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The angel who spoke with me returned and woke me…He said to me: "What do you see?"
I said: "…There is a Menorah made entirely of gold… with its seven lamps upon it… and two olive trees are next to it."(Zachariah 4:1-3)
The Prophet Zechariah was a contemporary of Haggai. Both were active it the period between the return of 42,360 Jews to the Holy Land from Babylon under Cyrus of Persia's decree, and the building of the Second Temple. His prophesies in the second year of the reign of Darius I of Persia - around 520 BCE - would place him among the latter generation of Biblical prophets.
G-d's visions to Zechariah took place at a time when that community, in the process of resettling its much-devastated homeland, was becoming demoralized. Various factions in Persia succeeded in persuading Cyrus to rein in his encouragement of the Return, culminating in his decision to forbid the Israelites to reconstruct the Temple (Ezra 4:5,24), which held good until he was succeeded by the more benevolent Darius I.
Some eighteen years after their return, the Israelites had still made no move to rebuild the Temple. That date was seventy years after the Destruction of the First Temple - the final possible date for redemption (Daniel 9:2). At that time Darius had not given his royal assent, and there had been no sign from Heaven proclaiming the onset of the redemption. On the contrary, things seemed to be going from bad to worse. The Israelites were becoming more and more skeptical. As Haggai, Zechariah's contemporary, put it: "You have sown much, but you brought in little. You eat, but you are not satisfied. You drink, but you are not quenched. You clothe yourself, but no one is warmed. And the one who earns, earns in vain." (Haggai 1:6)
Zechariah, together with Haggai, encouraged the Israelites to rebuild the Temple without permission from Persia. Encouraged by their leaders, Zerubabel, and Joshua the High Priest, the people did as the prophet commanded. The Persian overseers, as expected, immediately reported them to the emperor, but Darius, for reasons not currently known, suddenly changed his mind. Not only did he allow them to continue to build the Temple, but also actually assisted by ordering those overseers to assist the Israelites in their sacred task - including supplying them with raw materials and animals for Temple offerings.
The Book of Zechariah has two distinct parts. The first eight chapters (which include this Haftara) prophesize, in the form of detailed visions, the restoration of Jerusalem, the rebuilding of the Temple, the purification of G-d's people, and the Messianic Age to come. The last six chapters contain a series of messages about the expected Messiah and the details of the final judgment.
On the Shabbat of Chanukah, the Haftara speaks of an earlier Chanukah: Zechariah's prophetic vision of the inauguration of Menorah (the seven-branched candelabrum) in the then future Second Temple. Joshua was the High Priest, Zerubabel was the leader of the nation, scion of the Davidic dynasty, and Zechariah was one of the prophets who conveyed this vision. The Haftara opens by looking ahead to the times when all the world will acknowledge Israel's primacy as G-d's chosen people under the leadership of the tribe of Judah, the tribe of David.
Then the Prophet turns to Joshua, who was the victim of the same sin that plagued much of the nation in the wake of the Babylonian Exile. According to Jewish tradition, his sons had married gentile women, and he had failed to chastise them. In his vision, Zechariah sees the Satan condemning Joshua for his shortcomings, which was symbolized by the filthy garments he was wearing in Zechariah's own vision. But G-d defends Joshua on the grounds that he is a firebrand rescued from the flames: he was immersed in the conflagration of the Exile's physical and spiritual destruction, and could not be fully blamed for the past. So the angel gives him a new start - he clothes him in the priestly garments - but warns him that henceforth he must obey all the commandments.
Afterwards, Zechariah's communication from G-d shows a vision - a Menorah - complete with a bowl containing oil, with tubes bringing oil to its seven lamps, and two olive trees to assure a constant supply of fuel. Its deeper meaning and symbolism (elaborated on below) have been a light to the Jewish nation ever since.
