Parashat Beha'alotekha: "Toward the Body of the Menora"
by Rav Itamar Eldar
Yeshivat Har Etzion
"Toward the body of the Menora"
Our parasha opens with the command given to Aharon the kohen concerning the menora and the lighting of its lamps. The passage reads as follows:
And the Lord spoke to Moshe, saying. Speak to Aharon, and say to him, When you light the lamps, the seven lamps shall give light towards the body of the menora. And Aharon did so; he lighted its lamps over against the body of the menora, as the Lord commanded Moshe. And this was the work of the menora: it was of beaten gold, from its shaft, to its flowers, it was beaten work: according to the pattern which the Lord had shown Moshe, so he made the menora. (Bamidbar 8:1-4)
One of the most interesting expressions in this passage is: "The seven lamps shall give light towards the body [el mul penei] of the candlestick." The biblical commentators disagree about the meaning of the words "towards the body" and about the question where precisely the lamps faced.
In this lecture we shall examine several passages in the Sefat Emet that are based on a Midrash that serves as the background of a discussion regarding an ordinary man's standing before God, in light of the biblical passage dealing with the menora and its lamps.
THE CLEARING OF SPACE - THE SHAME OF THE PSYCHOLOGICAL EXPERIENCE
The Midrash states:
explanation: "When you light" this is what the verse says:
"Even the darkness is not dark for You, but the night shines like the day;
the darkness and the light are both alike to You" (Tehilim 139:12).
And to us it says: "When you light." This may be likened to a king who
had a friend. The king said to him: "Know that I will dine with you; go,
prepare for me." His friend went and prepared an ordinary bed, and
ordinary lamp and an ordinary table. When the king came, he came with
attendants surrounding him from this side and that, and golden lamps before
him. When his friend saw all the glory, he was ashamed, and he hid all that he
had prepared for him, all being ordinary. The king said to him: "Did I not
say that I would dine with you? Why did you not prepare anything for me?"
His friend said to him: "I saw all this glory that came with you, and I
was ashamed, so I hid all that I had prepared for you, all being ordinary
utensils." The king said to him: "By your life, I will disqualify all
the utensils that I have brought, and because of our friendship I will use only
yours." So too the Holy One, blessed be He, is entirely light. As it is
stated: "And the light dwells within Him" (Daniel 2:22). And
He said to
The Midrash describes an ordinary person who is frightened by the enormous gap between the king's glory and the simplicity of his own utensils, and therefore hides them so that he not be shamed for setting out his simple utensils before the exalted king. The king, however, prefers the simple utensils of that ordinary person, friend of the king, to all the gold and silver utensils in his possession.
The Sefat Emet tries to understand the deeper significance of these behaviors that of the king and that of the ordinary person. He writes as follows:
"The seven lamps shall give light towards the body of the menora." This is difficult, for it should have said "the six lamps." But the matter may be explained based on the Midrash regarding the parable of the king who was invited by an ordinary person for a meal. And when the king arrived, [the ordinary person] hid all his ordinary utensils, and the king disqualified his royal utensils in order to use only the ordinary utensils. See there. This is what is written: "Toward the body of the menora," which is the supernal menora. For all the mitzvot are allusions to what is found above. Therefore, it is called "penei ha-menora," for it is the inner aspects [penimiyut] of the menora in the Mishkan. But nevertheless: "The seven lamps shall give light." Even though there is no resemblance between this light and the supernal light, only the king disqualified the royal untensils in order to use the ordinary utensils. And in truth, through the shame that [the ordinary person] felt, so that he hid his untensils, he merited that his utensils be accepted by the king. For after all his preparations, a person must surely come to this shame and effacement. Then his actions have room to rise before the king. Thus, all the illumination comes from the fact that it is toward the body of the menora. Understand this. (Sefat Emet, Beha'alotekha, 5638)
The Sefat Emet expounds the words, "the seven lamps shall give light towards the body of the menora," saying that the verse should have stated, "the six lamps shall give light," namely, the six lamps shall illuminate towards the seventh lamp. The fact that the verse speaks of "seven lamps" implies that all seven lamps faced somewhere else penei ha-menora the innermost aspects [penimiyut] of the menora.
