Hanukkah: A Strange Career in Spirit and in Politics -- Part I

First of all, in the whole Hebrew Bible there is no reference to Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights.

But Light carries a strong spiritual value. Not only is it the first creation of Creation, it is the only creation in which the word and the deed are identical. The words commanding it to be and the words announcing its emergence are identical:

Y’hi or!   Be Light!

Va’y’hi or! And Light be!

When the runaway slaves of the People Israel, the Godwrestlers, build in the wilderness a Mishkan, a Shrine for the Holy Indwelling Presence of YHWH, at its heart must be a Light-Bearer, a Menorah in which is burned for light the oil, the juice, of olive trees.

This Light-Bearer itself is fashioned from gold in the shape of a tree: branches, tight clusters of gold leaves to hold a blossom, the gold blossoms themselves cupped to hold the oil that is kindled to make light. From a tree that grows in the forest or orchard to a “tree” that humans make -- comes the oil to make Light.

Centuries later, the Mishkan becomes the Temple in Jerusalem, built there to affirmo the power of an earthly king,. More centuries later still, the Babylonian Empire shatters the local royal power, burns the Temple.

In exile after, yearning for a rebuilt Temple, the prophet Zechariah, whose name means “Remembering Yah, Breath of Life,“ imagines something beyond memory: When the dismembered Temple is re-membered, he says, two olive trees must stand to the left and right of a new Menorah.

This was a radical challenge to the Prophetic opposition to having a tree in the Temple. Some of them feared it would give approval to a “pagan” love of Earth and trees. But Zechariah went even further: The two olive trees, he said, wpuld send their olive oil straight into the Menorah to be burned for making Light. No human intervention would be necessary.


This tiny cyber-forest of three trees – one gold, two leafy, dripping with golden oil, would live in a most sacred place, drawing on the crowning Creation of adam from adamah – human earthling from the earthy humus -- and connecting it with the first Creation  -- Light.

Even more centuries later, the Rabbis decided to have this vision of Zechariah’s included in the Haftarah or Prophetic reading for Shabbat in the midst of Hanukkah (which had not yet been invented when Zechariah first spoke).

But after including in the Haftarah text the image of two olive trees standing beside the Menorah, the Rabbis stopped a few verses short of the most awesome part of the vision. They included the two olive trees (Zech. 4: 1-3). They stopped the Haftarah at Zech 4: 7. The trees dripping oil into the Menorah appear in Zech. 4: 11-12. Some visions, some Light, were too ultraviolet for the public to see.

Now let us turn to the Festival of Lights. Part II of this essay on the strange career of Hanukkah will appear in tomorrow’s Shalom Report.

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