The text brings the Angel's interpretation of the Menorah and the olive tree:
'This is the word of G-d to Zerubabel: "Not through armies and not through might, but through My Spirit," says G-d, the Master of Legions. "Who are you, O great mountain, to stand before Zerubabel? You shall become a plain!" (Zech. 6-7)
Thus impassible mountains become hospitable plains if G-d so wills. The most stubbornly bolted doors have been known to open against remarkable odds to those with great courage of their convictions, persistence and faith. That was demonstrated following Zechariah's prophecy in the Jews' defiance of the Persian regime in building the Second Temple - which gave them the most crucial and unexpected ally of the Emperor Darius I himself. It also is a major theme of the events taking place nearly four hundred years later, in the events celebrated by Chanukah - where warriors, who selflessly put their faith in G-d, managed to wrest the Jews in the Holy Land free from the Hellenist Empire.
Indeed, of all the miracles that took place during the Hasmonean revolt, the one that gets most attention is the case of where a sole one-day's supply of pure oil burnt for eight days. The symbolism of Zechariah's Menorah was repeated virtually to the last detail in the struggle for national freedom against extremely powerful odds.
No other single item in the Temple gets the same attention in Zechariah's vision as the Menorah. Its symbolism was to bring hope, and eventual spiritual and economic prosperity. So long as the lamp is not extinguished, its light burns upwards even in the most chilling circumstances.
The Book of Proverbs writes that 'the candle of G-d is the soul of the human being'. (Prov. 20:27) Every day, on waking from sleep, we thank G-d for restoring our souls to us. As long as we live, 'the candle of G-d' - in the essence of our personalities - burns within us.
Haggai and Zechariah successfully encouraged a demoralized nation. They caused the candles within in the people to burn upwards, to the extent that they could place their faith in G-d, and spiritually and physically rebuild the parts of the Holy Land on which they settled.
Recently, I read (and tried) the following piece of advice. 'On the stroke of every hour, say a nice word to someone. Shows them that what they do is valued.'
When a person feels encouraged, wanted, and needed, his or her flame burns within. He or she gains in happiness, confidence, and self-respect - and can face situations and challenges with self-confidence and success, instead of failure and despair. That genuine and nice remark will be remembered - often long after the material gifts have fallen to floor or been covered with dust in the attic. Unlike other gifts, a nice word costs nothing - and takes nothing away from the person who gives it. Like the candle of the Menorah, it can give light to many other lamps without losing any luster of its own…
QUESTIONS ON THE TEXT - VAYEISHEV
Who said to whom, and in what circumstances?
(a) Are you trying to reign over us?
(b) Do not shed blood.
(c) He is our brother, our own flesh.
(d) Identify, if you please: is it your son's coat, or is it not?
(e) Identify, if you please: to whom do this seal, this coat, and this stick belong?
(f) He placed all that he has under my control.
(g) The Hebrew slave that you brought to us came... to make a mockery of me.
(h) Do not interpretations belong to G-d?
(i) Mention me to Pharaoh.
(j) The three baskets are three days.
ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS ON THE TEXT - VAYEISHEV
(a) Joseph’s brothers to Joseph, after revealing his obviously dominating role in the dream about the sheaves. (37:8)
(b) Reuben to the other brothers of Joseph, in persuading them not to kill Joseph. (37:22)
(c) Judah, to the other brothers of Joseph, in persuading them to sell Joseph to the Ishmaelites, rather than being directly responsible for any harm that would come to him. (37:27)
(d) Joseph’s brothers to their father Jacob, after they dipped Joseph’s cloak of distinction in goat’s blood and sent it to him. (37:32)
(e) Tamar to Judah, in an effort to make him own up as being the cause of her extra-marital pregnancy. (38:25)
(f) Joseph to Potiphar’s wife, to impress on her how succumbing to her seductions would be a great breach of trust. (39:8)
(g) Potiphar’s wife to her husband, maliciously and falsely slandering Joseph after he refused her advances. (39:17)
(h) Pharaoh’s chief butler and baker, after they were thrown into prison, came under Joseph’s ward, and wished him to interpret their dreams (40:8).
