“Rani v’simchi bat tziyon,” in Hebrew. These are the words of the prophet Zecharia (2:14). And these are the words at the beginning of the Haftorah (selections from Prophets in the Hebrew Bible) that are chanted this coming Shabbat (Sabbath), which is also the Shabbat in the middle of the holiday of Chanukah. Because within the 21 verses of this Haftorah the Temple Menorah is mentioned, and it is the holiday when Jews around the world light a Menorah for eight days, these verses were designated to be part of the Shabbat service. But I think there may be another reason the passage was chosen to represent this Shabbat.
Zecharia was one of the last prophets of the Jewish people. He lived during the latter part of the Jews’ Babylonian exile and he was among those who led the return of the exiles back to Israel in the 6th century BCE, encouraging them to repopulate the land and to build the Second Jewish Temple. That verse beginning with “Sing and Rejoice, O Daughter of Zion,” continues with, ”for, behold! I will come and dwell in your midst, says the Lord.” The Book of Zecharia contains visions of the prophet, and the verses used for this Shabbat speak of among other things, his reassuring message that the rebuilding of the Temple will go easier than originally thought. Later in the Haftorah are the words, “Lo V’chayil v’lo v’choach, kee eem b’ruchi…” “Not by military might and not by physical strength, but by My spirit…” (Ibid., 4:6). Rashi, the preeminent medieval commentator, explains that God said He would place His spirit on the Persian King Darius who would then cover all building expenses and would supply other assistance as well.
For the better part of a year, one of my Bnai Mitzvah students has been a young lady whose Bat Mitzvah will be this Shabbat Chanukah. As each student’s special day nears, I always think back to my own, when I sang my whole Torah portion, my Haftorah, the cantorial leading of the Musaf (Shabbat Additional) prayer, and when I gave my D’var Torah (Torah insights) speech. When I was younger, the majority of Orthodox boys did most if not all the service on their Bar Mitzvahs. With my singing ability – I had already taken part in synagogue service even as a young boy, my parents made sure I would be no exception. No parent is perfect, mine made mistakes. But having me master all that could be learned for my Bar Mitzvah, and to do so in the most beautiful manner possible, was not an error.
My parents were Holocaust survivors and I was taught by a friend of theirs, another survivor. And for free, because my parents could not afford to pay. Mr. Baida would periodically be the Cantor at my synagogue, and he was an expert on the technicalities and delivery of the complete service. I say delivery because for Mr. Baida it was not enough that all was done to perfection, but that it was done beautifully. After the destruction of the Second Temple, where within according to the Bible, sacrifices for the people needed to be offered with perfectly-formed animals, and when fired, bring about a pleasing scent, Mr. Baida taught me that the synagogue service which replaced the Temple sacrifices, in its own way, needed to be the same. Both perfect and pleasingly beautiful.
Now Mr. Baida didn’t actually tell me all that. He wasn’t much into explaining why I had to do things the way he insisted; he was older and old-school, not one to chat much with a smart-aleck like me, only to teach, sternly at times, and to push forward. But during the year I studied with Mr. Baida, and as I would hear the anticipation from others for when he would be the Cantor, something registered with me. So one Shabbat when Mr. Baida led the services, I finally paid complete attention. The man was amazing. If song could be a graceful, gently-flowing river, that was the sound I heard. Every letter and word was perfectly clear and sung beautifully. And the congregants appreciated it and they prayed with more heartfelt emotion because of it. No, Mr. Baida didn’t tell me why he sang as he did. He didn’t have to. I listened and I saw and I knew.
For me it was a bit of a wake-up call. I was never perfectly careful with the words of a prayer and I had never concentrated on the beauty of a service. It was a new beginning. I became determined to make all my own prayers and my prayer-leading, when I would represent a congregation with any part of the service, clear and perfect and sweet. And this is how I teach. But being the character that I am, I do so with smiles and humor to temper the directives. After one of my pupils, male or female, has finished his or her Bar or Bat Mitzvah service, they feel a great sense of accomplishment and know inside and from the genuine accolades they hear that they did something special, even magical. One gentleman in a West Los Angeles synagogue told me, that because one of my students sang so clearly and beautifully, he himself prayed with a higher level of spirituality making him feel his prayers were accepted in Heaven.
To you my student, just as happened with me, and like every other Bnai Mitzvah, at times you were frustrated when a particular tune or word proved difficult to master. But your parents and I never gave up on you so that you would not give up on yourself, and you persevered. And oh, how lucky you are for such loving parents. They teach you by showing how meaningful a Bat Mitzvah service can be, and by example – your father sees to it that on every Shabbat and holiday those who have no place to eat are set up with a family, and your mother signs in your synagogue so that the hearing-impaired don’t miss what is spoken. You are being taught universal values. And you are being taught skills that will come in handy and last a lifetime.
Zecharia and the returning exiles began anew with their spiritual lives and the re-building of the holy Temple. The Jews led by the Maccabees, having defeated the Greek Assyrians, began anew as well; they left the exile of religious persecution and holy place desecration, and rededicated their lives and their defiled Temple. Chanukah actually means dedication. The story of Chanukah, in and of itself, makes it appropriate the words of Zecharia are used for this Shabbat.
Like those in Zecharia’s time, and like those in the time of the Maccabees, this milestone in your life is a new beginning for you. Yes, you are still a child, but you will now become spiritually responsible for your actions. And because of your parents, you will become a strong, independent woman who cherishes her heritage and who will, like them, know that your obligations to yourself, to your people and to your community, do not stop at the front door. There is an old Jewish saying, “Shveir tzu zein ah Yid.” “It is hard being a Jew.” Our identity alone carries additional burdens. But don’t worry. You are being well prepared.
So my student, “Rani v’simchi, bat tziyon,” “Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion,” Be happy. Be happy you will be amazing this Shabbat. Be happy you will celebrate with your family and friends. And be happy, because there comes a unique joy from contributing to the continuity of the traditions that help our people endure from one generation to the next. Mazal Tov to you! And Mazal Tov to your parents, and to your family and friends!
Happy Chanukah to all!