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Is This Too Much To Expect?

Zechariah 3:1-4, in the Haftarah to this week’s portion, reads:

And he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. And the Lord said unto Satan: “… is not this man a brand plucked from the fire?” Now Joshua was clothed in filthy garments, and stood before the angel. And he answered and spoke unto those that stood before him, saying: “Take the filthy garments from off him.” And unto him he said: “Behold, I cause thine iniquity to pass from thee, and I will clothe thee with robes.”

Zechariah’s vision is set in heaven and concerns the high priest. But we are to be a nation of priests, and rabbinic tradition assumes we can learn from all aspects of the Torah. How can we apply this vision of heaven to our lives on earth?

I’ll attempt three applications of Zechariah’s vision.

We might call the first application, following an old literary category, the egotistical sublime. Since we are to be a nation of priests, the vision should apply to each of us directly. The direct application might go something like this:

God meets with us and says (with at least a small audience of witnesses, including our personal accuser of the week), “You really are a brand plucked from the fire. Yes, I, at any rate — and who else matters? — can see that you glow with a pure inner energy, potentially. Admittedly, your current interactions with others, and the effects they have, as viewed from the perspective of heaven, and for that matter your inner life, too, wouldn’t stand up to 10 seconds’ scrutiny. But I will cause a general cleaning up of your outer and inner life and will then proceed to clothe you in robes of glory.”

Is this too much to expect?

Not if you are still a youth. For the rest of us, pertinent evidence has accumulated over the years. God has had His opportunities and has, consistently, not taken them. In short, some of us suspect that Zechariah’s vision isn’t in any simple way a vision of what will happen to us.

As a second attempt at application, I’ll use a quatrain by William Blake that is clearly inspired by our excerpt from Zechariah, as well as a midrash on the passage:

To the Accuser Who Is God of This World Surely my Satan thou art but a dunce And cannot tell the garment from the man. Every harlot was a virgin once Nor cans’t thou change a Kate into a Nan.

If I understand Blake’s point, Zechariah’s vision teaches us that the accusatory approach to another person — even an accusatory approach by one of the angels of the Lord like Satan, who can presumably detect the problems of the inner life as well as those of outward show — is limited in a very specific manner. It can’t be a proper basis of an assessment of potentiality. Consequently an approach to another person that concentrates on his current limitations and incapacities should be considered Satanic. And so, we all can assume we have the potential to be clothed in heavenly robes, and perhaps we already have experienced the state this phrase represents, if only we can find a realistic meaning for it.

Jorge Luis Borges has a poem that illustrates a realistic but still sublime application, and is also consistent with the central aspect of the text that I have ignored up till now. In Zechariah’s vision, the transformation is not presented as in the control of the person changing, nor in the gift of any other creature — even a member of the Heavenly Court like Satan.

Can we ever hope to exchange our mundane garments for robes of glory? Here is the Borgesian answer to this question (taking the word “man” in its generic sense):


A man worn down by time, a man who has learned to express thanks for the day’s modest charities: sleep, routine, the taste of water, a man who has betrayed and been betrayed, may feel suddenly, when crossing the street, a mysterious happiness not coming from the side of hope but from an ancient innocence, from his own core or from some diffuse deity. He knows better than to look at it closely but he accepts humbly this glimmer, this felicity.

Such moments of felicity are not predictable rewards of efforts to change, psychologically or otherwise. They are not what an accuser could predict we would experience, or anything a sympathetic friend or helper has in his gift. But it’s not too much to expect that from time to time, the garments of resistance that usually clothe and constrict us will drop away and we will be robed briefly in a moment of felicity.

As it is said, I will clothe thee with robes.

David Curzon is a contributing editor of the Forward.

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