Emanuel Synagogue

Light and the spirit of God

The action in Be’halotekha, the third parasha of the book of Numbers, takes place one year after the Exodus from Egypt, with the Promised Land of Israel only a few days walk away and opens with the raising and lighting of the menorah; tragically, it ends with the community devolving and and descending into conflict. The haftarah from the prophet Zechariah has many similarities with the parasha, especially the image of the menorah which opens up the Torah reading and works as a central vision in the words of the prophet Zechariah (so central to his vision that this Haftarah is also selected as the one for Chanukah.) The menorah and its light symbolizes hope and faith, illumination and God’s presence. Yet, a disturbing note sounds in both the Torah reading and the haftarah as well. In the Torah reading, we hear of many rebellions: of the people against God, of the people against the leadership, and of Aaron and Miriam against Moses. Shortly after the first anniversary of leaving Egypt, just when our march to the land should unfold simply, we hear a story of complaint, aggression and violence. Ultimately, these scenes run right through the Jewish story of the Bible – not just the Torah but also the books of the prophets, who tell of the conquest of the land and the acts of faithlessness and rebellion of our people in the land.

Yet, the story is not sordid or hopeless. While the menorah shines as this pristine symbol of God’s presence, sometimes reflecting our inadequacies and failings, it also symbolises the light that both guides and attracts us. It is this image of light that inspires Zechariah, one of the final prophets of the Jewish people, who lived after the destruction of the First Temple and envisioned with hope the return of the exiles and the rebuilding of the Temple. His prophetic words, “not by might, nor by power, but by the spirit of God” become a touchstone of transformation. They hark back to Moses’ words in this parasha, “would that all my people be prophets.” In other words, the resolution of conflict does not come through aggression and violence.

Over 3000 years have passed since the time of Moses and 2500 since the time of Zechariah. Our world still seems to be one of complaint, aggression and violence. Neither Moses nor Zechariah intended their teachings to be pious platitudes. Sadly, we seem to come back to them, year after year, and the world seems as fractured as before. If each of us just once takes that moment of reflection before thought or deed – that step back from the harsh word or the aggressive action, the words of our prophets will not have been in vain. The global aggression that seems to surround us may continue for sometime – but it should not inhibit us from transforming our own personal lives. The charge, “not by might, nor by power, but by the spirit of God” can be a daily meditation, an opening for our hearts, the light that guides and attracts us.