29 Dec 2016

Haftara for Shabbat Hanuka (Mikets) 5777: Norman Rockwell and the Kohen Gadol

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‘The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common’.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson


The prophecies of Zekharia occur after the destruction of the first Bet HaMikdash. The prophecy of our haftara tells Zion to rejoice, for the exile will come to an end and the nation will return. His vision is of the exiled High Priest Yehoshua. He is wearing dirty garments which express the transgressions of Israel. To his right is the satan or the prosecutor who is poised to accuse him of sin. Yet, before he can do so he is silenced by God and Yehoshua the Kohen Gadol is protected and given brand new garments and head dress for the priesthood. Yehoshua is promised that if he keeps God’s path and ensures justice in His house he will succeed. Zekharia is then shown another vision by the angel of God to which he feels he is being awoken from slumber. He sees a menora with seven branches and a basin above it. On either side of the basin are olive trees. He does not know what it means and asks the angel its meaning. The angel is surprised that Zekharia does not know, but then explains the vision to him.


Norman Rockwell was known for his paintings of American life. His career spanned forty-seven years and he lived and painted through much of the 20th century. Scenes from the Great Depression, World War II and the Civil Rights Movement were all depicted in his artwork. What made his paintings unique, was that although they presented serious and sensitive issues they resisted despair and pessimism. Rockwell was a master at seeing and depicting the goodness in humanity. It was as if he saw through the overt difficulties and into the soul of the American people. There is something sacred about the beauty and glory exhibited in his art, in which he presents to us the grace and valour of the human spirit.

His work has been criticised as being overly sweet and idealised, but I believe that Rockwell felt we individually and collectively have the potential to reach that ideal. He believed that the ordinary people and scenes that he was painting were extraordinary at the core.

One must believe in the truth of the soul to see it in people and in the world. Optimism and joy in life’s potentials draw from seeing what is beyond the surface and recognising that there is divinity in us and in the world, which if given a chance will shine through. This value is the message of our haftara and of Hanuka.

The simple connection of the haftara to Hanuka is that it speaks of a grand menora and a Kohen Gadol, Yehoshua, who is restored to his post in the Bet HaMikdash.

He showed me Yehoshua the High Priest standing before the Angel of God…(3:1)

The angel…said to me ‘What do you see?’ and I said ‘I see a golden menora’… (4:1-2)

Both the Menora and the Kohen Gadol are integral to the Hanuka story.

The Kohen Gadol was in essence the Norman Rockwell of the nation of Israel. It was his job to see the best in the people and to present them before God in their greatest light, while bearing the names of each of the tribes upon his heart. The Kohen Gadol encouraged people to be their best and to believe in the divine light and potential that was inside them[1].

It is fitting then, that the catalysts of Hanuka were the Hasmonean family, the family of the Kohen Gadol, who risked their lives to fight for the glory of Israel rather than succumb in shame and self-loathing to the Hellenists and the Greeks. They believed in the beauty and exceptionalism of the Jewish people and they were willing to risk their own lives in its defence.

The people resisted pessimism on Hanuka and finally came to glory in a fight for their very identity that in the end was seen by our sages as a fight waged on our behalf by God.

And You, in your great mercy fought their fight, judged their judgements, and avenged their vengeance. (Al HaNissim Prayer)

The light of Hanuka is the spiritual light that runs just beneath the physical aspects of our world. When we allow ourselves to see it, it shines through the physical and it is ignited by our recognition with an unmistakable aura. We lost the sensitivity to see this light during the Greek rule and we fell into ‘darkness’. Hanuka is a time in which we rediscover the miraculous and the extraordinary that runs through the everyday people and occurrences of our world.

The light of the human soul is one of the most splendid in all of creation — it enchants us and it brings us to love. How else would we expect the flame of God to affect us?

The flame of God is the soul of the human being. (Proverbs, 20:27)

But the light of the soul is also the most delicate and sensitive. In order for us to see and appreciate it we must remain open to experiencing it. We must know it in ourselves even when, at times, we might dim our own light out of feelings of inadequacy and spiritual malaise.

The fuel that we ignite when we kindle the Hanuka lights represents the divine spirit that flows through us all. It enlivens, sustains and carries us.

Even the prophet Zekharia does not recognise its presence in the haftara until it is explicitly pointed out to him by the angel of God.

He said to me, ‘What do you see?’ And I answered, ‘I see a menora all of gold, with a bowl above it… I, in turn, asked the angel who talked with me, “What do those things mean, my lord?’ ‘Do you not know what those things mean?’ asked the angel who talked with me; and I said, ‘No, my lord.’

What he missed seeing in that prophecy was the spirit of God that flows through all things. To know it is to live in its presence and be guided by it. To see it is to see the radiance of creation and serve it rather then attempt to control it. It is the summative lesson of Zekharia’s prophecy.

Then he explained to me: ‘This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit’—said the Lord of Hosts. (4:2-6)

To see great potential in others is to see the spirit of God within them. There is special wisdom in being able to see it. Rockwell’s paintings shine with divinity simply because he saw it in the people whom he painted and shared it with the world through his art. He saw glory in the American people even amidst their manifold struggles and problems. He did not hide the problems but he also did not allow his depictions to deteriorate into despair.

The Kohen Gadol is saved from the ridicule of the satan in our haftara because he was always the one who classically saw the best in us. His prosecutor is therefore silenced by God Himself and he is transformed from tatters to pristine beauty.

Through our lives flows the pure olive oil — the fuel that represents the flow of God’s spirit within us all. When we can look into the mirror and see its unique splendour shining in the beauty of our own eyes, we recognise it reflected in the aura and effulgent presence of others around us without any jealousy or yearning to be anything other than what we are ourselves. We see others and honour their being and the divine light and life that they possess. We see it through the clouding of their flawed character traits and personal handicaps as we are meant to see it in ourselves through the clouding of our own.

On Hanuka we ignite the fuel of potential in recognition of its brilliance. The prophecy of Zekharia and the festival of Hanuka teaches us that in a world of much darkness we must spend our lives uncovering the light and, in its radiance, rejoice.

Shabbat Shalom and Hanuka Sameah!

Rabbi Joseph Dweck

[1] Pirke Abot, 1:12

Parsha Perspectives

X Miketz 

37a Yosef (41:1-44:17)

Paro’s dreams (41:1-8);

Yosef is brought to Paro (41:9-14);

Paro retells his dreams to Yosef (41:15-24);

Yosef interprets the dreams (41:24-32);

Yosef suggests a course of action (41:33-36);

Yosef gets the job (41:37-46);

Seven years of plenty. Yosef’s children (41:47-53);

Seven famine years begin (41:54-57);

The brothers first trip to Egypt (42:1-26);

Brothers tell Ya’akov what happened (42:27-38);

Yehuda convinces Ya’akov to let brothers return to

Egypt with Binyamin (43:1-16);

The brothers second trip to Egypt (43:16-44:3);

Brothers pursued, Binyamin found with Yosef’s

goblet.  Back to Egypt for showdown… (44:4-17)


Taken from, ‘Torah for Everyone’ by Rabbi Dr Raphael Zarum, Dean of LSJS