The Symbolism of the Menorah

Written by Rabbi Moshe Taragin on . Posted in Torah

Parshat Beha’alotecha details the daily lighting of the menorah in the mishkan (tabernacle). This description of the menorah is juxtaposed with the inauguration of the mishkan in the previous parsha, Naso. This juxtaposition establishes the menorah as a symbol that launches the period of the mishkan and, potentially, the golden era of Jewish history. Sadly, we squandered this potential with the debacle of the meraglim (spies). Had we actualized this potential, we would have rapidly entered Israel and introduced monarchy and utopia.

Thousands of years later, the very same icon would be selected to launch the modern State of Israel. Much thought and deliberation were invested in considering over 450 options for the national emblem. Finally, on the 11th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat 1950, a menorah, with two olive branches flanking either side, and the name Yisrael underneath was selected. A serious divide separated the religious and secular factions of the new state, but this symbol bridged these differences.

The menorah provided an obvious connection to our past national glory as well as a powerful religious icon. Additionally, the two olive branches were intended to cast an image of peace — based upon the Torah’s description of a dove returning to Noach with an olive branch in its beak — effectively concluding the mayhem of the mabul (flood). This symbol— which has become internationally associated with peace — was chosen to frame the menorah as a symbol of a renewed State in search of peace with the international community. Sadly, this peace remains elusive.

Interestingly, the menorah was patterned on the menorah that appears on Titus’s arch in Rome and not the one recorded in the Torah. The primary difference between the two menorahs lies in the representation of the base: The Torah describes three legs emerging from a pedestal, whereas the Arch of Titus portrays a solid-based menorah. Titus had suppressed the great Jewish Rebellion against Rome in 70 ACE, and 12 years later an arch (currently situated in the Roman Pantheon) was dedicated in his memory by his brother — Emperor Domitian. The arch was engraved with an image of captured Jewish slaves hauling the menorah to Rome.

For centuries, the arch stood as a memorial to the fallen condition of the Jewish people and their debasement at the hands of the Roman conquerors. According to tradition, Jews would avoid walking underneath the arch. In 1948, weeks after the Declaration of the State of Israel, Roman Jews spontaneously gathered near this arch and walked through it backward — demonstrating that the degradation of Jews, which this arch had symbolized, was now being reversed. Two years later, the arch served as a model for a menorah, which would become the ultimate symbol of Jewish renewal!

Beyond a bridge to our past, the menorah symbolizes a crucial aspect of our historical mission. On three occasions, Yeshaya describes the Jewish people as a light unto other nations or an ohr la’goyim (49:6, 42:6, and 60:3). For Yeshaya, our “casting of this light” occurs when we return to Israel and to statehood. It launches a Messianic era of universal peace and universal interest in the word of G-d. Even for secular Jews, the image of ohr la’goyim proves riveting. As Ben Gurion once wrote, “History didn’t endow Jews with inordinate power, affluence, or territorial expanse. Instead, it granted us with extraordinary moral sensibilities and unusual intellectual capabilities. This condition ennobles us and warrants that we serve as ohr la’goyim.

Religious Jews seek to share not merely moral codes and intellectual abilities of which Ben Gurion wrote. We hope that our menorah radiates with the word of Hashem.

Intriguingly, this function of ohr la’goyim can also be served in the diaspora. Rav Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin wrote at the end of the 19th century that our stay in galut (exile) was extended so that we could properly fulfill this role of ohr la’goyim. For some, it is specifically the conditions of galut that enable this function; as we are scattered among nations, we can more easily deliver our “light.” Some even argued against the Zionist enterprise and a return to a narrow geographic location. Hermann Cohen, a 19th-century Jewish-German philosopher, famously rejected the Zionist enterprise since it would exchange our grand historical mission of ohr la’goyim for frivolous flags and pointless parades (translation mine).

Obviously, we acknowledge that while in the diaspora we served and should continue to serve as a moral conscience for humanity in our attempt to challenge humanity to higher moral and theological ground. However, now that we have returned to our homeland, we can begin to radiate our light at a national level. Ideally, all of humanity should be inspired not just by what his particular Jewish acquaintance represents or how a community of Jews behaves. Ideally, people can be drawn to the overarching message of the state of the Jews.

As we have returned to our homeland, we can begin to sense the emergence of this role. Unfortunately, our imperfect world still hasn’t enabled this condition and we remain, in many cases, marginalized and unable to illuminate for others. We fervently hope that we have at least begun this long process of marching toward our ultimate mission to inspire all of humanity while enhancing human prosperity. We pray that our symbol of statehood will reflect the light we shine upon our entire world.

To religious Jews, the menorah carries an additional symbol of life in the modern state and our renewed relationship with G-d. The Midrash notes that the menorah had no practical function in the mikdash. The mikdash as a house of Hashem requires no source of illumination, as Hashem is the source of all light. However, the combination of olive branches and menorah may also reflect a verse in Zecharya (4), which records the dream-time appearance of this configuration of a menorah. The apparition is meant to foreshadow the restoration of Jewish sovereignty driven by two systems of leadership — political leadership of kings and religious leadership of priests. With G-d’s help, we have merited the restoration of sovereignty and a replica of this menorah now stands in the compound of the Knesset in Yerushalayim.

Though we have revived self-determination, we still await the full restoration of these twin branches: Jewish monarchy and a full mikdash experience supervised by leagues of kohanim (priests).  

Rabbi Moshe Taragin has been a Ram at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Gush Etzion for the past 24 years. In addition, Rabbi Taragin currently teaches at the Stella K. Abraham Beit Midrash for Women of Yeshivat Har Etzion in Migdal Oz in Gush Etzion.

Rabbi Taragin previously taught Talmud at Columbia University, lectured in Talmud and Bible at the IBC and JSS divisions of Yeshiva University, and served as assistant rabbi at the Fifth Avenue Synagogue.

 By Rabbi Moshe Taragin


 

Rabbi Taragin and his wife and have 8 children and reside in Gush Etzion.