Hanukah: Two Trees Feed the Lamp

Each year, we read the Joseph narrative during the Hanukah season.  People often comment that the tale is not so much a story of man’s relationship with G-d as one which focuses on family relationships. It does not seem to focus on the notion of “Divine intervention” unless we choose to see it at work through the various dreams. Thanks to a brilliant commentary on Mikeitz by Nehama Leibowitz I can see that this is not really the case. She highlighted that perfectly when she pointed out the emphatic re-iteration in the following verses from Bereshis 41:

In verse 25:  “What G-d is about to do he hath declared to Pharaoh”
In verse 28:  “What G-d is about to do he hath shown to Pharaoh”
In verse 32:  “and G-d will shortly bring it to pass”.

Similarly, in the following parshah,  Vayigash  we read that, though the brothers had sold Joseph into slavery, Joseph ascribed the real authorship of this action to G-d when he said:

“G-d has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival and to save your lives by a great deliverance.”
(Bereshis 45:4-7)

The extent to which we should rely on “G-d’s action” and the extent to which we should rely on “human action” is at the heart of the history of the festival of Hanukah too.

In the festival Haftarah, the menorah vision of Zechariah (Zech.4:3) describes two trees which flank the candelabrum and which provide the oil. One is taken to be Zerubabel- a messiah figure for the secular and physical, and the other is taken to be Joshua - a messiah figure for the priestly and spiritual. They are two complementary forces seen as separate in methods of action but united in purpose.

In the written history of the festival’s origin, the tale of the Maccabees ended up in apocryphal documentation and not in the Bible. The first book of Maccabees focuses on the Rebel/Zealot movement’s victory which was attained by physical force, while the second book focuses on the ideological cause and martyrdom of the Pietist movement’s faith in the spiritual or supernatural.

Again, we see here two very distinct attitudes sharing a common purpose.

Perhaps the Haftarah’s message is not so much that action and prayer are complementary but that they both need something else, something more, in order to be “in-spired” - in order to have the “Breath” or “Spirit” of G-d in them - namely an explicit connection with G-d Himself. Taking that point of view, the text might be read as:

“Not just by the might of political action
Nor just by the power of spiritual faith
But by the spirit of G-d which joins them together
in effective and complementary balance.”

In the developing and rather confused history of the festival of Hanukah, it was not so much the Maccabees’ victory or the Pietists’ martyrdom that was placed centre-stage: The rabbis of the Talmud (Shabbat 21b) placed the miracle of the long-lasting oil in that prime position. In doing so they were choosing the “spiritual and miraculous” emphasis. I think that is also the intended meaning of the Haftarah quote. Might and Power are predictable yet fallible. Breath and Spirit, inspiration and revelation, can be wildly unpredictable, but they can sometimes act as their beacon: a ner tamid which lights the way forward. It might also be a beacon which warns of a way not to be taken—and it can, at times, be a reminder of being ever in the present in spiritual constancy.

Despite Jacob’s vow in Bereshis 28:20, I do not know to what extent I should rely on God to provide for me, I do not know to what extent we should believe that our prayers have a direct effect on the progress of the cosmos (from assisting our friend’s struggles in illness, to world politics), I do not know to what extent we should fight wars to achieve anything believed to be “good”. Despite choosing to walk a comparatively quietist path, the working out of this “Maccabean enigma” is a work still very much in progress for me, and no doubt for you too.

But I do feel that it is the specific duty of the dedicated Jewish Contemplative to be the “Joshua”, the “Pietist”, above all else and to declare explicitly that all is in the hands of heaven. It is unrealistic for anyone to think that all Jews be both Joshua and Zerubabel, some specialisation is both inevitable and beneficial.

Both trees feature in the vision that feeds the lamp.

A contemplative’s special task is to pray… and if that is done, it is my hope that “action” will be done:
by G-d as a “miracle of inspiration”;
by G-d through “human hands”;
by G-d through the miracles of His Providence.

As the daily Modim prayer reminds us, those miracles are not confined to the festival of Hanukah but are with us at every moment of every day.

Nachman Davies
December  22 2016

(Updated from a previous article  on this website)