The Light of the Menorah

June 1st: Beha’alotecha
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Our Torah portion this week begins with an instruction: assemble the menorah.
“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and say to him, ‘When you mount the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the lampstand (menorah).’ Aaron did so; he mounted the lamps at the front of the lampstand, as the Lord had commanded Moses. Now this is how the lampstand was made: it was hammered work of gold, hammered from base to petal. According to the pattern that the Lord had shown Moses, so was the lampstand made.”
(Numbers 8.1-4)

This ancient object—one among many in the Tent of Meeting—has become one of the most important and enduring symbols of our faith. As our Chumash, Etz Hayim, explains:
“More than 1000 years after the time of Aaron, the m’norah became the symbol of Aaron’s descendants, the Hasmoneans, who reclaimed the temple of Jerusalem after the Maccabees’ victory. The m’norah, carried off by Roman soldiers in a victory parade, is featured in a carving on the Arch of Titus in Rome, which celebrates the defeat of the Jews in 70 C.E.; nineteen centuries later, the seven-branched m’norah became the seal of the State of Israel. Recalling the bush that burned but was not consumed, the light of the m’norah would never be permanently extinguished.

 “Isaac Luria taught that the six branches of the m’norah represent the several scientific and academic disciplines, whereas the center stalk represents the light of the Torah. Secular learning and faith are not rivals; each has its own concerns and addresses its own set of questions. They shed light on each other and together they illumine our world.” (Etz Hayim, page 816)

Most of us are more familiar with the special Chanukah menorah—also called a chanukiah, with its nine candle holders for the eight candles and Shamash. The chanukiah is a special menorah, redesigned to celebrate the miracles of the victory and the oil. However, it is the original seven-branched menorah which stands in front of the Knesset in Jerusalem and is found on Israeli currency and stamps.

This ancient menorah is also the origin of our ner tamid, the eternal light that stays on in the front of Jewish sanctuaries. Another origin of the ner tamid is the continually burning incense altar that was kept burning continuously in the Temple of the Lord in Jerusalem. All three—the menorah, the incense altar, and the later ner tamid—represent God’s eternal presence.

Of course, back in the wilderness, this might have been unnecessary. We are told that God’s Presence was not only with the Israelites, but also that it was quite visible—God being manifest in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Why, then, did God instruct the Israelites to light a fire to burn eternally?

This question reminds me of another question, one in regard to the basic illogic in our blessing over food, Hamotzi. When we pray, We praise You, O Lord, our God, Ruler of All, Who brings forth bread from the earth, are we really saying that God brings forth bread from the earth? One could say that God brings forth the wheat from the earth, but we do not get actual bread until various people reap, thresh, mill, sift, mix, knead, and bake. I have heard two answers to this question, both of which are spiritually helpful.

(1) When we say that God brings forth the bread from the earth, we are acknowledging God provenance over the whole process. Yes, people are involved, but all of the physics and chemistry and artistry of baking bread were all invented/created by God and are only pursued by the grace of God.

(2) God could have had loaves of bread sprout up from the earth, but God wanted to give us a role in the ongoing creation of the world. Thus, many things are not wholly created; they require humans to participate in their preparation. This gives us the joy of creating, and it reminds us that the perfection of the world—tikkun olam—is both a human obligation and a human possibility.

It is the same with the menorah. God certainly did not need the extra light. And, with that pillar of fire by night, the Israelites did not need the extra light. God’s instructions to fashion the menorah and to keep it lit continually reminds us of the continuing Divine presence in both created things and in the things that we get to help create. Moreover, the menorah humans assemble and keep kindled reminds us that God gives us a role to play in the world, lighting the way physically, ethically, socially, and spiritually. We have it in us to be light-bearers of the Divine. Let there be light!