Got a Light? - A Sermon on the Menorah from Parashat B’ha-alot’cha
Our parasha B’ha-alot’cha begins with the lighting of the Menorah. What can we learn from these verses? Bamidbar, chapter 8, in the Complete Jewish Bible version reads:
ADONAI said to Moshe, "Tell Aharon, 'When you set up the lamps, the seven lamps are to cast their light forward, in front of the menorah.'" Aharon did this: he lit its lamps so as to give light in front of the menorah, as ADONAI had ordered Moshe. Here is how the menorah was made: it was hammered gold from its base to its flowers, hammered work, following the pattern ADONAI had shown Moshe. This is how he made the menorah.
The original Menorah was a seven-branched lampstand as it was first described in Vayikra 25. It was beaten out of a solid piece of pure gold and served as one of the sacred vessels in the tabernacle and then in the Temples. It was lit every morning by the High Priest with only pure, fresh olive oil of the highest quality.
As our parasha begins, Aharon was to light the menorah as part of the dedication of the Tabernacle. Skipping ahead in time, the menorah has become an extremely widespread and central figure in Jewish art. It has been equally prevalent in Israel and the Diaspora.
After the 2nd Temple’s destruction, a tradition developed not to duplicate anything from the Temple and therefore menorah’s no longer had 7 branches. It may have been the important role of the menorah in the Temple and the cosmic notions connected with it which moved the Rabbis of the Talmud to forbid making any menorah which was identical or even similar to the one that had stood in the Temple. From this prohibition it followed that making two-dimensional seven-branched menorot was permissible, but three-dimensional ones had to have their number of branches altered such as our two modern reminders of the original menorah here in the sanctuary, the Neir Tamid and the Hannukiyah.
7 Lamps and Branches
So what do our sages have to say about its seven branches, the meaning of its design, its creation from pure gold, its symbolism, and its message to us today? The 7 branched menorah was a unique design. Why did HaShem insist on this in Vayikra when he first described how to make it. Some early sages wrote that the menorah symbolized the tree of life with its 7 branches emerging from the central trunk of HaShem. Some saw in it a human body, with the two legs and trunk on one side, the two arms and head on the other, and the spark of HaShem with our nefesh/soul in the center. Others felt the 7 lamps symbolize the 7 days of creation, honoring G-d who created the world and highlighting the tabernacle as a world of its own. The first century Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, worked into his descriptions symbols which he derived from notions of the cosmos and the universe current in his day. He saw the menorah and vessels of the Temple as representing the planets, the cyclic quality of life and the concept of time. The branches of the menorah could be likened to the celestial bodies. The light in the center represented the sun, while those on either side stood for the visible planets, three on each side, with their flames facing the center. For others, the seven lamps of the Menorah allude to 7 holy character traits: chesed (kindness), gevurah (austerity), tiferet (compassion), etc… and for still others, the 7 branches represented knowledge, with six of the branches representing human wisdom, guided by the center branch of Divine light.
A corrolary to this is that there are really several different paths in Judaism. There are seven different ways. We are not all the same and we are not all meant to be the same. Just as there are seven basic character traits, so too, there are seven legitimate and valid ways to be a lamp -- a luminary. You don't have to be a carbon copy of somebody else to be a good Jew. The Sages tell us that this aspect of the Menorah signifies the diversity of Jewish people -- seven branches, from the far left to the far right. The fact that the Menorah was made of one block of gold emphasizes the fact that despite the diversity, in essence we are all one. The critical issue is, are you kindled? Are you lit up? If you are lit up, and you are illuminating the surroundings as a lamp of Judaism, then your way is valid. The Torah teaches us this by the fact that the Menorah does not have one branch, but seven, so that everybody can be themselves and serve G-d according to their own personality and way, provided that they are illuminating the world in the way G-d wants.
How do we know the way G-d wants us to illuminate?
Proverbs 6:23, “For the mitzvah is a lamp, Torah is light.”
And Proverbs 20:23, “The human spirit is a lamp of Adonai;”
In other words, we are like the burning flame atop the Menorah. A flame consists of three things: the fuel (olive oil), the wick and the flame itself. The wick represents the physical body. The flame, striving ever upward, represents the spiritual radiance achieved by the person in their daily life. But in the case of a lamp, the wick needs fuel to feed the flame. Likewise in the life of a Jew: the fuel for the flame is the observance of the Torah and its mitzvot. Without the fuel of Torah observance the Jewish spirit cannot achieve its task of bringing spiritual illumination to the world.
In Talmud there is a saying that goes, “As I shined a light on Israel, making them conspicuous among the nations, let them shine a light on me.” (Numbers Rabbah 15.5) As we’ve spoken about numerous times before, we are set apart, highlighted throughout history, meant to point the nations back to HaShem. When Jews embody what G-d stands for by living the values ofTorah and Mashiach, then we are a light to the nations as it says in Isaiah 42.
It has been said that the menorah is a symbol of the nation of Israel and our mission to be that " light unto the nations." The sages emphasize that light is not a violent force; Israel is to accomplish its mission by setting an example, not by using force. This idea is highlighted in our Haftorah reading today where Zechariah saw the menorah (or lampstand) in his vision of the heavenly court. He describes the golden menorah with 7 lamps and an olive tree on either side. In his explanation to Zechariah of what these things meant, the angel tells him, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit – says the L-rd of Hosts…” Here the Menorah as a whole symbolizes the spirit of Adonai affirming that communal success, our success in this world, will be achieved only through the spirit of G-d.
Another explanation, since God dictated the creation of the Menorah from 100 percent pure gold, our sages deduced that we must strive for “solid gold” with regard to our motives and behavior. In other words, our shining character traits on the inside should reflect the actions we take on the outside, and vice versa. In this way, the Menorah teaches us to bring out every soul’s inner Divine light so that we can shine forth to others.
Yeshua Himself said in Matthew (5:14-16)
You are light for the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Likewise, when people light a lamp, they don't cover it with a bowl but put it on a lampstand, so that it shines for everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before people, so that they may see the good things you do and praise your Father in heaven.
He wants us to illuminate the world. Where we build a just and compassionate society, and where we show by personal and collective example what it means to be a covenant people, keeping Torah and following the example of our Mashiach, there we are a light to the nations and there we realize our part of the covenant.
HaShem gave us the fuel and His spark on Shavuot, first through Torah and then with the Ruach HaKodesh. We have a mission: to do our part in tikkun olam by illuminating the world and bringing people back to HaShem. We have the means: through Torah and mitzvot. We have a guide, in Yeshua our heavenly Cohein Gadol. And we have the power: through the Ruach HaKodesh. In the Besorah According to Yochanan (John 8:12), Yeshua said:
I am the light of the world; whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light which gives life.
The Menorah endures as a symbol of Divine light spreading throughout the world. Follow your own path. Be a menorah to your family, to your friends, to your coworkers, and especially to strangers. As Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi wrote, “Every mitzvah is oil for the soul: with every act that constitutes a fulfillment of the divine will, our lives are rendered into burning lamps, alight with flames that vacillate from heaven to earth and back again and illuminate the world in the process.” Go forth. Go forth to illuminate the darkness and give life.