All of the commandments in the Torah can be understood on multiple levels: there is the specific law itself which leads to the intricate thought and logic that helps us understand what we are supposed to do. There is also the origin and reason for the law, invariably found through word and theme association elsewhere in the text. These together help flesh out a commandment, so we can understand both what we are supposed to do, and why we are supposed to do it.
In the Torah, words are always interlinked to where they are used elsewhere… words form both the simple path and the breadcrumbs that help us connect different paths, to help understand the meaning of commandments by the stories and examples that led to the genesis of those same commandments.
The what and the why form a baseline within the experience of the revelation at Sinai, when the people said in response to a divine command: “We will do and we will ‘shma’.” (Exodus 24:7) The word “shma” does not specifically mean obey, or hear, or listen, or even comprehend. It is its own word that suggests both hearing and contemplating, thinking, chewing things over. The word “shma” forms the core of “Shma Israel! The Lord our G-d, the Lord is One,” the central mantra of Judaism. “Shma,” not seeing or doing, is the most important central verb of the Torah: it is absorbing and wrestling with ideas that are at the core of religious Jewish observance.
So when we have a simple-enough commandment like the Menorah, the Candelabra in the Tabernacle, we have a pathway to understanding. First, we need to know what to do. This is simple enough: the Torah tells us to make a Menorah and light it, keeping one light as a perpetual flame. The Menorah became, with good reason, the central image of Judaism, the official emblem of Modern Israel, present in every synagogue.
We know the what. So the next question is why. Why are we commanded to have a Menorah?
The “shma” of this commandment, like with all commandments, can have a variety of good answers, some more obvious than others. For example, the symbolism of a candelabra involves light, and all the things that come with it: illumination, clarity, the hypnotic nature of a flame. These are straightforward enough.
The Menorah is described using botanical terms, reminding us of the burning bush. That was the first place G-d called something holy, so we can also learn of an aspect of holiness: fire with matter but without consumption – spiritually uplifting the physical world. [we wrote a book on all the holiness themes in the Tabernacle].
But, in the words of Dr. Seuss: “But that is not all! Oh, no. That is not all….”
Because the text does more with the Menorah than just tell us to make it, and how to use it. The details, the words chosen, are the breadcrumbs to another, deeper meaning of the Menorah.
Almost everything in the tabernacle has physical dimensions, usually expressed in length and width (and sometimes height). Everything, that is, except the Menorah. The Torah does not give us a dimension for the Menorah at all, and it seems that both its dimensions and proportions are not specifically commanded.
There is one piece of material information given: the mass of the menorah was expressly commanded as being from one “talent” of gold. (The Hebrew word transliterates as kikar.) The craftsman is supposed to hammer the entire menorah (and its support vessels) from a single talent, kikar, of gold.
When this is pointed out, the questions appear in our minds: Why is there no dimension? Why is there only a mass? And why is the word used, kikar?
Kikar is our breadcrumb. Where else is it found in the Torah?
Lot looked about him and saw how well watered was the whole plain of the Jordan, all of it—this was before the LORD had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah—all the way to Zoar, like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt. [Gen. 13:10]
It seems irrelevant. But the word used for the “plain” of the Jordan is none other than kikar (quite a different usage than a talent of gold). Which is really quite astonishing.
To understand it, we need to back up and see the context for this word: As we wrote here, Lot and Abram took a wrong turn. Here’s the Torah:
Now Abram was very rich in cattle, silver, and gold. …Lot, who went with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents, so that the land could not support them staying together; for their possessions were so great that they could not remain together. And there was quarreling between the herdsmen of Abram’s cattle and those of Lot’s cattle. … Abram said to Lot, “Let there be no strife between you and me, between my herdsmen and yours, for we are kinsmen. Is not the whole land before you? Let us separate: if you go north, I will go south; and if you go south, I will go north. (Gen. 13:6-9)
We know how well that worked out. Lot first has to be saved by the angels, and then Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed. Lot ends up committing incest with his daughters, and his name becomes associated with ignominious failure.
Here’s the question: why didn’t Abram think to solve the problem of limited land by reducing his assets? After all, if there were fewer cattle to graze, resources would not have been strained to the point of disputes within the family.
It seems to me that our forefather put his material wellbeing ahead of the relationship with his nephew, a relationship that could have led to a great future for the descendants of both, instead of the catastrophe for Lot that it became.
So why is this connected to kikar? Follow the breadcrumbs!
Abram and Lot put their material well-being ahead of their relationship. They thought that possessions trumped familial unity. The garden was thoroughly “Mashkeh,” or satiated by drink. This represents full materialistic or physical fulfillment. They were concerned with the physical aspects of living – and they ignored the non-physical, but still very important, aspects of life.
The menorah had no dimensions. It was not physically measured or defined. Instead, it was a source and projector of light, something that matters a great deal to us, but is also something that we cannot capture or hold in our hand. The light of the Menorah is symbolic of all the things in our lives that have no tangible physical presence, but are yet so very important: light and love and ideas and a sense of unity and harmony in a family and much else besides.
By giving us the only material specification of kikar, the Torah is telling us that the Menorah is a reminder that not everything that matters can be owned. That Abram and Lot’s decision to prioritize their material growth over their own family was an error, and a warning.
The Menorah is a reminder that there are things more important than our material wealth – specifically, our familial relationships. The connections between these two verses is a warning – the Menorah’s light is real and perceptible, even though the photons cannot be captured or held in our hands. Ephemeral things are also real, and also very valuable.
After all, the Torah takes pains to tell us, Lot chose a place that was like “the garden of the Lord.” It did not turn out well. G-d rains down fire and brimstone, destroying the cities, all of Lot’s possessions, killing most of his family. Family should still be more important to us than moving away to live in any garden, even G-d’s own beautiful garden.
The Menorah, made from a single kikar, is a reminder to all who see it: light matters. The things we cannot measure and feel are still important.
Sodom was fertilely nourished – in a materialistic manner. But the Menorah symbolizes spiritual nourishment. When mankind seeks only physical sustenance, divine fire follows – the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the entire kikar of the Jordan. By contrast, when we seek the Menorah, we get the burning bush – divine fire without consumption or destruction.
The commandment to always keep one light of the Menorah burning, a perpetual light, is a reminder of this quality. While the priests lit the menorah, the responsibility of the entire people was to ensure that the light was always on. The perpetual light was the job of everyone together, reminding us of the value and importance of togetherness.
P.S. The word for “hammered” in the instructions for the Menorah has the same letters as the word for “well-watered” in the kikar of the Jordan (with one flip of letters, they are identical). There are numerous parallels here as well, helping to explain why the menorah was hammered out, further helping us understand about misplaced priorities.
[Another iwe and susanquinn production!]