(i) Joseph to the chief butler, when they were both in prison. (40:14) As the chief butler would be reprieved, he asked him to tell Pharaoh to show justice to himself as well.
(j) Joseph to the chief baker, when they were both in prison. (40:18) The dream centering on the three baskets meant, in effect, that he only had three more days before meeting his death.
RASHI'S COMMENTARY TO PARASHAT VAYEISHEV - QUESTIONS
From where does Rashi derive the following ideas and values?
(a) Righteous people should not expect life to be easy.
(b) G-d makes the punishment fit the crime (two sources).
(c) All dreams contain elements of falsehood.
(d) Putting another person to shame in public is an extremely serious offense.
(e) Even pagans may act with the best of intentions.
(f) It is immoral for person to become self-indulgent when someone else is suffering on his account.
(g) Even the righteous can find it difficult to resist the advances of a married woman.
(h) Trust in G-d comes before trust in Man.
RASHI'S COMMENTARY TO PARASHAT VAYEISHEV - ANSWERS
(a) From the opening phrase ‘Jacob settled’ (37:1), rather than merely ‘Jacob sojourned’, Rashi quotes the Midrash that infers that after his many trials and tribulations, Jacob wished to settle down and lead a quiet life. Scarcely having done so, however, came the trauma of the disappearance of Joseph. The Midrash (Gen. Rabba 84:6) observes that though the righteous seek tranquility, G-d says: ‘Are the righteous not satisfied with what awaits them in the World to Come that they expect to live at ease in this world too?’
(b) Firstly, regarding the ‘evil report’ (37:2): Rashi quotes the Midrash (ibid. 84:7) that it included negative details on their eating habits, and their social and sexual relations. For each item, Joseph received Divine punishment in kind – for example, the encounter and aftermath of the incident with Potiphar’s wife was retribution for his allegations on the details of his brothers’ intimate relations. Secondly, Judah lost his valuable pledge when he attempted to redeem it with a goat kid, as he had promised (38:23). Because he was involved in deceiving his father with goat’s blood (37:32), he himself was punished through a goat – which a few months later matured into a very embarrassing situation (38:26).
(c) Jacob stated to have ridiculed Joseph’s second dream, including in his retort: ‘[Will] I your mother, and your brother, bow down to you?’ (37:10) For Joseph’s mother, Rachel, could not bow down to Joseph, as she was no longer alive.
(d) When Judah sentenced Tamar, his own daughter-in-law, to death for becoming pregnant though harlotry, she did not shame his by openly naming him as the father. Instead, she gave him the chance to own up himself by producing the three items that formed the pledge. (38:25) Rashi quotes the Talmud (Sotah 10b), which explains her reasoning. “If he admits it voluntarily, well and good; if not, let them burn me to death, but let me not publicly disgrace him”.
(e) Rashi (to 39:1) quotes the Midrash (Gen. Rabbah 85:2), which explains Potiphar’s wife’s pursuit of Joseph. It brings the tradition that she saw in the astrological signs that she was to become an ancestress of [part of] the Israelite nation, and it was not clear whether this would be achieved though her or through her daughter. Later, Joseph is stated to have married her daughter (see Rashi to 41:45). [The Egyptians of that era are implied by the text to be pagans – see Ex. 12: 12.]
(f) Joseph’s being ‘handsome of form and handsome of appearance’ (39:6), is highlighted by Rashi to his detriment: he was having too much of a good time whilst his father was mourning his supposed death. That provoked his fall though Potiphar’s wife.
(g) Rashi (to 39:11) quotes an opinion in the Midrash (Gen. Rabbah 87:7) that when ‘Joseph came to the house to do his work’, he actually intended to let her seduce him, but at the last moment he saw an image of his father and he resisted the temptation.
