3/04/2005

The Light of the Menorah

Yesterday a friend of mine asked me if I could read from the Torah this Shabbat for a small Chabad minyan on campus. I told him I'd see what I can do. So now I'm desperately trying to learn the reading in time.

There are several benefits to learning the readings. Because you have to repeat the words over, and over, and over again to memorize them, you begin to notice nuances of the text you would otherwise have missed. (Especially if you usually read on the English side...) This parasha, "Vayakhel," deals with the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). As I'm reading, I notice that the word "mela'cha" is used repeatedly to describe the activities involved in the building, particularly those needing skilled artisans. The same word is used at the beginning of the parasha to refer to the prohibition of activity on Shabbat, and the Sages understood that the prohibited activities were precisely those which were performed during the construction of the Mishkan. But that's a whole 'nuther topic.

Over and over again, there have been references to the oil for the lamps of the Menorah, which had seven branches with designs of flower cups and almonds underneath the lamps. The Menorah was fashioned out of a single ingot of gold, by Divine decree. Why?

(Disclaimer: everything I'm about to say is one opinion among many. When I remember my sources, I will cite them, but a lot of them have blended together over time. For that, my apologies.)

It is a well-established tradition that the different vessels in the Mishkan all had symbolic meanings. Maimonides et al assert that the Menorah represented the different aspects of human thought. Each of the six outer branches represented one of the six schools of human knowledge (metaphysics, philosophy, history, etc.), while the central column represented Divine knowledge and the Torah. Tradition has it that the wicks in each of the outer lamps would lean inwards, towards the central lamp. This is understood as meaning that all aspects of human thought are subservient to the Torah.

I'm sure someone must have said this before, but I believe this is why the Menorah had to be made from a single piece. One cannot section off his mind and say, "This is my Torah knowledge, and this is my secular knowledge; each is self-contained, and they do not interact with each other." Rather, there cannot be any separation between Torah and human knowledge; each must inform the other. Indeed, Maimonides believed that one could not truly understand the Torah without a basic grasp of physics first.

This model of learning is contrasted with another model, that of the Holy Ark. The Ark represented Torah and Divine Revelation in its purest form, without human adaptation. (R' Aryeh Kaplan wrote that the prophets of old would prepare themselves for prophecy by meditating on the Ark.) The Ark was kept in the innermost room of the Mishkan, and nobody ever went inside except the High Priest, and then only on Yom Kippur. This model is that of the ascetic, who closes himself off from society to focus entirely on the Divine.

A point which gets forgotten is that because the Ark was purely Torah, it had to be hidden. Such a model, while praiseworthy for individuals, is not fitting for an entire society. Those who are not true spiritual masters cannot live properly if they scorn "secular" knowledge, because their knowledge of Torah itself will be stunted and narrow. Moreover, the Menorah—and not the Ark—was placed opposite the Table of the Showbread, which symbolized the Divine promise of sustenance. Those who follow the way of the Ark must depend on others for their livelihood. For the society to function, the bulk of the people must follow the way of the Menorah: employing "secular" knowledge and being enriched by it, while viewing all through the lens of the Torah and Judaism.

The Menorah, in contrast to the Ark, was not shut away from society. Indeed, when the Temple in Jerusalem was constructed, windows were placed so that the Menorah's light would shine out into the world. Today, the world needs that light badly.

1 comment:

Asher Litwin said...

Oooh, nice insight.