Difficult times call for great leadership and, above all, cooperation. The period of Shivat Zion, the Return from Babylonian exile, was just such a period. The nation needed to reestablish and rebuild itself after the seventy years of exile. It had its “great” leaders, but these leaders had different power bases. There was Joshua ben Yehotzadak, the High Priest – the religious leader of the nation, who had the both ears and the heart of the Persian establishment on his side, since the Persians wanted to nurture the religious leadership over the political leadership. And then there was Zerubbabel ben Shaltiel, scion of the royal house of David and popular leader of the people, who sought to establish himself as the nation’s political leader.
These two disparate sources of leadership were likely at odds with each other. The high priesthood was an institution with a history, established in ancient times, with a continuous existence. Its drawback was that it had never been a position with established political power. The “political” leadership, represented by Zerubbabel, needed to be reestablished. Its power had been interrupted by the exile and consequently its status was not firmly secured. The nation’s survival required these two very different sources of power to work together and not to act as adversaries. (See Yisrael Knohl, Makhloket Hamashiah, ch. 4)
This apparently was not a “given”, considering what is implied by Zechariah’s most famous prophecy. An angel showed the prophet Zechariah a vision of a golden menorah with seven branches alongside two olive trees. When the prophet asked the intent of this image, the angel replied: “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel, saying, ‘Not by might and not by power but by My spirit, said the Lord of Hosts.’” (4:6) Paradoxically, this celebrated response did not answer Zechariah’s question explicitly and so, the prophet demanded a clarification from the angel: “What are these two branches of the olive trees…” (4:12) The angel acceded to his request: “These are the two men consecrated with oil who attend upon the Master of all the earth.” (4:14) These two “anointed” leaders, as Rashi notes, were Joshua, the religious leader of the people, and Zerubbabel, the nation’s political head.
On reflection then, the angel’s original answer is clear. Its message was aimed directly at the two leaders, Joshua and Zerubbabel. Both should share authority. The “menorah” was to be fed by both branches working together. Their success and the future of the nation was dependent not on each developing his own personal power, position or egos. Instead, it was contingent on God’s spirit. And God’s mission was greater than the both of them.