(h) Rashi. (to 40:23), quotes the Midrash (Gen. Rabbah 89:3), which criticizes Joseph for putting his faith in the Egyptians, rather than a greater weighting of faith on the Almighty.
OTHER COMMENTARIES ON PARASHAT VAYEISHEV - QUESTIONS
1. What was the significance of the special coat that Jacob gave to his son Joseph (a) according to the Sforno, (b) according to the Kli Yakar?
2. Why, according to (a) the Sforno and (b) the Gaon of Vilna, did Joseph relate his dreams to his brothers instead of just keeping them to himself?
3.How, according to the Ramban, was Tamar's successful enticement of Judah a worthy action?
4. Why, according to the Haamek Davar, does the rare wavering 'shalshet' note appear above the word 'vayema-ain' (he refused)? (39:8)
5. Why, according to the Midrash (Deut. Rabba 2:5) did Joseph gain the privilege of being buried in Israel, in contrast to Moses, who was buried outside the Holy Land?
OTHER COMMENATRIES ON PARASHAT VAYEISHEV - ANSWERS
1. The Sforno holds that the coat that Jacob gave to Joseph was a sign of leadership, which Reuben, the eldest son, had forfeited following his getting involved in his father's intimate personal matters. The Kli Yakar states that the coat symbolized his new position as the 'firstborn' in the family.(In fact the text itself [Chron. I 5:1] explicity states that the birthright was transferred from Reuben to Joseph's descendants for that reason brought above.)
2. The Sforno writes that Joseph was too young and innocent to know when to keep things to himself. The Gaon of Vilna, however, sees the dreams as Divine Prophesy, and as such, he was obliged to relate them.
3. The basis of the story of Judah and Tamar is 'yibum' - levirate marriage (38:8), whose details are expounded in Deut. 25:5-10. The Ramban explains that at the heart of 'yibum' is the notion that the soul of the dead man gains a new life though children produced by his brother's relationship with the woman who was once his wife. Before the Torah was given at Mount Sinai, 'yibum' was not confined to the brother, but could be carried out by any male relative of the deceased... which in this case would have included her father-in-law, Judah.
4. According to the Haamek Davar (the Netziv of Voloyzhn), Joseph unhesitatingly refused Potiphar's wife's 'persuasions' - that is indicated by the vertical stroke in the 'Masora' text after the word 'Vayama-ain'. However, her obvious position of power made it impossible to turn her down point blank, so he had to use a series of explanations to tactfully steer her away.
5. The Midrash distinguishes between Joseph's and Moses' respective behavior when in a foreign land. Joseph, in Egypt, described himself as a 'Hebrew' - openly - even when in prison (40:15), and thus he was eventually buried in the Holy Land (Josh. 24:32) In contrast, Moses, in Midian, was described by Jethro's daughters as being 'an Egyptian' (Ex. 2:19), and Moses is not recorded by the text to have done anything to change that impression.
SOME ITEMS FOR DISCUSSION
1.The Midrash (Gen. Rabbah 84:9) interprets the words, ‘they could not speak to him in peace’ (37:4) to the credit of the brothers – they were too honest to pretend the love and friendship that they did not truly feel. They did not break the prohibition of ‘hating their brother in their hearts’. Why then did the brothers not go further and reprove him, as the Torah later revealed to the Israelites as being the correct thing to do? (Lev. 19:17)
2. Why did Jacob’s own sons ‘graze their father’s sheep’ in the pastures of Shechem (37:12)? Less than a decade previously, Jacob’s two sons, Simeon and Levi had massacred the male inhabitants of Shechem (34:25). Why did they have to pick the most dangerous of all places to carry on their business?
My efforts at tackling the issues raised in #1 and #2 may be found on the Shema Yisrael website for Parashiot Vayeishev and Vayishlach for 5761 – respectively.
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: email@example.com for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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