This morning’s Haftorah is a selection from the prophet Zachariah, spoken in the late 6th century BCE, at a time when the Persian king Darius gave the Jews permission to rebuild the Temple. The rebuilding of the Temple requires the purification of the priests and the preparation of the special vessels used in the service, which are both mentioned in the Haftorah.
The prophet has a vision of the priest Joshua clothed in filthy garments. The filthy garment, and his guilt are both removed from him – he is purified physically and spiritually, and is crowned with a diadem.
This vision of going from impure to pure, humble to exalted, parallels the story of Joseph, the beginning of which we read this morning. This morning’s Torah portion, Vayeshev, spoke of how Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers. Joseph reached the lowest of the low – thrown in a pit, sold into slavery in Egypt. Egypt itself is symbolic to the rabbis of the land of impurity. Yet for Joseph too there is salvation – after reaching those lows, after being impure and humbled, Joseph gets cleaned up—purified so to speak—and becomes a leader in Egypt and takes his rightful place as a leader in his family. Both of these stories are also similar to Chanuka story itself. In the Chanuka story we are told how our Temple was rendered impure, how the people were humbled by Antiochus – and yet God heard our plea, delivered the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, and we were brought back freedom in our own land.
There is a consistent message to all three of these stories. No matter how low we may fall – into the pit like Joseph in this week’s Torah portion, dressed in filthy garments and guilty like Joshua in our Haftorah, or suffering the indignity of seeing our Temple in the hands of pagans who defile it, God is with us. As Rebbe Nachman of Breslov points out, there is no place anywhere that God is not. Even when, God forbid, like Joseph we find ourselves in the pit, God is there with us, as we say in Psalm 86 כִּי-חַסְדְּךָ גָּדוֹל עָלָי וְהִצַּלְתָּ נַפְשִׁי מִשְּׁאוֹל תַּחְתִּיָּה “For great is your loving kindness toward me; and you have saved my soul from the depths of Sheol.”
Note that the Psalmist does not say you have saved my body from the depths of Sheol. Even when we are physically in a very difficult place – whether due to illness, depression, problems with loved ones, financial problems, whatever – God is there to save our souls, to raise us, at least spiritually, out of the pits.
That’s the message of Chanuka – we kindle candles on the darkest days of the year. At the time when we have the least light around us, we kindle a light to remind us of God’s sheltering presence, even in the darkest of days. No matter how distant we may feel from God, no matter how humbled, no matter how impure we allow ourselves to become, God is still there, waiting for us, welcoming us with the light of Her compassion.
May we all remember to share some “spiritual light” as we share the physical light of the Chanuka candles this year!