A guest post by PA IPL friend Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center and Interfaith Action on Climate. This reflection was originally published in the Shalom Center’s e-newsletter.
Twice a year – on Shabbat Hanukkah, when the sun and moon are darkest, and on Shabbat B’Haalotecha (this year, May 24-25, in the light-filled days and nights of a full moon between spring and summer) – Jews read a Prophetic passage that focuses on Light, and – unexpectedly – on the earthy roots of Light.
We read the passage from the Prophet Zechariah that envisions the future Great Menorah, taking its sacred place in a rebuilt Holy Temple after the Babylonian Captivity.
Zechariah, in visionary, prophetic style, goes beyond the Torah’s description of the original Menorah (literally, a Light-bearer). That Menorah was planned as part of the portable Shrine, the Mishkan, in the Wilderness.
First Zechariah describes the Menorah of the future that he sees: “All of gold, with a bowl on its top, seven lamps, and seven pipes leading to the seven lamps.” It sounds like the original bearer of the sacred Light. But then he adds a new detail: “By it are two olive trees, one on the right of the bowl and one on the left.” (4: 2-3)
And then –— in a passage the Rabbis did not include in the Haftarah reading for Shabbat Hanukkah — Zechariah explains that the two olive trees are feeding their oil directly into the Menorah (4: 11-13). No human being needs to press the olives, collect the oil, clarify and sanctify it. The trees alone can do it all.
Now wait! This is extraordinary. What is this Light-Bearer that is so intimately interwoven with two trees? Is the Menorah the work of human hands, or itself the fruit of a tree?
Both, and beyond. In our generation it might be called a “cyborg,” a cybernetic organism that is woven from the fruitfulness both of “adamah” (an earthy sprouting from the humus-soil) and “adam” (a human earthling). Just as earth and earthling were deeply intermingled in the biblical Creation story, so the Divine Light must interweave them once again, and again and again, every time the Light is lit in the Holy Temple.
What stirs Zechariah to this uncanny vision? Once we listen closely to the Torah’s original description of the Menorah for the wandering desert Shrine, we may not be quite so surprised. For the Torah describes a Menorah that has branches, cups shaped like almond-blossoms, blossoms, petals, and calyxes (the tight bundles of green leaves that hold a blossom). (Exodus 25:31-40 and 37:17-24)
In short, a Tree of Light, a Green Menorah. Small wonder that Zechariah envisioned its receiving oil directly from the olive-trees!
Since Zechariah is seen as a Prophet by Christians and Muslims as well as by Jews, his vision may invite all three Abrahamic communities to connect with the Green Menorah Covenant.
And in the more specifically Jewish legend told by the Talmud as the origin of Hanukkah, the Light itself is a miracle. Oil that would normally have been enough only for one day’s worth of light lasts for eight days, until more oil can be consecrated.
At the physical level, this is about conserving energy, the triumph of sustainable sources of energy over the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire that guzzled oil and other forms of material wealth. Seen this way, the Green Menorah can become the symbol of a covenant to renew the miracle of Hanukkah in our own generation: Using one day’s oil to meet eight days’ needs. By 2020, cutting oil consumption by seven-eighths
Hanukkah also reminds us of the victory of the guerrilla band of Maccabees over the great idolatrous empire of their generation. We might easily look at our own world and think it would be overwhelmingly hard to accomplish change against the entrenched power of our own Big Oil corporations – the empires of our day. But Hanukkah reminds us: Small groups of seemingly powerless human beings can face huge and powerful institutions – and change the world.
But let us not stop at the economic, political, or even ecological levels of meaning. At the spiritual level, what does it mean that One day embodied Eight days? Since “Seven” is the number of fulfillment, “Eight” is the number of “Beyond.” Always “Beyond”: the Infinite.
So the storied eight-day miracle reminds us that the Infinite is always present in the One. It reminds us that conserving oil, or coal, or our planet, is not just a political or economic or even ecological decision. It comes when we take into our hearts the knowledge that seeking more and more and more – even more and more and more Light – can become an addiction to material possessiveness, hyper-ownership.
That addiction is a form of idolatry.
More and more and more is not the pathway to the Infinite; indeed, it blocks the way. If we dare to choose the One, we can achieve the Infinite.