Rabbinic Reflections: Issue 114

June 17, 2022 (18 Sivan 5782)

Happy Channukah!

Dear Holy Friends,

I pray that this correspondence finds you in good health and good cheer while preparing for a relaxing and enjoyable summer. We invite you to join us for our hybrid services, which will take place this Shabbat morning at 10:30am, both in our beautiful sanctuary and over our regular Zoom prayer link. We also thank Rowena & Shira Kamil, who are sponsoring this week's Kiddush in honor & memory of their late mother & father, Selma & Irving Kamil.

This week’s Torah portion begins by describing, in detail, one of the most well-known pieces of “furniture” in the Temple, which you most likely have a version of in your own home, the Menorah. The commandment of the construction of the seven-branched menorah is, in fact, repeated twice in the Torah, both this week in Numbers 8, as well as in the previously read, Exodus 37.

Although you can likely describe your home’s menorah in great detail, chances are that if you read through the Torah text, you might agree with the suggestion of Professor Steven Fine, that its form and substance is anything but clear. In fact, Midrash Tanchuma implies exactly this in the following story, in which Moshe, after having learned directly from God how to build the centerpiece of the Mishkan, could not quite figure out how to do it when he descended from Mount Sinai! Rather, Moshe finally assigned the project to an artisan.

>He went up and said: “Master of the Universe, I have forgotten [how to make it]!”, He [God] said to him: “Look and make (it),” He made its form out of fire and showed him its construction. Still, he [Moses] found its construction difficult. So, the Holy One, blessed be He said to him: “Go to Bezalel and he will make it.”, He went down and told Bezalel, who immediately did it. Moses began to wonder, saying: “To me, it was shown many times by the Holy One, blessed be He, yet I found it hard to make, and you, who did not see it, constructed it with your own intelligence! Bezalel, perhaps you were standing in the shadow of God when the Holy One, blessed be He, showed me its construction? ( MT Beha’alotecha 11).

In addition to the question of what the first Menorah physically looked like, there are several mysteries as to the meaning behind the original six branches of the lamp. Here are a couple of theories for us to ponder over the next few months until we gather to light it again!

Second-Temple-period interpreters offered a cosmic interpretation of the branches. Writing in Greek, some explained the menorah, its seven lights, and the rounded branches, in astronomical terms. Each parallel branch representing the heavenly course of the “planet” that sits atop it. Together, they represent the cosmos.

Specifically, Philo of Alexandria, writing during the first third of the first century C.E., directly related the shape of the menorah’s rounded branches to the trajectory of the planets around the sun: He says that the approach to them is from the side (and) the middle place is that of the sun. But to the other [“planets”] He distributed three positions on the two sides [of the lampstand]; in the superior [group] are Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars, while in the inner [group] are Mercury, Venus, and the moon.

A second idea, based on a spiritual model, is that branches represent the seven days of creation and remind us of Hashem as initial designer of all life.

And a third hypothesis, based on a cognitive model, is that the six outer branches represent areas of fundamental human knowledge – astronomy, mathematics, music, medicine, philosophy, and physics, while the seventh, of course, represents Torah!

The idea of multiple meanings and interpretations is key to the ongoing relevance of all of Judaism and its texts, rituals, and ethics. Were it not for new understandings and explorations, our tradition would only be a relic of the past.

As we enter Shabbat, I pray that we all find relevance in and new ways to appreciate our holy calling as a sacred people, both as individuals and as a community. I look forward to lighting the Menorah with you soon!

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Eric Wasser, EdD, Hon.DM
201 562 5277

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