Preoccupation With Glory and the Deferral of Hope: Hayyim Angel’s ‘Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi’

What is the relationship between Prophecy and History? This is question that underlies Rabbi Hayyim Angel’s “Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi” (HZM), a newly-released commentary on the three biblical books by the same names. These books are traditionally considered to be the latest of the of the Bible’s prophetic writings, attributed to prophets living in Israel toward the beginning of the Second Temple Era. Angel’s basic approach to understanding the often obscure oracles in these books is to understand them against the background of their historical context. To this end, HZM includes several sections dedicated to explicating passages from Ezra and Nehemiah, as well as a chapter-length analysis of the book of Esther. These books are more historical in style than the prophetic oratories of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, and Angel analyzes them to create a historical context for interpreting the other books. Then, in the sections dedicated to understanding the prophetic oracles, Angel both analyzes the details of each prophet’s visions and explains the historical situation to which each prophet was speaking.

Throughout the book, Angel paints a vivid picture of the spirit of the nation in the period of the Second Temple discussed in the biblical texts, a picture he divides into two distinct eras. The first era is based on the book of Haggai and the first parts of the books of Ezra and Zechariah. In this era, the prophets are dealing with a people who are entirely obedient, but are preoccupied with “glory” (Angel uses this word throughout, presumably thinking of the common English translation of Yeshayahu 6:3, such as it appears in the King James Bible: “And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.”). The prophets are therefore consistently occupied with attempts to convince the people that, despite the destruction of the first temple and the ultimately lackluster second temple, God reigns supreme throughout the world. This job is made particularly difficult in the face of Persia reigning supreme throughout the world in a more empirically verifiable manner. In the face of this empirical reality, the prophets agree that Persia currently reigns, but they attribute Persia’s dominance over the Jewish people to the sinfulness of the Jews themselves. From this follows the prophets’ promise/prediction that if the people can maintain proper behavior, a messianic king will rise in the near future to restore the Jews sovereignty and to make God’s glory obvious for all to see.

These prophecies become the locus of an important discussion throughout the book, namely, the meaning of prophecies that did not come true. Angel sets up two approaches to this topic, both of which have support in classical sources. The first approach, which is probably the more widespread in Orthodoxy today, understands that when a prophecy fails to manifest itself (or a positive prophecy, at the very least), it means that we simply misunderstood the prophecy, which was really referring to the future.When Haggai talked about “the Branch” that will be the messianic king, we would be mistaken to think that he meant his contemporary Zerubavel. According to this approach, a prophecy cannot fail to come true; if one does seem to have failed to manifest, that just means that we, the readers, misunderstood the prophecy.

The second approach, which Angel attributes to the Malbim and other traditional figures, as well as texts in Tanakh, understands that prophecies are directed to a specific moment in time, and they have a meaning that is obvious at that time. When Haggai talked about “the Branch,” he really was talking about his contemporary, Zerubavel. However, prophecies are not definite promises or divine fiat. Instead, this approach argues that prophecies are meant to inform the people of the potential nestled within their historical moment. Haggai isn’t promising that Zerubavel will be the Messiah, he’s saying that Zerubavel could be the Messiah. If the potential fails to manifest, that is because the people failed to do what was necessary in order to bring the prophets’ visions to fruition. The vision is recorded in Tanakh not because it tells us, Tanakh’s readers, about specific historical events yet to come, but because of what it tells about the potential that has inhered in past historical moments, and is destined to emerge again in our future. It is this second approach that Angel takes throughout HZM, and it turns his interpretive focus from the nature of the predicted events to the actions of the people that caused those potential events to wither on the vine.

Whether because of religious/ethical sins (such as intermarriage) or more concrete political sins (like the majority of Jews who stayed in Babylonia instead of returning to Judea), the promised return of widespread Divine glory simply never appeared (Angel brings these two suggestions from a variety of commentators). This initiated the second era that Angel depicts, based on the books of Esther and Nehemiah, as well as later parts of the book of Ezra. In this period, the people have the same problem of the absence of God’s glory, which is much worse now that the second temple has been a disappointment and Zerubavel has failed to amount to anything significant. This gloomy atmosphere is matched in the prophecies of Zechariah and Malachi from the time, which do not promise immanent political redemption like Haggai and Zechariah once did. Instead these prophecies reject the people’s basic assumptions about the nature of Divine dominance.

Whereas the earlier prophecies had accepted the people’s basic problem that God’s dominance was not evident and reassured the people that the evidence would be arriving shortly, these prophecies challenge the people’s evaluation of reality. Who says that God’s dominance of history has be obvious the way human political dominance is? Maybe Persian political success does not impinge upon Divine supremacy. Maybe the covenant between God and the people of Israel transcends such limited understandings of “success.” This is the basic idea that the prophecies of the second era are trying to get across, according to Angel. More concretely, the prophets tell the people that the situation on the ground, Israel’s subjugation to Persia, is not going away, but that this doesn’t mean anything about their relationship with God. God is just as much with them and just as all-powerful as God was before the destruction of the first temple. Their political situation is a purely political problem, and the prophets do promise/predict an eventual political savior, but the political problem has no theological significance. The hope for redemption has been deferred indefinitely, and that’s ok.