Lest we think that the lamps of the menora lit by Aharon the kohen constitute the final objective, the Sefat Emet teaches us that there is an objective, an idea, and a meaning that are loftier than the lights themselves, towards which all the lamps all seven of them are directed.
The Sefat Emet teaches us that this idea has two ramifications:
According to what the Sefat Emet says, the value and significance of the lights lit by Aharon the kohen become greatly diminished, they being merely a reflection of the supernal lights that are not found in the menora.
The second ramification follows from the first. When the kohen sees and understands that the lamps which he lights are but a shadow of the supernal lights, he comes to think and feel that his lights are the lights of an ordinary person, and his deeds are small and narrow. Or in the words of the Midrash a source of shame!
The King, so it might be expected, will certainly scorn the lights of the menora in the Mishkan, they being merely an allusion to and an echo of the great, hidden lights. Even the lights of the menora are directed towards these great lights. It is precisely the second ramification the shame that accompanies the act that causes the King to waive the great lights and rest His Shekhina on the small lights, the lights of the menora. The kohen ha-gadol enters the Sanctuary, cleans out the lamps, pours the oil, arranges the wicks, and lights the lamps, but all of these actions and all of these preparations sink into the shame that accompanies the kohen when he remembers that he is merely lighting a light of this world, one that is conjoined to a wick and draws on oil, light that is connected to matter. It is precisely this shame that brings the King, in unexpected fashion, to prefer the ordinary utensils to the royal utensils, to prefer the light of the menora to the supernal lights.
This process, teaches us the Sefat Emet, relates not only to the menora. "For after all his preparations, a person must surely come to this shame and effacement." A person performs actions and fulfills commandments, and every action and every commandment is accompanied by preparations, sometimes more, sometimes less. At the end of these preparations, the person is ready to perform the action and fulfill the commandment. This is the moment of climax; satisfaction and joy fill the person's heart, and he feels that he has succeeded in his mission.
The sukka for which a person toiled and in which he invested his money, his time, and his efforts is a majestic sukka, and all that is left now is to harvest the fruit and enjoy the mitzva before God, Master of the Universe.
After days of hard work and effort, the house is clean and shining for Shabbat; the aromas of the delicacies that had been prepared in the honor of Shabbat rise from the kitchen; everybody is clean, everything sparkles. Even the candles are in place, waiting to be lit. All that is left to do is to enjoy, to rejoice, and to feel the satisfaction of a mission accomplished, of preparations that have reached their end.
And then all of a sudden, before the Shekhina rests in our sukka, just before the house fills with the light of Shabbat, a person feels shame. Where does this shame come from? Why does it overpower the joy and satisfaction?
The Sefat Emet teaches us that a moment before the King makes His appearance, we suddenly remember the abysmal gap, the infinite distance between us and Him. Why should God desire our actions? What is the connection between the material acts of cleaning the house, preparing food, and even lighting candles, on the one hand, and the resting of the Shekhina on the other? What does the King, King of kings, see in those born of women, made up of base matter?
The transition from the activity of preparations to the passivity of shame, teaches us the Sefat Emet, is a clearing of space "Then his actions have room to rise before the king."
When a person goes from his preparations, from his efforts, from the intensity of action, to receive the Shekhina, he does not come to receive, but rather to take. A person who is occupied in preparations is steeped in himself. It is true that he is preparing himself for Divine service, but nevertheless it is he who stands at the center of his actions. What else have I not done? Have I made my bed? Have I lit candles? Have I finished cooking? A person acts, a person prepares, and thus he also wants to take. In such a situation, contends the Sefat Emet, there is no room for the Shekhina to rest, and the person's actions cannot rise. A person stakes his pegs in the material world, and these pegs fetter his actions, preventing them from ascending heavenward, for "the heavens are the heavens of God, and the earth was given to the children of man." There is no way to bridge the two extremes, and man's material actions will never reach heaven.
Shame, teaches us the Sefat Emet, loosens these fetters and frees the pegs. A person clears the space and turns all of his actions and all of his preparations into something that is, as it were, void of meaning. Who am I, and what are my actions? What have I done? In essence, I have done nothing! Is there any meaning to wicks and oil? Is there any significance to a row of beams and palm fronds resting upon them?
