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem, and the putting off of its rebuilding to messianic times, our intimate quarters have been known as mikdash m’at (miniature temples). Hanukkah candles only have to burn for half an hour each night, but that’s enough time for each of us to review our behavior towards those over whom we might be tempted to wield godless power.

5. The haftarah begins (Zachariah 2:14) with the words,  “Shout for joy, fair Zion, for I have come to dwell in your midst, declares the Lord.” May we be worthy of God’s presence.

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom is a member of Rabbis for Human Rights

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1 comment

  1. Philip McFedries says:

    “The Almighty will not twist justice.” Job 34:10-15
    May you know the strength of the Almighty day by day as you raise the prophetic banner and call injustice by its name.


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