The idea that there is no theological significance to political success (or failure), has its roots in books of Tanakh that Angel doesn’t mention, like Yirmiyahu and Yehezkal, but it runs against the dominant trend in both Tanakh writ large and the Torah itself, as well as, I think, some pretty basic religious intuitions. The Torah promises extended dwelling on the land of Israel for obedience to God’s law and proclaims exile as punishment for disobedience. The book of Melakhim depicts a tight correspondence between obedience to God and the length of a dynasty, until ultimately the people are exiled and the temple is destroyed. And if God is the sovereign lord of history (Angel uses the term “miracle of history” throughout the book), there is a basic degree of logic behind the idea that those who receive God’s grace will experience it on the historical, political, stage. Cutting the other way are all kinds of intuitions about the limitedness of human conceptions and evaluations, but these prophecies remain rather radical and innovative. Unfortunately, Angel glosses over the theological-political significance of these prophecies without much fanfare. He gets close when discussing Zechariah’s prophecy of Jerusalem without its walls from the the earlier era, but the discussion doesn’t quite make the leap from biblical interpretation to theological significance, and it, in my eyes, is a noticeable lack in the book.

Overall, the book is excellent. It is well-written and engaging, and it contains ideas that are important both in terms of the interpretation of Tanakh and in the religious lives of Tanakh’s readers. It just doesn’t seem to be aware of how important some of those ideas really are.

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Dedicating Our Sanctuaries

Dedicating Our Sanctuaries

There is a deep tension in the nature of Hanukah. The holiday is most commonly understood as a celebration of the miracle of the oil, as described in Masekhet Shabbat.

What is ‘Hanukah? The rabbis taught: “On the twenty-fifth day of Kislev ‘Hanukah commences and lasts eight days, on which lamenting (in commemoration of the dead) and fasting are prohibited. When the Hellenists entered the sanctuary, they defiled all the oil that was found there. When the government of the House of Hasmoneans prevailed and conquered them, oil was sought and only one vial was found with the seal of the high priest intact. The vial contained sufficient oil for one day only, but a miracle occurred, and it fed the holy lamp eight days in succession. These eight days were the following year established as days of good cheer, on which psalms of praise and acknowledgment (of God’s wonders) were to be recited. (Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Shabbat, 21b)

This gemara depicts the Maccabees entering the temple and, upon preparing to light the Menorah, finding only enough pure oil to light the Menorah for one day. When they lit the Menorah, however, it miraculously stayed lit for eight days, and thus the holiday of Hanukah was established to commemorate this. The liturgical passage of Al HaNisim, however, presents an entirely different picture of the nature of the holiday.

In the days of Matityahu, the son of Yohanan the High Priest, the Hasmonean and his sons, when the wicked Hellenic government rose up against Your people Israel to make them forget Your Torah and violate the decrees of Your will. But You, in Your abounding mercies, stood by them in the time of their distress. You waged their battles, defended their rights, and avenged the wrong done to them. You delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the wanton sinners into the hands of those who occupy themselves with Your Torah. You made a great and holy name for Yourself in Your world, and effected a great deliverance and redemption for Your people Israel to this very day. Then Your children entered the shrine of Your House, cleansed Your Temple, purified Your Sanctuary, kindled lights in Your holy courtyards, and instituted these eight days of Chanukah to give thanks and praise to Your great Name.

Al Hanisim doesn’t even mention the miracle of the oil. Instead, it focuses on the miraculous military campaign where ‘א helped the Hasmoneans, the Maccabees, fight against the Seleucids, delivering “the many into the hands of the few.” It makes a brief mention of the kindling of lights in the Beit HaMikdash, but that is a far cry from the miraculous lighting of the gemara. The key to resolving this tension lies far earlier than either of these texts, in the dedications of the Mishkan and the Bet HaMikdash that acted as precedents for the rededication in the time of the Maccabees.

The dedication of the Mishkan is described three separate times in the Torah, each with a different emphasis and context. The first time is at the very end of Sefer Shemot, when Moshe finishes putting up the Mishkan and the Cloud of ‘א descends upon it (Shemot 40:17-38). The second is in Sefer Vayikra, at the end of the long list of sacrificial laws that starts off the sefer (Vayikra 9). Finally, in Bamidbar 7, the dedication takes the form of the donations and sacrifices of the Nesi’im of Bnei Yisrael to the Miskhan. Each of these dedications express a different aspect of the Mishkan. That of Sefer Shemot, capping the whole construction of the Mishkan, focuses on the way the Mishkan serves as a mobile Mount Sinai, with an emphasis on Moshe and the way that ‘א would reveal himself above the Keruvim (Shemot 25:22). The dedication of Sefer Vayikra focuses on the Mishkan as the place Bnei Yisrael would come to bring sacrifices to ‘א, and where Aharon and the Kohanim would serve daily. Sefer Bamidbar focuses on the heads of the Tribes of Israel and the presence of ‘א amidst the developing Nation of Israel. Thus these three dedications together depict the Mishkan as the place where ‘א comes to Bnei Yisrael, the place where Bnei Yisrael come to ‘א, and the living presence of the two together.

