A Torah scroll does not have any pictures, punctuation, or even vowels. But its words form images in our minds, images that become iconic even while their meaning or origin are not widely understood.
Take, for example, the Menorah. This is a holy artifact from the Temple, and it was the centerpiece of Titus’ triumphant arch (and the greatest tragedy in Jewish history).
For thousands of years, this has been the image used in synagogues and Jewish homes as a representation of Judaism. But why? What does it actually mean?
A common answer is that the Menorah represents light, in all its forms: truth, knowledge, and even goodness. One thinks of “A light unto the nations.” And this is a good first step. But why, for example does it have seven arms on one stalk? Why is it described (in Ex. 25:31-40) in botanical terms?
In parallel, both Jewish thinkers like Joseph Cox and Christians have recently connected the menorah to the burning bush where Moses first meets G-d. The burning bush was a plant that was on fire without being consumed, just like the Menorah. And the bush represented not just heat and light, but also holiness. The burning bush, just like the body and soul, are the unification of the physical and spiritual. So, too, the Menorah can be seen as a physical object being used for spiritual ends.
Last weekend my 12 year-old son, Kalev, made a connection that I have never seen before, and which blew me away. He connected the Menorah to something else entirely, something that predates the burning bush in the Torah.
Pharoah’s second dream (Gen. 41:5) was of seven heads of grain, growing on a single stalk. These represent Egypt herself. Seven on one, just like the Menorah.
I would suggest that the Menorah and Pharoah’s corn are mirror images of the other, representing the mirror images of Egypt and Israel – and indeed, the mirror image of heaven and earth. Both have seven arms. Both are on a single stalk.
The word for “stalk” is first found in the Torah in Gen. 14:19, when G-d is described as the maker of heaven and earth. “Maker” from 14:19 is the same word as “stalk” in Pharoah’s dream and for the Menorah. So the “stalk” is a metaphor for G-d.
So here we have it: Heaven and Earth come from the same source, the same creator. And they are mirror images of each other, made at the same time, formed from the waters that are divided on the second day.
The Torah frequently contrasts Egypt and Israel. Egypt was the breadbasket of the ancient world, and its sustenance through harmonization with the waters below (the Nile), and not from rainfall. And so its symbol comes from the Nile, and represents agricultural wealth. Egypt is Nature and the celebration of mankind’s physical existence and connection to the waters below.
Israel is meant to be a spiritual light unto the nations, gaining its sustenance through a relationship with G-d. Israel exists because of heaven, and seeks to connect mankind through our souls.
The language reflects this nicely. The word used for Nile in the Torah is Yud-Alef-Vav-Reish, which means the source of irrigation. But that same word has, within it, the word Alef-Vav-Reish, “ohr” or “light” – the very same as “let there be light”. So just as the source of Egypt’s blessings come from the waters below, Israel’s blessings come from the light above.
The exegesis writes itself from here. The number seven (as both the Menorah and the corn have seven “fruits” on each stalk) can be explained in a host of related ways: seven is the number of creation, the number of nature. The Torah uses seven names for heaven, so we say it has seven levels. Even the spiritual bridge between earth and heaven that was built by our forefathers has seven earthly levels and seven heavenly levels, as illustrated by those buried at the cave of Machpelah that Avraham purchased.
Corn comes from the earth, while the Menorah is described as being like almonds, which come from trees that reach upward as long as they live. The contrast is clear: the Torah divides the world between those who seek to look down, to live in harmony with nature, and those who seek to connect to the spiritual plane, to look up to the heavens and the lights of the Menorah, seeking to perceive and understand those things that are well beyond the reach of our physical bodies.