Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 25 February 2023 / 4 Adar 5783

The Menorah: Enlightened Spirit

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
Become a Supporter Library Library

The materials used in the construction of the Mishkan have symbolic value and convey a great deal about our relationship to Hashem and the manner in which we are to consecrate our lives. The meaning of the menorah would seem obvious — it is the source of light, of spiritual enlightenment.

Normally we associate light with knowledge and wisdom, intellectual or spiritual enlightenment. Rav Hirsch cites a plethora of verses from the Tanach where lamp and light denote teaching, wisdom and Torah. But he cites an even greater number of verses in which lamp and light are used as metaphors for the source of growth and life, of unfolding and flowering, of progress and joy.

Perception and enlightenment are only part of the spiritual symbolism of light. The other essential component is movement, which, together with perception, epitomizes the effect and meaning of light. This movement is not physical movement, but organic and spiritual movement. In this sense, the light of the menorah represents both perception — the element that enlightens, and movement — the element that mobilizes. In man, this duality takes the form of perception and volition. The exercise of these two faculties demonstrates the presence of the human spirit.

At their root, volition and perception are one, and they strive to reunite in their objectives. Any perception of truth is of value only if there is practical implementation. And conversely, all doing of good must be oriented towards the recognition of truth. Only from this perception of truth does the good deed derive its motivation and assurance that it is truly of value.

The menorah was constructed of three pairs of lateral branches emerging from a central shaft. Each pair, representing perception and volition, issued from the same point on the central shaft. When they reach up to the top of the menorah, the two branches directed their light towards each other, and also to the central branch common to both. This central flame points upwards, symbolizing the spirit dedicated to Hashem. The entire menorah is thus a call to set the dedication to Hashem as the goal of our united perception and volition.

The menorah ideally is to be constructed from single piece of gold, chiseled away to create its structure. It is to be made of gold, the noblest of metals, but if gold is not available it may be made of other metals, excluding scrap metal. If necessary, it may also be constructed piece by piece. While the menorah’s ideal construction symbolizes the purity of spirit that the Jew aspires to, the fact that it may be fashioned from other metals, and even piecemeal, suggests that the call to spiritual ascent is for every Jew. In every circumstance, at his level, with the faculties with which he is endowed, whether he lives in turbulent or tranquil times — he can achieve moral perfection.

  • Source: Commentary, Shemot 25:39

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