A person waives these preparations, as it were, hides them away and tries to reach the Shekhina using other means. He clears space, removes himself and his actions, and is prepared to assimilate new utensils. His actions, detached from him - he being prepared to waive them and release himself from them are then given wings that allow them to take off and fly high above the material world.
the limits of understanding the shame of spiritual Understanding
In a different teaching, the Sefat Emet tries to reach an even deeper understanding of the new psychological situation created by the shame. He writes as follows:
"[The seven lamps] shall give light toward the body of the menora.' And in the Midrash: This may be likened to a king for whom a meal was prepared in ordinary utensils, and when the king arrived with his great glory, the ordinary person hid his utensils, and the king commanded to disqualify his [own] utensils and use only the ordinary utensils. The matter may be explained as follows: Because of this very shame that he saw and felt that he has to hide his utensils because of this the king used them. This is what is written: "Toward [the body of the menora]." The ministering kohen must know that all these mitzvot are allusions to supernal lights. And through this, all his actions become effaced in the shame and submission before the Creator, blessed be He. And through this itself, there is elevation and pleasure through the actions [performed] below. And the Holy One, blessed be He, disqualifies, as it were, the upper world out of His love for the lower world. And in the Midrash: "The Lord was well pleased for His righteousness' sake, etc." (Yeshaya 42:21) the matter of the lamps is written serveral times. This means: Surely at the source of the mitzva above, there are all these lights and hidden mysteries in all the sections of the Torah that speak of the mitzvot. They belong to that mitzva, though the inabitants of the lower world are unable to understand all this. In His goodness, however, the Holy One, blessed be He, gave us the entire Torah and its hidden mysteries, for by fulfilling the mitzva for the sake of heaven, each person in accordance with his ability, so all the lights above are aroused. For thus God, blessed be He, arranged that the supernal lights should be dependent upon these mitzvot. (Sefat Emet, Beha'alotekha, 5637)
As in the previous teaching, here too the Sefat Emet speaks about the consciousness that accompanies the performance of a mitzva, where a person recognizes that the mitzva itself is not the objective, but rather an allusion to supernal lights.
Here the Sefat Emet focuses on the intention and comprehension that a person can attain when he performs a mitzva. The Sefat Emet contends that when a person realizes that he does not understand even the tip of the iceberg of the matter hiding behind the act or the mitzva that he is performing, he fills with shame, submission and the sharp feeling that while he is performing an act, the essence is missing. A person, argues the Sefat Emet, is limited in his understanding, so that even when he fulfills a mitzva and performs a sanctified deed, he must be aware and recognize that his knowledge and understanding of that deed are meager and limited. Our instinctive inclination, laments the Sefat Emet, is to look for meaning and significance in our every action. One of the central issues in Jewish thought, overlooked by almost no significant thinker, concerns the reasons for the commandments.
On the spectrum of opinions regarding the reasons for the commandments, we find two extremes.
On the one side, there are those who claim that the primary function of the mitzvot is to establish and fashion a person's outlook, character traits and lifestyle. For this reason, seeking out the reasons for the commandments is advised and recommended. The deeper our understanding of the reasons for the commandments, the greater and more clarified will their influence be upon us.
On the other side, there are those who claim just the opposite, that the primary function of the mitzvot is to refine man and develop within him the consciousness of obedience and acceptance of the yoke of the kingdom of heaven. Offering a reason and meaning impairs the purity of the discipline that should accompany the obedience to the Divine command. The less we seek out the reasons for the commandments, the more will we refine and elevate their fulfillment through total acceptance of God's yoke.
A third approach appears to underlie the words of the Sefat Emet.
According to the Sefat Emet, the impact and the objective of the mitzvot reach great hights, extremely great hights. A person's knowledge and intellect will never be able to contain and perceive the "chain reaction" created by the technical action, as it were, that he performed.
Layer upon layer of intentions and objectives lie behind every action. The act of the mitzva resembles the light of the menora which at first glance appears to be the objective itself, but upon more profound thinking, we understand that it merely directs us to another objective, another light, higher and higher until infinity.
