רָנִּ֥י וְשִׂמְחִ֖י בַּת־צִיּ֑וֹן כִּ֧י הִנְנִי־בָ֛א וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֥י בְתוֹכֵ֖ךְ נְאֻם־יְה
“Shout for joy, daughter of Zion! For behold, I come, and I will dwell within you, says Adonai.”
That’s the first line of the special haftarah reading for Shabbat Chanukah, Zechariah 2:14-4:7, which I chanted many years ago at my bat mitzvah.
I’ve remembered that opening line all these years. But there’s much in this haftarah from Zechariah that I didn’t remember. For instance, Zechariah’s vision of Joshua, the high priest, standing before God as though on trial, with השטן / ha-satan, “the Accuser,” there to accuse him. But God rebukes the accuser, says that Joshua is a “firebrand plucked from the fire,” and makes his dirty garments white as snow.
Then an angel wakes Zechariah and asks what he sees. Zechariah describes a vision of a golden menorah, mystically fed by a stream of flowing oil direct from two olive trees. Zechariah asks the angel what this means, and the angel tells him, “‘Not by might, and not by power, but by My spirit alone’ — so says the God of Hosts.”
The vision of the golden menorah may be why these verses are chanted on Shabbat Chanukah. They evoke the miracle: the oil that should not have been enough to keep the eternal flame kindled, but somehow it was enough. Or maybe the miracle is that our forebears took the leap of faith of lighting the eternal flame in the first place.
These verses evoke, too, our sages’ decision centuries ago not to include the story of guerilla warfare in our sacred scripture. The Books of Maccabees, which tell the tale of the insurgency against Antiochus, are not part of the Hebrew Bible. When we tell the story of Chanukah, we tell the story of the miracle — the oil, and the faith — not the story of insurgents fighting soldiers. “Not by might, and not by power, but by My spirit alone.”
What we have, what we are, is enough — even at times when we fear we don’t have enough to offer. Even when all we have are the tiny sparks of hope we nurture and carry in our own hearts. We read in Proverbs that “The candle of God is the soul of a human being.” Our souls are God’s candles. It’s our job to be the light of the world. So far, so good. But what do I make of that perplexing passage earlier in the haftarah, the vision of Joshua and ha-satan, the Accuser?
This year I read those verses as a parable about internal reality. I know what it’s like to hear the words of my inner accuser. That voice tells me that my mis-steps disqualify me from being the person I want to be. Who am I to claim to be a servant of the Most High when my garments are so shabby — when the life I try to weave is so riddled with mistakes, disappointments, inadequacies? That voice reminds me of all the good I intended to do in the world that I failed to do, the loved ones whose suffering I cannot alleviate, the problems I cannot fix.
But the Holy One of Blessing sees me otherwise. God sees me through loving eyes. God sees my good intentions, even when I don’t live up to them the way I wish I could. God sees my struggles and my griefs not as a sign that I am failing, but as the refining fire that burns away my illusions. God says to my inner accuser: this soul is a burning branch plucked from the fire of human circumstance, and her yearning to do better and be better is what enables her light to shine. God says to my inner accuser: see, I forgive this soul’s mis-steps, and I make the garment of her life as white as snow.
Each of us has that inner accuser… and each of us can experience redemption from that voice when we remember that we are seen also through loving eyes. If you believe in a God Who sees you, then those loving eyes are Divine. If you don’t believe in that kind of personalized deity, then those eyes may be those of someone in your life… or they may be your own eyes, when you take the leap of faith of seeing yourself the way you wish your dearest beloved could see you.
In Zechariah’s vision, Joshua’s garments become white as snow. Just so for all of us. When we do our own inner work to try to be better, our tradition teaches, we are forgiven. And the sorrows of the old year, the stains and smudges on our life’s “garment,” do not disqualify us from hoping for better in the year to come. On the contrary: it is precisely with awareness of our mistakes and our sorrows that we are called to hope for better — to kindle the light of hope even when reason would argue otherwise.
Our task is to let our light shine, and to trust in the One Who ensures that what we have, that what we are, is enough to meet whatever comes.
This is the d’var haftarah that Rabbi Rachel offered at CBI earlier today, on New Year’s Eve Day which is also Shabbat Chanukah which is also the anniversary of her bat mitzvah. (Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)