After the fall of the Mishkan, there was no House of ‘א in Israel, until Shelomoh HaMelekh built the Bet HaMikdash in Sefer Melakhim I. The dedication of the Bet HaMikdash is described in Melakhim I:8. The majority of the chapter is taken up not by the celebrations or even by the dedication itself, but by a long exhortation of the people by Shelomoh (8:12-61). (This exhortation takes the form of blessings to the people and a prayer to ‘א but it seems clear that the people are meant to hear the prayer and learn from it.) The main emphasis in this passage is on the incredible nature of an infinite god dwelling in a man-made structure, or any structure for that matter, and the inherently conditional nature of ‘א’s presence amidst Israel. The passage emphasizes the way that misdeeds and evil are punished when ‘א dwells amongst the people, and the harsh requirements of the Presence of ‘א. The corresponding passage in Sefer Divrei HaYamim II:6 is roughly the same, with perhaps slightly more emphasis on the House of David (6:46).

Much like these earlier passages from Tanakh, the gemara in Masekhet Shabbat and the Al HaNisim prayer present the rededication of the second Bet HaMikdash in very different ways. Al HaNisim presents it in context of the military victory, the divine salvation of the Jews from the political and religious domination of the Seleucids, while Masekhet Shabbat presents the rededication of the Bet HaMikdash in context of the divine grace manifest in the miracle of the oil, of the flaring up of the supernatural in the midst of the natural. Perhaps, unsatisfied with a holiday celebrating the victory of the Jewish over the Greek, Hazal focused on the rededication as a victory of the Holy over the Mundane. Instead of focusing on the reclaiming of the Bet HaMikdash, Hazal chose to emphasize the miracle that would be more meaningful for a people in exile. The holiday didn’t gain and lose facets based on the historical situation of those celebrating it, but certain facets are emphasized, while others are overshadowed. Now that we have returned to the land of Israel, now that the Jews have a sovereign land again, Hanukah presents us with not just with a celebration but with a question. In what context do we view the rededication of the Bet HaMikdash? What aspects are we going to focus on? Are we going to follow Maimonides, and emphasize both the military victory and the miracle of the oil? Are we going to be reminded by Hanukah of our leadership in the land, and all the responsibility that entails? And can we do so without forgetting that which lies above our natural existence, that which exceed our greatest possible expectations? Our relationship with ‘א, concretized in the Mishkan and the Bet HaMikdash, is multifaceted, and can be seen in multiple lights. Which facets we emphasize, how we view the Hanukah lights, is up to us.

[1] Translation from chabad.org

[2] I have discussed this in greater detail here.

[3] This also explains the different explanations for the establishment of the holiday found in Maccabees I, Maccabees II, Megillat Taanit, and Josephus’ Antiquities.

[4] “In [the era of] the Second Temple, the Greek kingdom issued decrees against the Jewish people, [attempting to] nullify their faith and refusing to allow them to observe the Torah and its commandments. They extended their hands against their property and their daughters; they entered the Sanctuary, wrought havoc within, and made the sacraments impure. The Jews suffered great difficulties from them, for they oppressed them greatly until the God of our ancestors had mercy upon them, delivered them from their hand, and saved them. The sons of the Hasmoneans, the High Priests, overcame [them], slew them, and saved the Jews from their hand. They appointed a king from the priests, and sovereignty returned to Israel for more than 200 years, until the destruction of the Second Temple.

When the Jews overcame their enemies and destroyed them, they entered the Sanctuary; this was on the twenty-fifth of Kislev. They could not find any pure oil in the Sanctuary, with the exception of a single cruse. It contained enough oil to burn for merely one day. They lit the arrangement of candles from it for eight days until they could crush olives and produce pure oil.Accordingly, the Sages of that generation ordained that these eight days, which begin from the twenty-fifth of Kislev, should be commemorated to be days of happiness and praise [of God]. Candles should be lit in the evening at the entrance to the houses on each and every one of these eight nights to publicize and reveal the miracle.These days are called Chanukah. It is forbidden to eulogize and fast on them, as on the days of Purim. Lighting the candles on these days is a Rabbinic mitzvah, like the reading of the Megillah.” (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Megillah U’Hanukah, 3:1-3) (Translation from chabad.org)