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Spirited Away

A haftorah of messiahs and mindfulness

Liel Leibovitz
May 28, 2010
Zechariah, as depicted by Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.(Missional Volunteer/Flickr)
Zechariah, as depicted by Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.(Missional Volunteer/Flickr)

Unlike some other denominations, we Jews save Satan for special occasions. The hoofed and horned dude appears only when the story calls for a touch of absolute evil, a black slate against which virtue shines all the brighter.

There he is, for example, in this week’s haftorah, casting aspersions on the high priest Joshua, who, we’re told, “was wearing filthy garments.” Whether we’re meant to take Joshua’s misstep literally—the high priest falling behind on his personal hygiene—or metaphorically—filthy garments meaning sins—the text makes it clear that God is not too amused with Satan’s antics.

“The Lord shall rebuke you, O Satan,” God thunders, “Is this one not a brand plucked from fire?” An angel is summoned, the filthy garments removed, Joshua’s iniquities forgotten. But God is still not satisfied. He makes a promise: “Hearken, now, O Joshua the High Priest, you and your companions who sit before you, for they are men worthy of a miracle-for, behold! I bring My servant, the Shoot.”

The Shoot is the Messiah, so called for being a descendant of King David. How do we go about facilitating his rapid arrival? No problem, says the prophet Zechariah, the haftorah’s narrator; it’s as easy as lighting a menorah. In an intricate and poetic vision, he speaks of a golden candelabrum, flanked by olive trees, a symbol of everlasting light. The magical menorah, we’re told, will be set ablaze “ ‘Not by military force and not by physical strength, but by My spirit,’ says the Lord of Hosts.”

At first read, this is a maddening sentence, deceptively simple to the point of irrelevance. “But by My spirit,” says God, but his spirit, of course, is unknowable. His spirit is that elusive, ephemeral, and awesome stuff we devote our lives to try and ascertain. The paradox is complete: To light the menorah, we need his spirit, but if we knew his spirit, we wouldn’t need the menorah, as redemption would already be ours for eternity.

We are not, however, left altogether in the dark. The sentence has two parts, and the first one could not be clearer: “Not by military force and not by physical strength.”

Just as Woody Allen conjured Marshall McLuhan to settle an argument with a stranger, I often wish I could summon Zechariah. This is how I imagine the exchange: I’ll be at some dinner party when someone will ask me about Israel. I’ll reply as mildly and politely as I can, but it will be too late: Another guest will be paying rapt attention. No sooner will I finish my response then he’ll jump in:

“Why shouldn’t Israel have the right to defend itself?”

“If the Canadians were lobbing rockets on Buffalo, do you think America would be this restrained?”

“And what about the fact that the Palestinians left willingly in ’48, prodded by the rest of the Arab world? And what about the fact that the Arab world has allowed the Palestinian refugees to languish for decades? And why is Israel the only one required to make sacrifices for peace?”

“I’m sick and tired of Jews feeling like they have to justify their right to exist!”

Usually, this is the point at which I take a deep breath and engage. I gently convince the speaker of my Israeli bona fides, refute any historically incorrect or overly simplistic statement, and offer an alternative view as calmly as I can. But if I had Zechariah, none of that would matter. Like Alvy Singer in Annie Hall, all I’d have to do is step aside for a second and return with the prophet in tow, then delight as Zechariah repeats his mantra: Not by military force. Not by physical strength.

Boy, if life were only like this. But unlike Allen’s protagonist, who seeks nothing more than validation in a petty argument, bringing up Zechariah has deeper meanings. Increasingly, his is the message we need to hear.

When Israel refuses entry to a host of men—from a renowned academic to a famous clown—who don’t agree with its policies, it’s time to roar once more: Not by military force, not by physical strength.

When it ignores its own Supreme Court and continues to allow settlers to seize private Palestinian lands, let us once again say: Not by military force, not by physical strength.

And when our discussion of Israel and its policies is increasingly vehement, increasingly thoughtless, increasingly angry, we should shout in response only this: Not by military force, not by physical strength.

It may not encompass the totality of God’s spirit, not exactly. But it’s a sound beginning.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.