A D’var Torah for
by Rabbi David Markus
What does God need of our spirituality, what do we need of it, and how do we know? These questions cast long theological shadows across sacred tradition, and efforts at clarity often generate more heat than light.
It’s with those questions in mind that I read of Parashat Beha’alotekha’s seven-branch gold menorah, symbol of Jewish peoplehood and the modern State of Israel.
Why seven branches? The parashah doesn’t say. God just tells Moses to instruct Aaron: “In your lifting the lamps (beha’alotekha et ha-neirot) to light, let seven lamps shine at the front of the menorah” (Numbers 8:2). The fact of the menorah’s “seven” is assumed.
Torah continues that the menorah should look as previously described – alluding to the design God showed Moses at Sinai (Exodus 25:40). There too, however, Torah doesn’t say why seven branches.
Do the menorah branches evoke Jewish time (Creation’s seven days)? Jewish space (antiquity’s seven celestial spheres, which was Josephus’ answer)? Jewish encounters with God (branches evoking the Tree of Life or the Burning Bush)? A mystical journey of seven spiritual qualities (i.e. the seven lower sefirot, which inspire seven-week counting practices from Passover to Shavuot and from Tisha b’Av to Rosh Hashanah)?
So many possibilities, no single answer, and none of them clear. What irony that themenorah, familiar light symbol of Jewishness, should be shrouded in such mystery!
This mystery is fitting. It hints that our identity symbols – and all we spiritually bring to light – inherently arise in Mystery. Rather than a familiar but false light of certainty, themenorah radiates questions sparked by Mystery. Rather than a single Jewish path, themenorah’s branches depict a pluralism that invokes Unity.
Which begs another question: who needs such a menorah – God, or us? Talmud holds that God doesn’t need it (B.T. Menahot 86b), but leaves us guessing if or why we do.
One midrash also casts light on the menorah mystery of multiple wicks. Tanhumaoffers that we can only spread light that already exists. Spiritually speaking, only God creates light from darkness: we can’t. That’s why the menorah has multiple wicks – to remind us that we spread light from candle to candle (soul to soul) rather than creating light from scratch. In just that way, the menorah’s multiple wicks are for us (Tanhuma, Beha’alotekha 5:1a), to teach us who we are relative to God. We are God’s light workers.
Take that in. The menorah, and any spiritual symbol, teaches us who we are relative to God. If we spread “light unto the nations” (Isaiah 49:6), it’s only because God creates that light. Whatever spiritual light we reflect, the light itself is God’s creation – not ours.
When we live that way – as humble vessels for a light we know and feel transcending us – we fulfill the Psalmist’s call to know that God is the creator, not we ourselves (Psalms 100:3). Then the word beha’alotekha itself transforms from “In your lifting the lamps” to “In lifting you as the lamps” (Tanhuma, Beha’alotekha 5:1b). As we radiate spiritual light knowing that only God creates it, we ourselves get lifted and lit up.
Maybe that’s why we need the menorah and why God needs us: to radiate the spiritual light we receive as conscious witnesses and clear conduits. And maybe that’s why Torah’s phrase beha’alotekha et ha-neirot is missing a letter. Ha-neirot (“the candles”), usually spelled הנרות, instead appears as הנרת without a vav – the letter that literally is a connector and figuratively is a wick. We learn that Torah calls us to be that connector, the wick that lifts God’s light. That’s how Torah calls us together to become a menorah.
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Good homiletics, maybe – but is it sound theology? Can we really infer so much about God, and our relationship with God, from sacred text’s depiction of a golden symbol?
An ostensibly rationalist Maimonides thought so when he tackled another of Torah’s golden symbols – the two gold cherubs atop the Ark (Exodus 25:18-21). To Maimonides, the fact of two cherubs showed that the cherubs were not God. Only God is One, so two cherubs can’t be God precisely because there were two of them. The Ark’s two cherubs thus taught about God not from any surface vision but by challenging us to see those sacred symbols deeply, for what they were not (Guide for the Perplexed III, 45:2).
Whatever we make of Maimonides’ apophatic theology (sacred awareness by negation), his teaching about the cherubs shines on the menorah and much else in spiritual life. We can learn to see beyond mere appearance, especially when what we’re seeing is our own sacred tradition. We can learn to see with God-lit eyes that all multiplicities point to the One we call God – but themselves are not worthy of worship. Thus we can learn to see “outside the curtain, witnessing [the holy, as the menorah’s multiple wicks are] the testimony that the Divine Presence dwells among [us]” (B.T. Menahot 86b).
Learning to see outside the curtain of surface appearance is our sacred calling, our spiritual response to a divinity that by definition transcends all appearance however bright and golden. Far more than casting any particular light unto the nations, themenorah calls us to see divine Oneness into being among the many.
And when we do, when we see every spiritual symbol and every soul as a pointer to the ultimate Source of Light, we can’t help but light up! V’nizkeh khulanu m’heirah l’oro — May all of speedily merit to shine with that light.
Rabbi David Evan Markus (AJR Adjunct Faculty – Rabbinics) is co-rabbi of Temple Beth El of City Island (New York, NY) and Founding Builder of Bayit: Building Jewish, a spiritual innovation start-up for all ages and stages. Rabbi Markus also serves as Faculty in Spiritual Direction and past Board Co-Chair for ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. By day, Rabbi Markus presides as Judicial Referee in New York Supreme Court, 9th Judicial District, as part of a parallel career in government service.