When a person provides a reason for the commandment or action that he performs, argues the Sefat Emet, he limits and restricts the understanding that accompanies that act with limited human intellectual understanding. When the consciousness of "knowledge" accompanies the act, the person becomes closed to any other influence that is beyond his ability and understanding. At that time the act that the person performs dons limited human intention, even if that intention is exceedingly high. When a religious act or a mitzva enters a human category of this sort, it becomes deficient in contrast to the song and service of the angels, for their intellect is greater than ours, and their comprehension is immeasurably greater than even our greatest thoughts. The Rambam's reasons for the mitzvot are wonderful, and they derive from the abundance of his pure and uncontaminated thoughts, but they are still the thoughts of flesh and blood, of the human intellect, and as such they are inferior to the thoughts of the angels.
When, however, a person waives his own comprehension, when he enters the consciousness of recognizing that behind the act stands a supernal intention that he, owing to his smallness, is unable to comprehend with his intellect, and therefore he performs the act "without knowledge," which is the utensil for infinite containment - he opens the gates of his heart to the highest bounty. The shame regarding his limitations, and the recognition of his inability to understand the greatness of the act which he in his simplicity is performing, leaves him without knowledge, but with the feeling that something great is transpiring. This turns him into an infinite vessel to contain all the supernal intentions.
When a person becomes a vessel to contain the infinite, when he effaces and empties himself because of shame, he becomes the aspect of Malkhut "that has nothing of itself." He then embraces all the profusion, all the intentions and all the ideas. At that point he rises above the level of the angels, whose comprehension is indeed exceedingly high, but it too is limited, whereas shame creates for man an Ayin that is infinite.
Thus writes the Sefat Emet in the continuation of the aforementioned teaching:
And it is written: "According to the pattern which the Lord had shown Moshe, so he made the menora." And in the Midrash: Moshe Rabbenu, may he rest in peace, had difficulty, and it was fashioned by itself. This, however, is difficult, for surely it is written in the Torah that Betzalel fashioned it. And so too we find in the Midrash that Moshe Rabbenu, may he rest in peace, was astonished that Betzalel was able to fashion it. See there. The explanation of the matter is as follows: For certainly the way that Moshe Rabbenu, may he rest in peace, comprehended all the details of the construction of the menora, it was not humanly possible to fashion it. Betzalel, however, did not grasp as much. And in accordance with his comprehension, he fashioned it with desire and with good intention for the sake of heaven. And, therefore, God, blessed be He, decided that all the other aspects should be fashioned by themselves. This is [the meaning of] what is written: According to the pattern which the Lord had shown Moshe, so it was made by Betzalel, even though he did not grasp this at all. This [comes] to teach about every mitzva that through true desire for the sake of heaven, everything will be corrected with the help of the Creator, blessed be He, as it is written: "To God who performs all things for me" (Tehilim 57:3). (Sefat Emet, Beha'alotekha, 5637)
Betzalel was incapable of comprehending all the elements of the menora, but because of his true desire and by virtue of his actions that were performed for the sake of heaven, he brought about that "everything would be corrected with the help of the Creator, blessed be He," even that which Betzalel was unable to grasp with his intellect and knowledge.
The shame, the submission, the trembling, the true desire for the sake of heaven, and the profound experience that supernal intentions and heavenly actions are being performed through his simple act, turn a person into an instrument to bring all those supernal intentions into the world. This is not true regarding a person who fetters himself, limiting and restricting himself to a specific comprehension, high as it may be.
Our natural inclination is to seek reasons and explanations for all our actions in order that we should be able to identify with them. We are not content with shaking a lulav in the four directions, and each year we seek explanatory sources on the matter, words which have been written, expositions that have been expounded. This, however, is problematic. For on the one hand, understanding intensifies identification and enriches the content accompanying the act. On the other hand, however, contends the Sefat Emet, it is restrictive and limiting. When a person goes to heaven, he will be asked there what was his intention when he took the lulav. And when he offers the reasons that he had learned and understood, the ministering angels will say to him: "Is that it? Is that the sum total of the meaning of the lulav from your perspective?"
In contrast, when that person, who was ashamed, who dared not think about any intention, will arrive in heaven, he will say to the ministering angels: "I thought about everything." All thoughts, all intentions, all ideas were gathered within me when I emptied myself out of shame and humiliation and allowed the ideas and intentions to act upon me in their infinite way."
