We've all heard the adage about the opera not being over until the fat lady sings. But the opera doesn't begin, at least not at the Metropolitan Opera, until the chandeliers go up. The performance starts even before the curtain opens, as the twinkling crystal chandeliers ascend to the ceiling. The stage has been set for something illuminating, magical, and transcendent. We are invited to enter into an alternate realm that whisks us away from the finite and ordinary world we inhabit.
So too, like the opera we've been ever so eager to attend, the lighting of the seven-branched menorah (Numbers 8: 1–4), the tree-like candelabrum, is something that we students of Torah have long awaited. We've read about the menorah so many times before—five times in Exodus (25:31–40, 27:20–21, 30:7–8, 37:17–24, 40:4)—and once in Leviticus 24:1–4. Let the show begin: the menorah is ready to be installed in its proper place and lit.
Nehama Leibowitz notes that the Rambam doesn't obsess over the details of the construction of the menorah and the meaning of each botanical element created by Bezalel and his artisans. Instead, he focuses on the theatricality of the event. "The menorah was placed in front of the curtain to enhance the glory and splendor of the house (the Mishkan, the desert tabernacle), for an abode illuminated by a continual light that is concealed by a curtain makes a deep psychological impact."
The Torah: A Women's Commentary includes a poem by Rabbi Jill Hammer that begins:
As the high priest rises
To light the lamps
The tree of life comes to life
With seven branches like the seven days . . .
The poem captures the drama, with the high priest playing the leading role. The moment Hammer depicts follows directly after the description of the offerings of the leaders of the 12 tribes in the dedication of the sanctuary. Rashi, commenting on Numbers 8:1–4, describes a petulant Aaron who complains to God that there was no role for him or his sons in the dedication. (Imagine an actor who has just looked over a script only to find his lines cut.) Seeing his distress, the Kadosh Barukh Hu soothes Aaron, saying, "By your life! Your part is of greater importance than theirs; for you will light and tend to the lamps."
If Aaron has a starring role in the drama, it is not his artistry that makes for a stunning performance (although one does have to admire his costumes). He is a functionary with a crucial role, but it's the lighting designer we have to thank for the menorah in the performance. Credit for its design, like all the other elements of this theatrical ritual, including Aaron's vestments, go to Bezalel, the man who works with Oholiab, and other skilled artisans (hokhmei lev) we read about in Exod. 28:3. In Exodus 31:1–3, we learn that Bezalel is more than "first of many." K'shmo, kein hu: his name means "one who is in God's shadow"; his is a special relationship with God. He among all the skilled craftspeople who made the Mishkan has a true vocation; God calls him to take on this task: "Karati b'shem Bezalel ben Uri ben Hur." He is described as being filled with the divine spirit: "V'amaleh oto ruah Elohim, b'hokhmah, u-v'tvunah, u'v'da'at."
Light and wisdom are inextricably tied. Wisdom is often depicted in Christianity and Buddhism as a lamp. Light dispels darkness and ignorance, helping the lost find their way. It is an iconographic element on many a college seal: a radiant sun for Amherst; three flames for Brandeis; and the words Lux et Veritas (Light and Truth), along with the urim and tumim, for Yale; thus guaranteeing a permanent place in the repertory of the Whiffenpoofs, "the poor little lambs who have lost [their] way."
Rabbinic commentators are adamant: God doesn't need the light of the menorah; it's God's people who do. R. Avina said:
The orb of the sun is only one of my servants, and it when it goes forth into the world, its direct light is so intense that no creature can feed its eyes on it—do I then require your light? Lightning is a thing generated from the fire above, and its light dazzles the world from end to end—do I then require your light? As R. Aha stated, "That which the Lord desires is, for His righteousness' sake, to make Torah great and glorious (Isa. 42:21). I have come, says God, for no other purpose than to endow you [to whom Torah was given] with the merit [of observing her precepts]. (Lev. R 31:8; Num. R 15:7)
Just as light is a symbol for wisdom on the university seals, light, as Hammer reminds us, is a metaphor for Torah. Proverbs 6:23 states: "For mitzvah is a lamp (candle) and Torah is light . . . " Midrash Eikha R., Pesikta 2, uses this symbolism in describing the destruction and exile of Israel. "Would that they had abandoned me but observed my Torah. From their involvement in it, the light within it would have returned them to goodness." (They would have found their way [halakhah]-like Yale's poor little lambs.)
During the days of the first and second Temples, the menorah served the same function as it did in the days of the Mishkan: to remind the people of God's indwelling presence among them. It not only symbolized the wisdom of Torah, but of the nation itself; one that was expected to become a "light that would illuminate the way for the nations" (Isa. 60:3). The menorah on the Arch of Titus is, therefore, a double synecdoche (a part standing for a whole): both for the destroyed Temple and for the vanquished Jewish people. Today, that menorah, a vague reminder of ancient fertility rites or the plant salvia palestina, serves as a powerful secular Israeli symbol in front of the Knesset and as the national seal.
Over time, the Beit ha'Mikdash was replaced by the mikdash m'at, the synagogue, and the menorah morphed into the ner tamid, the lamp that was to be lit on a continuous, regular basis, hukkat olam l'dorotam (Exod. 27:21). The elements of the spectacle described in our parashah and the message that "here lies wisdom" coalesce as we stand before the open ark, the silver Torah ornaments glittering in the light of the ner tamid, and sing "Eitz hayim hi." At this moment, we reenact the lighting of the menorah in the Mishkan and in the Temple in Jerusalem and feel the power of a performance that relies on sight and sound in a chorus that appeals to the soul and mind.
Leibowitz, N. (1981). Studies in Shemot (Exodus) II. Jerusalem, The World Zionist Organization, 501–2.
Hammer, J. (2007). "Menorah." The Torah: A Women's Commentary, NY: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 494.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.