Rolling through my mind right now is the tune “Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets” from the musical “Damn Yankees.” though I am substituting the lyrics “whatever G”d wants, G”d gets.” I am sure that one of the reasons this particular tune from this particular show popped into my head is because the character of HaSatan, the adversary, appears in the haftarah for B’ha’a lot’kha. It’s a well known hafatarah, and we hear it every year for Hanukkah as well, ending, as it does, with the overly quoted “not by might, not by power…”
Context is everything. Zechariah’s oracle is aimed squarely at Zerubbabel, governor of the province of Yehud, which is part of the larger administrative satrapy called “beyond the river,” part of the Persian Empire. Zerubbabel, along with Joshua the priest, are the leaders of the first returning Jewish exiles from Babylon to Judah in the wake of Cyrus the Great’s ascension to the Persian throne. Zerubbabel had “yichus” as the grandson of one of the last Kings of Judah, Jeohoiachin. Cyrus’ enlightened leadership gave hope to some of the returning Jews, and caused fear for many now established in the political hierarchy of the province of Yehud (Jews and non-Jews alike,) that an independent Jewish country might again arise. Why else make a person of Zerubbabel’s lineage the governor?
Zerubabbel, being of royal descent, understood the niceties, subtleties, and nuances of political intrigue. However, it is easy to be blinded by desire and ambition. The rebuilding of the Holy Temple was a potential time bomb waiting to explode. Nevertheless, Zerubbabel, and his partner in crime, the priest Joshua, had every good reason to want to see a speedy rebuilding of the Temple. That was the agenda they were pushing. There were not at all happy with those who were campaigning to stop the building of the Temple, and were probably considering all different sorts of political strategies and maneuvering to defeat those who opposed the quick restoration of the Temple. (The unspoken elephant in the room here is how many of those opposing Zerubbabel and Joshua were Jews that had not been carted off to Bablyon, but had remained behind to toil and labor for the Babylonians and then the Persians. Remember, the Babylonians sent into captivity those Israelites with worthwhile skills and abilities, along with the hoi polloi. The riff raff were left behind. There’s little doubt they were resentful of these usurping returnees. Some of those who remained in Yehud rose to prominence or financial success under Babylonian and then Persian rule. Why should they have to give that up for the returnees? Even those whose lives were not so successful would have been jealous of and resentful of the returnees, who, by all accounts, seemed to have done well for themselves in Babylon. The psalmist may have painted dolorous pictures of the Jews exiled in Babylon weeping for dear Zion, and wondering how to sing their song in a strange land, but the realities of the captivity were not so onerous. The exiled likely fared better than many, if not most, of those who stayed behind.
Zechariah’s message to Zerubbabel is, effectively, “whatever it is you are planning to do, don’t do it, it’s probably not a good idea. Trust in G”d, for G”d will insure the rebuilding of the Temple and the restoration of the Jewish state.” Knowing he had to sweeten the message in order for Zerubbabel to hear it, Zechariah, in words that come after the end of this haftarah, tells Zerubbabel that he shall be the one who will complete the work of rebuilding the Temple.
It should be noted that this haftarah is taken from a section of Zechariah, the first six chapters, which appear to be the utterings of a man who has consumed a lot of shrooms, and I don’t mean the just for eating kind. Yet later portions of Zechariah are quite clear and without the affectations of mystical visions. I have to wonder which came first – the hallucinations and visions, or the sly prophet who knew to disguise his clearly political messages in foggy visions? Angels. HaSatan. Flying scrolls. Men on horseback. Men with measuring tapes. Exchanging filthy garments for clean ones. A seven-eyed stone. A golden, seven-branched lampstand. A flying tub. Flying chariots and mountains of copper.
Misdirection, I say. Zechariah was a magician with high skills. Couch my political advice in metaphor and simile, and disguise it with a dollop of woo-woo-ism.
The remainder of the book of Zechariah has a few more mystical and magic visions, but, for the most part, it’s pretty direct , if poetic, language. He wasn’t talking politics then, he was talking faith. Zechariah wanted to assure the people that G”d was with them, that G”d’s ancient promised to the Jewish people will be fulfilled, the Judah will be restored. Zechariah’s message is both particularistic and universalistic at the same time. The Jews will again live and rule in their land, yet other shall come to know and worship G”d.
G”d will get what G”d wants. Zerubbabel’s political maneuverings are unnecessary. Chill, Zerubbabel. The Temple will get built.
And what of our own context. What can Zechariah say to us today? If nothing else, Zechariah’s words can serve as a reminder to us to look for the political intrigue underneath the woo-woo. There’s plenty of woo-woo to go around these days. Mysticism and magic are not just the stuff of our ancestors. Oh, sure, we can bask in the light of not by might, not by power, but by G”d’s spirit alone shall we live in peace and harmony. We can all go sing kumbaya. Lovely. Until we find our pockets have been picked, our bank accounts emptied. That’s a cynical message, perhaps, to be drawn from Zechariah’s visions. Can we find something more positive and uplifting? If we understand the original context, perhaps we can. Surely, there are times, when we need to convey a message to others, yet hide it inside something else. Just as surely, there are times to warn people against rash actions, against political posturing and maneuvering, to, as they say in 12-step programs, let go and let G”d. That may really be the underlying message in the haftarah. In this age, when even the most faithful among us question whether or not G”d takes an active role in human affairs, it’s not an easy thing to ask people to do. Yet the anecdotal evidence suggests it can work. If the second part of the phrase brings you up short, just stick with the first part. Just let go. The universe, G”d, random chance, whatever will handle the rest.
©2014 by Adrian A. Durlester
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