JOINING GOOD THOUGHTS TO DEEDS
At the end of the teaching, the Sefat Emet mentions another idea:
This too is true that the seeing of Moshe Rabbenu, may he rest in peace, that God showed him the construction of the menora, even though Moshe Rabbenu had difficulty and was unable to actualize it, his seeing and intention helped that Betzalel should be able to fashion it. And thus it is that the Holy One, blessed be He, joins the good intentions of exceptional individuals to the simple acts of the ordinary members of Israel. For it seems that an ordinary person can better fulfill a mitzva in simplicity for the sake of heaven. The tzadik, since he comprehends more, cannot fulfill as much in actuality. Therefore, the Holy One, blessed be He, joins the thought to the act. [This then seems to be the desire of the Creator, blessed be He.] In truth, even in a person himself, his knowledge is greater than his action, and the Holy One, blessed be He, joins, etc., as stated above. For Moshe Rabbenu, may he rest in peace, is the knowledge of Israel. (Sefat Emet, Beha'alotekha, 5637)
In the previous part of the teaching, the Sefat Emet spoke about Betzalel's limited understanding, which did not prevent him from completing the menora, because of his pure and clean desire and his acting for the sake of heaven. Thus, Betzalel merited to serve as a channel, a sort of "long hand" of God. By effacing himself, he turned into an agent, and thus acquired powers greater than his own.
In the latter part of the teaching, the Sefat Emet speaks about how Moshe and Betzalel complemented each other.
Moshe, being an absolute tzadik and an exceptional individual, achieved supernal comprehension, reaching supreme influences and understandings. He was, however, unable to actualize them. Betzalel, on the other hand, knew how to actualize the menora, though he was unable to reach those lofty understandings that permit the completion of the menora. God, in His lovingkindness, joined the good thoughts of Moshe to the simple acts of Betzalel, and thus the formation of the menora was completed.
Here the Sefat Emet makes the astonishing assertion, that someone who reaches very high understanding the tzadik is unable to act in simplicity. The ordinary person, contends the Sefat Emet, needs the tzadik for his understanding, but the tzadik needs the ordinary person for his simplicity.
This is an alternative formulation of the same principle that we saw above: The understanding of a tzadik can only translate into human action through one who acts out of total simplicity. The tzadik does not need wise people, he does not need people seeking comprehension, for he himself comprehends. The tzadik needs the simple person, who acts out of innocence and simplicity, out of an absence of knowledge, who leaves room for all the intentions and all the comprehensions of the tzadik to take hold of the deed. In kabbalistic terminology, the tzakdik is called Yesod, and the ordinary person is called Malkhut "that has nothing of itself." The combination of Yesod and Malkhut, between thought and deed, is only possible when the Malkhut is really Malkhut, and it is capable of absorbing and containing all the profusion that the tzadik wishes to cast into the world of deed.
At the end of this teaching, the Sefat Emet takes another step. That step is concentrated in a single sentence, but its profundity and ramifications are great: "In truth, even in a person himself, his knowledge is greater than his action, and the Holy One, blessed be He, joins, etc."
That same process between Moshe Rabbenu and Betzalel, between the tzadik and the ordinary person, between thought and deed, between Yesod and Malkhut, transpires within each individual himself. Here the Sefat Emet alludes to a cognitive revolution within a person. A person's thought, argues the Sefat Emet, is the aspect of tzadik, and it achieves high comprehensions. But it cannot translate its ideas into deeds, just as the tzadik is unable to change his comprehensions into the world of deeds. A person's deeds will always be more restricted than his understanding regarding that very matter. His deeds will never be able to fully fulfill the understanding of his intellect. A person will always feel that his actions limit, restrict and miss the thoughts and ideas that he is trying to express just as there is nobody in the world who can reach in his actions the comprehensions of the tzadik.
The Sefat Emet, however, proposes a way out of the painful and tragic gap between a person's thoughts and his deeds, i.e., simplicity. As soon as a person waives the attempt to pour all of the intellect's understanding into a deed, and the deed itself he performs with simplicity, with innocence, with the fear of heaven, for the sake of heaven, he will make room for all knowledge and all understanding.
Sometimes a person feels unusual strength, whether religious, interpersonal or psychological. And he searches for the vessels, the actions and the garments, into which he can cast the movement and experience. He feels, however, that no deed can faithfully express his feeling. No mitzva can reflect the religious intensity that he feels, no expression of love for his fellow can express the interpersonal experience that is having, and no experience can contain the psychological feeling that accompanies him. And rightfully so, the Sefat Emet will say, for the deed will always be inferior in its abilities than the thought and the feeling.
