D’var Torah for Friday, December 3, 2021

This week we will be reading form Parashat Miketz. Miketz is the continuation of the Joseph story we began reading and discussing last week. However, I would like to take a break from the parasha and focus on this week’s haftarah portion. As occurs during every festival, we have a special haftarah portion that is read on Shabbat. This week’s haftarah comes to us from the prophet Zechariah. 

Zechariah, one of the minor prophets, lived in the 5th Century B.C.E. following the Israelites return from exile in Babylon. He was prophesizing to a people whose parents and grandparents had witnessed first-hand the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians. Now, under Persian rule, they were allowed to return and began the process of rebuilding. 

Part of Zechariah’s mission was to encourage the work on the Second Temple. To this end he spoke the words to Zerubbabel, the provincial governor of Israel, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit.” These words later became famous in the Reform Movement with the song ‘Not By Might’, written by the late, great Debbie Friedman.

The essence of these words was that, according to the Plaut Torah Commentary, “Zerubbabel can trust that he will succeed in finishing the Temple building – despite slow progress and obstructionist forces. This will happen not through political power ploys but because God desires it” (New Plaut Commentary pg. 1448).

The new Temple will also have, according to Zechariah’s vision, a menorah of gold with seven lamps upon it. Though the experiences leading to the creation of Chanukah would not happen for another 300 or so years, the connection is made between the Menorah and later the Festival of Lights.

In both cases with the Temple and the victory of the Maccabees, there is the underlying statement of “not by might … but by the spirit,” meaning all victories are due to the will of God. For our ancient ancestors all the way through modern times, leaders, generals and the like, willingly proclaim, “God is on our side.”

But as modern Jews, the idea of God picking sides, can make us uncomfortable. To this end, I would like to posit another interpretation. That is, any great accomplishment, any great victory down to many more ordinary accomplishments and victories takes more than one person. Often one person gets the credit or claims the credit. The reality is, very little is ever accomplished without the assistance of others. 

We have heard terms like to pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps, meaning to succeed only on one’s efforts and abilities. As an aside, the term pulling oneself up by ones’ bootstraps was, “often used to refer to pulling oneself over a fence, and implying that someone is attempting or has claimed some ludicrously far-fetched or impossible task. Presumably a variant on a traditional tall tale….” (wicktionary.org). So even in its origins, being a self-made person, who pulls themselves up by their bootstraps is more of a myth, a fable, than a reality.

Therefore, when we light the Chanukiah and recite the words from Zechariah, we are reminding ourselves how, in the words of the Beatles, “I get by with a little help from my friends.” 

As we light the lights of our festival and Shabbat tonight, may we also be grateful to the spirit and to all the people who have and continue to help us in our life’s journeys. In all of our victories, large and small. 

Chag Chanukah Sameach and Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Benjamin A. Sharff