Jewish Unity – The Hidden Message of the Menorah
“When you light the lamps of the menorah, toward the center shall the lamps be lit.” Numbers 8.2
“The wrath of God was kindled; and the fire of the Lord devoured them.” Numbers 11.1
Revelations concerning the future tenure of Rabbi Shlomo (Steve) Riskin, chief rabbi and co-founder of the Judean settlement of Efrat, may be what is needed to ignite global Jewry from its apathetic slumber. It seems that his stance on issues (that I overwhelmingly agree with) including conversion and women’s involvement in religious rites is cause for the Israeli rabbinate to threaten not to renew his contract. Although a slew of rabbis and public officials have come out in support of Rabbi Riskin’s continued tenure, the right-leaning Rabbinate has aroused much ire by using their political clout to denigrate their religiously moderate opponents.
The Menorah, the symbol of the State of Israel, is based on the opening verse in this week’s Torah portion. Aaron the Kohen is given the responsibility of ensuring that light permeates the Temple and that the flame of the menorah is always brightly lit. Interestingly, the Midrash says that the phrase el mul pnei hamenorah – towards the center, seems rather strange. It explains that although seven candles were to be lit, only the center candle was straight. The three candles on either side were curved inward as if to face the center candle.
Eretz Yisrael, The State of Israel, is a melting pot. Jews from all walks of life and religious observance ascend the holy land to be part of the Zionist ideal. In order to unify the masses, the State of Israel consecrated the Menorah as its national symbol. Even in its infancy they realized that if the right and the left both face towards the center then indeed the Menorah will serve as a beacon of light to all. If, however, each candle is straight and separate, then sadly we are left with seven independent flames but very little unity or light. They also realized that the flickering of candles represents the Jewish world; an entity in a constant state of flux. The Etz Chaim – a tree of life is another metaphor that also conveys a similar ideal. The tree is likened to the Jewish people as it shows its vibrancy by the ruffled sounds of the wind allowing its branches the freedom to move in different directions. The tree that stands rigid, albeit appearing tall, is the tree that has lost its source of life and resilience and whose purpose is limited.
This flickering flame also penetrates the deepest recesses of our heart. Shabbat is graced by the subtlety of the candles burning, while even in the trying days of Shiva, the yearning in our soul is tempered by the constancy and radiance of the mourning candle. During the joy of the wedding ceremony, the flame held by the parents joins the bridal procession, while the burning of Chanukah lights casts the miracle of yesteryear into relevance for today. The Talmud (Pesachim 54b) says that fire was man’s first successful undertaking following the seven days of creation. (That is the reason for the custom of lighting a candle during Havdalah.)
Contrasting the serenity and calmness ushered in by candlelight, this week’s Torah portion also uses the terminology of fire by stating, “The wrath of God was kindled, and the fire of the Lord devoured them.” Metaphorically this conjures up a harsh and vengeful reality. A fire is all consuming and destroys anything in its path. Its wrath has no limitations, and even a whisper of its proximity wreaks havoc and sends shiver of fear upon a society. Yet by harnessing its energy and controlling its dominance, mankind has an amazing and versatile tool at its disposal. It can melt and refine gold and other precious metals, yet can conversely strengthen and harden other metals. A fire will cook the most delicious of meals and heat the coldest of homes, yet left under its own dominion it proves to be a menace to society.
The Menorah is also a vessel that is able to control and harness the flame within, and is to be lit only by Aaron the High Priest. Aaron, a person whose life was dedicated by the principle of ohev shalom v’rodef shalom– a lover and pursuer of peace. I see in this week’s Torah portion the answer to events that are happening before our eyes. Rabbi Riskin is a descendent of Aaron, a person who has dedicated his life to helping others while igniting the flame of Aliyah in his Lincoln Square community. He is that center candle; he understands the needs of those who are not religiously observant, but is a scholar that is capable of defending the Torah and Judaism. He is the embodiment of that which is sacred, and both the left and right would be well served by bending slightly inward.
Almost two thousand years ago the Roman’s ransacked our Holy Temple and stole the Holy vessels including the Golden Menorah. The Arch of Titus has a depiction of that Menorah as if to commemorate the celebration of Jerusalem’s defeat. We thank Hashem that in our days we have been blessed to see the reunification of Jerusalem. All I ask is that my colleagues heed the lesson of the Menorah and learn to bend inward. May our generation experience the rededication of lighting the Menorah, and may those like Rabbi Riskin who have learned to harness energy be the torchbearers of authentic Judaism for many years to come.
Rabbi Jack Engel
PS: On June 3, I attended an evening on Jewish unity in memory of three boys kidnapped and murdered in Israel a year ago. The event was put on by the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach and involved Jews from all walks of life and religious persuasions. It was a kiddush Hashem – sanctification of God’s name. While I am certain all the 500 people in attendance had other important thing to do, each of them realized the importance of supporting the broader Jewish community. Anshei Emuna during the summer months has difficulty with morning and evening minyanim and thus I am requesting that you consider dedicating one or two evenings a weeks to support our daily minyan. I hope the audio download may bring a smile to your face and an extra few people to services.