The solution, argues the Sefat Emet, is simplicity. The deed itself can be minor and marginal (and perhaps, on the contrary, the expectation is greater precisely in the case of a minor and marginal deed). A person feels a desire for greater intimacy with God, and he seeks the religious act that will allow for its realization. What deed and what mitzva can express that desire for intimacy? Dying for the sanctification of God's name? Prayer? Torah study?
All these, contends the Sefat Emet, great as they may be, are, by their very definition, more restricted than the emotional experience and intensity within the person. Therefore, proposes the Sefat Emet, a person must go in the opposite direction. Just as the tzadik seeks precisely the simplest person, so too one must seek the smallest deed: to wash hands, to recite the "shehakol" blessing, to give charity, and the like, and all these he must do in simplicity, without sublime intentions. With innocence and with love, with no pretensions to achieve great understanding. Out of the shame that recognizes the limitations of our understanding and our weakness. Then, promises the Sefat Emet, he will merit that Divine miracle of "joining good thoughts to deeds," and at that very moment we will feel how, with no knowledge, and no effort, in miraculous manner, the simple, minor, and marginal deed becomes filled with all that intensity for which he had sought a release. Not a hair of all that psychological movement goes to waste, for the smallness of the deed and the simplicity of the doing permit infinite containment.
The Sefat Emet teaches us that sometimes the desire to provide our actions with high intentioin and deep understanding restricts our ability to contain and limits those actions greatly. It is precisely the simplicity, the embarrassing recognition that we know and understand nothing, the readiness to act "small" rather than "big," the tremors and fear that accompany us out of the feeling of smallness and lack of knowledge all these, teaches us the Sefat Emet, turn us into an infinite vessel that creates attentiveness and allows infinite containment. Then the King of the universe glories in the ordinary vessel that we have created for Him, and even the songs of the angels dwarf in the presence of the great gate that, in our simplicity and in our being empty vessels full of shame and humiliation, open before the infinite.
 In this lecture, we will deal at the same time with two of the Sefat Emet's teachings from the years 5637 and 5638. At each particular point we will cite the section that is relevant for our purposes. It is recommended that at the end of the lecture, one read the two teachings in their entirety.
 In great measure, this tendency is granted legitimacy by modern culture that tries to give reasons and explanations to everything. Something whose reason is not understood and whose meaning is not evident is unsettling to the mind, and thus there is an inclination to reject it. It is precisely post-modernism that to a significant degree has reverted to the outlook that accepts that the incomprehensible and unreasonable as an integral part of reality.
 See, e.g., Rambam, Guide of the Perplexed, III, 26-27, 49, and in contrast, Ramban, Commentary to the Torah, Devarim 22:6, for their disagreement about how to understand the Mishna dealing with the mitzva to send away the mother bird (shilu'ach ha-ken).
 "R. Elazar ben Azarya says: From where [do we know] that a person should not say: 'I do not wish to wear sha'atnez, I do not wish to eat pig meat, I do not wish to engage in forbidden sexual relations,' but rather: 'I wish [to do those things], but what shall I do my Father in heaven has forbidden them.' The verse teaches: 'And I separated you from the nations to be for Me.' Thus he separates himself from sin and accepts upon himself the kingdom of heaven" (Sifra, Kedoshim 9).
 In great measure, R. Nachman of Breslov expresses a similar idea regarding faith in God. Philosopy tries to understand God through its own tools, and thus it guarantees that its encounter with God will be restricted and limited to the tools of human thought. In contrast, the surrender of knowledge, which generally results from the fear of God, can give rise to an infinite capacity to receive. The fear of God, asserts R. Nachman of Breslov, effacement, shame, and sometimes even despair, create a great deficiency that demands to be filled.
The Sage in R. Nachman's story represents modern man who seeks an intellectual understanding of everything, whereas the Simpleton represents the person who wants to believe in miracles, in ba'alei shem, but primarily in man. In the end, the Sage finds himself at an incomprehensible dead end, and only then is he cast to the simplicity of the Simpleton, who tries to encounter the world in its inner light, precisely by waiving the intellect, and sometimes even the ability to distinguish between one who is telling the truth and one who is not.
(Translated by David Strauss)