SALT - Tuesday, 8 Sivan 5779 - June 11, 2019

  • Rav David Silverberg
            The opening verses of Parashat Beha’alotekha discuss the kindling of the menorah in the Beit Ha-mikdash, and the Torah adds in this context a brief description of the menorah (8:4).  Rashi, based on a number of Midrashic sources, comments that the Torah describes the menorah with the word “zeh” (“this”), which refers to something which can be seen and pointed to, because God showed Moshe an image of the menorah.  Moshe had trouble envisioning the menorah, and so God showed him a precise image of how it was to be built, and for this reason the Torah writes, “Ve-zeh ma’aseh ha-menorah” (“And this is how the menorah was made”).
            A more elaborate account of Moshe’s difficulties appears in Bamidbar Rabba (15:10), which relates that God told Moshe several times how to build the menorah, but each time, Moshe forgot the information.  Finally, God showed Moshe an image of the menorah, but even then, Moshe could not figure out how it should be made.  God sent Moshe to Betzalel, the chief artisan assigned over the Mishkan’s construction, to tell him to make the menorah.  Betzalel proceeded to build the menorah without any difficulty.  Moshe, understandably, was stunned that Betzalel was able to build the structure which he had such trouble figuring out how to build.
            The Sefat Emet (5637) offers the following explanation of this Midrashic passage:
Undoubtedly, according to how our teacher Moshe understood all the details of the building of the menorah, human capability was insufficient to build it.  But Betzalel did not understand as much, and according to his understanding, he made it willfully and with good intentions, for the sake of Heaven.
Moshe, a prophet who received the instructions from God in the heavens, grasped the full meaning and import of the menorah, and he therefore did not know how to produce the structure as a practical matter.  But Betzalel, who perceived God’s commands not from the “heavenly” perspective of Moshe, but rather from an “earthly,” pragmatic outlook, was able to immediately complete the project.  Betzalel was not privy to the sublime, esoteric aspects of the menorah, and saw only the concrete commands, and so he proceeded to fulfill them.  This project was too difficult for Moshe precisely because he grasped the full spiritual depth underlying the menorah, and he found it impossible to translate these layers of meaning into a tangible, physical structure.
            According to the Sefat Emet, then, this Midrash reminds us that the Torah, while having originated in the heavens, is intended to be practiced and applied in the complex, imperfect realities of our world.  If we perceive Torah life as a pristine, idyllic, “heavenly” existence, we will – like Moshe – be unable to “build the menorah,” to shine the light of Torah in the darkness of our world.  We can successfully implement the laws and principles of the Torah in our lives only if we accept the limitations and complexities of our lives, and recognize that those laws and principles are meant to be applied as best as possible in our imperfect earthly existence.  If we insist on perfection, on a pristine, “heavenly” standard, the “menorah” will remain unbuilt.  We can succeed in bringing the “heavenly” light of Torah into our world only if we strive to shine it as brightly as possible while recognizing that some level of “darkness” will always remain; if we do the very best we can without demanding pristine perfection.