(This article was printed in Seattle’s biweekly Jewish newspaper,
as “Rabbi’s Turn—Parshat Terumah” in February, 2005)
This week’s Torah portion, (or sedra) is called Terumah, and it includes instructions from G-d to Moses and the Israelites regarding how to build the mishkan, (the traveling sanctuary), and its many ritual objects. One of the most central of these objects was the menorah. Not the menorah we typically think of in modern times, the chanukiyah, or Chanukah menorah, but rather the original menorah—the seven branched candelabra that graced the south wall of the mishkan as well as the Temple in ancient times.
Until relatively recently, the menorah, not the Star of David, was the prime symbol of Judaism, but we rarely delve into its symbolism. One of the most frequent reminders we have of the menorah is Psalm 67, which is in the Sefardi, Mizrachi and Chasidic daily prayerbooks, often written out in shape of menorah. According to Rabbi David Abudraham (Spain late 13th – 14th cent) “one who recites this psalm every day is considered to have lit the Menorah in the Temple and beheld the Divine Presence” Our tradition values the menorah enough to place a reminder of it in our daily prayers, and to equate the lighting of the menorah with beholding the Divine Presence—in Hebrew, the Shechinah. No wonder this is the symbol with which we chose to identify our people. But the question still remains, what is the symbolism about?
There are many layers to the image. Some have compared the seven lights of the menorah to the seven lights of the human face—the eyes, nostrils, mouth and ears. All things that come in sets of seven, such as the days of the week, or the seven lower sefirot in the kabbalistic Tree of Life are also related images. The prophet Zecharyah had a vision of a golden menorah, in which an angel explained to him that the meaning of the seven flames of the menorah were “the eyes of the Adonai, ranging over the whole earth.” (Zecharyah 4:10) That is a powerful image—it tells us that when we see the flames of the menorah we are, so to speak, seeing the eyes of G-d.
The menorah is described in our sedra repeatedly (Exodus 25: 33-34, as well as later in Exodus 37:19-20) as having oil cups which are “meshukadim”. The translation of this word is varied, but the majority opinion is that it has to do with the shekeidiyah—the almond tree. Thus, the menorah is to be decorated to look like an almond tree— with almond shaped cups, and flowers. The root of the Hebrew word for almond—shin kuph dalet—is also the root for one of the words meaning to watch or guard. In this way, there is a connection between the almond tree image and the idea in Zecharyah of the menorah lights as the eyes of G-d.
There is another level as well to the almond tree image of the menorah. Professor Scott Noegel at the University of Washington School of Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Studies teaches that there is much to be learned from the Latin root of the word for almond tree as well as the Hebrew. In Latin, almond is amygdalas, which itself comes from the Hebrew: em gedolah, or great mother. So somewhere deep in our collective past, the menorah as almond tree was a reminder of G-d’s presence; and as Abudraham reminds us, that presence is what we call the Shechinah, that aspect of G-d that we tend to associate with the female; G-d as mother. The Talmud as well( Megillah 21b, Baba Batra 25b) associates the menorah with the Shechinah.
We also tend to picture the Torah as a tree—for example, the verse from Proverbs (originally referring to wisdom) that we sing at the end of a Torah service—Etz Chayim Hi—“She is a tree of life for those who grasp her, and those who hold on to her are happy.” (Proverbs 3:18). So it is not surprising that some connect the menorah and the Torah. Perhaps there is also a relationship between the twenty two almond cups that G-d tells Moses to make on the menorah and the twenty two letters of the alef bet, with which the Torah is made.
In our sedra, (Ex 25:31) G-d tells Moses that the menorah must be made “mikshah”. The root, kuph shin heh, has to do with hardness. The word is translated as hammered.(ie hit by something hard), by the great medieval commentator, Rashi, although he says that it has to do with something being kasheh—hard as in difficult; that Moses had difficulty figuring out how to make the menorah. The chasidic rebbe, R.Avraham Mordechai of Gur (in P’ninei haTorah, p. 135) comments about Rashi’s comment: “the difficulty was not in understanding, but because the Menorah symbolizes the Torah. Moses, due to his knowledge of the greatness of her [the Torah’s] holiness, which is endless, was in awe and trembled to make it, therefore he found it difficult (mitkasheh bah).”
So we find that the menorah is quite a multilayered image: the lights are eyes; the shape an almond tree, a symbol of the great mother, the divine presence, the Shechinah, the tree of life, the Torah. And this is the image that we chose to represent us as the Jewish people; the image we still put before ourselves every morning in the siddur, and every year at Chanukah. And this week in our Torah reading.
Judaism developed in a period when matriarchal cultures were declining, and patriarchal ones were rising. We carried teachings from matriarchal traditions that could not survive any longer out in the open, to be unpacked later. Due to the amazingly faithful transmission of our teachings and practices, even the ones which we haven’t fully understood, we now have an unbroken chain of tradition unlike any other.
We are the next link in that transmission, and perhaps we are ready to unpack.