The Eyes of the Menorah

The connection between this week’s haftarah and Chanukah is at once immediately obvious and completely obscure. Addressing the small remnant of impoverished Jews who had returned to Jerusalem and were struggling to rebuild the Temple, the prophet Zechariah relays a series of optimistic visions. Amongst these he predicts that despite the demographic, political and military challenges facing the nation, God will appoint a leader named Zerubavel who will lead his generation in confronting the considerable challenges of that time.

Turning to the third and fourth chapters of the book, both of which appear in our haftarah, the navi perceives two images. In chapter three, Zecharia encounters a single stone with seven “eyes.” God promises to craft the stones and remove the sins of His people on that day. In chapter four, an angel displays before him a golden Menorah with a bowl on top, seven candelabras, and two olives engraved on either side of the bowl. When the navi is unable to independently decipher the vision’s significance, the angel explains that the candelabra serve as a sign for Zerubavel: “not by army nor by force, rather through my spirit, says the Lord of Hosts” (4:7).

On their own, these prophecies are puzzling. What is the meaning of the stones’ “eyes?” What does the Menorah represent? And what is the message for Zerubavel? But the rabbis’ decision to select this haftarah for Chanukah – as opposed to, for instance, the dedication of the First Temple, paralleling the Maccabees rededication of the sanctuary – adds another layer to the problem. Other than the physical symbol of the Menorah, what association did the rabbis see between Zecharia and Chanukah?

To better understand Zecharia’s cryptic revelations, some background is in order. As noted above, the Jews who returned to Israel were small in number and, on the whole, dirt poor. To make matters worse, the book of Ezra records that as soon as the Jewish community had successfully laid the foundation of the new Temple, the indigenous nations immediately began to block their efforts. After first unsuccessfully attempting to “join” the Jews in the building process with an eye toward undermining the project from within, the tribes sent letters to King Artaxerxes (ruled from 465-424 B.C.E.) imploring him to immediately cease the construction, lest the Jews foment a rebellion. The king acceded to their request, and the rebuilding efforts fell by the wayside.

A few years later, with the project at a standstill, Chagai and Zecharia enter the scene. Prophesying during the second year of Darius’ reign (ruled 423-405 B.C.E.), Chagai urges the Jews not to give up on rebuilding the Temple. Quite the opposite, he insists that God will be with them if only they breathe new life into their work. To those who fear that the small, makeshift temple pales in comparison with that of Shlomo, Chagai predicts that ultimately the honor of the Second Temple will exceed that of the First. Intriguingly, and reinforcing the Chanukah connection, Chagai’s last two recorded nevu’ot are delivered on the twenty-fourth day of Kislev. Prophesying just two months later, Zecharia similarly urges the major Jewish political personality of the time, Zerubavel, to stir the populace to boldly forge ahead with the stalled venture.

With this background in mind we can turn to the visions of the rock and Menorah. While the exact significance of the eye-bearing stone engraved by God remains obscure, the basic outline is clear: the eyes of God, which symbolically peer out of the stone, watch over the Jews and their sacred work. The stone, moreover, need not be engraved by human hands. God Himself completes the inscription, symbolizing that Zerubavel’s work will be performed by God.

The image of the Menorah runs along similar lines. Rashi, Radak, Metzudat David and other classical commentaries suggest that the Menorah is lit by God, again indicating that Hashem Himself will provide warmth and will safeguard the Jews. In a somewhat different vein (and perhaps hewing closer to the simple meaning of the text), Malbim notes the parallel between the seven eyes and seven lights, suggesting that the candles too represent God’s protective eyes. Either way, the message is clear: Zerubavel should fearlessly lead the Jews to reinvigorate the building project, and God will take care of the rest. This, then, is the significance of the verse “not by army nor by force, rather through my spirit, says the Lord of Hosts.” Zerubavel need not be concerned by the demographic and military deficiencies of the Jews. God will closely watch over His people and will fight on their behalf.

With this interpretation of Zecharia in mind, we may return to our final question: why did Chazal specifically choose this passage as the haftarah? Apparently, the rabbis saw in Zecharia a prefiguring of the Chanukah story and a crucial lesson for subsequent generations. Indeed, Rashi to Chagai 2:6 suggests that the prophecy concerning the destruction of the nations refers to none other than "the miracles what were performed during the days of the Hasmoneans." In short, the major theme of Zecharia is that, with divine reassurance, even a small, physically overmatched people can be victorious. The same of course applies equally to Chanukah: in selecting this haftarah, the rabbis suggest that the Maccabees’ military success – many in the hand of the few, warriors in the hand of the weak – is explicable only if rooted in divine providence.

Finally, for each generation that was to read the haftarah on Shabbat Chanukah, Chazal hinted to a contemporary message as well: for thousands of years we often found ourselves capable of defending ourselves “not by army and not by force.” The comforting message of Zecharia and Chanukah is that of God’s quiet presence even in times of physical weakness.

Today we may add an additional dimension to Zecharia’s resonant message. As we have unfortunately recently experienced, even as an autonomous nation with a standing army Medinat Yisrael can experience significant vulnerability. Perhaps as a sign of chizuk, drawing on Zecharia’s prophecy, Israel’s emblem features a Menorah flanked by olive leaves. The navi – and Israel’s coat of arms – reminds us that even when we feel unsafe, if we examine our stones and Menorot carefully enough we’ll notice that God’s eyes are watching.