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The Menorah Wedge (2)

Rav Michael Hattin



Please say tehillim for the Refuah Shlemah of Eytan Yaakov ben Miriam Esther





Last time, we began to consider an anomaly that served as the textual introduction to Parashat Tetzaveh.  Recall that last week's parasha that described the garments of the priests as well as those of the Kohen ha-Gadol followed quite naturally on the heels of Parashat Teruma.  Parashat Teruma, after all, told us about the special and unique vessels of the Mishkan or Tabernacle that were to be used in the service of God, and then spelled out the basic hierarchical configuration of that building's internal and external spaces.  Having described the vessels and their spatial envelope, it seemed quite reasonable to then immediately go on to discuss the garments of the priests who were designated to perform that Divine service in the Mishkan while wearing them.  The two parashiyot would have joined seamlessly, if not for a short two verses that jarringly intervened between them:


All of the pillars of the courtyard around were belted with silver, their hooks were silver and their sockets were bronze.  The length of the outer courtyard was one hundred cubits and its width was fifty by fifty, and its height was five cubits of twisted linen fabric, and the sockets were of bronze.  All of the (other) vessels of the Mishkan for all of its rituals, all of its pegs as well as the pegs of the outer courtyard, all of them were made of bronze (conclusion of Parashat Teruma, 27:17-19).


            As for you, command the people of Israel to provide pure olive oil from the press for the lighting, to kindle the lights perpetually.  Within the Tent of Meeting beyond the dividing curtain that is opposite the (Ark of the) Testimony, there Aharon and his sons shall arrange it from evening until morning before God, an eternal statute for generations from the people of Israel (27:20-21).


As for you, draw near your brother Aharon and his sons with him from the midst of the people of Israel so that he might serve Me – Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, El'azar and Itamar the sons of Aharon.  Make holy garments for Aharon your brother, for honor and for glory.  As for you, speak to all of the wise of heart whom I have filled with a spirit of wisdom so that they will fashion the vestments of Aharon to sanctify him so that he may serve Me…(opening of Parashat Tetzaveh, 28:1-3).




The unexpected reference to the Menora and its fuel was commented upon en passant by the Ibn Ezra (12th century, Spain) in the context of his broader attempt to link the various sections comprising the latter half of Sefer Shemot, but his interpretation was not entirely compelling:


Let me first indicate the explanation for the joining of the sections.  After having completed the discussion of all of the holy vessels, the dividing curtain, the boards, the tent, its covering, the altar of sacrifice, the courtyard and its screens, the Torah begins to explicate the matters concerning those that minister in the Mishkan and the nature of their exclusive service.  THEY ARE TO KINDLE THE LIGHTS WITH PURE OLIVE OIL AND NOT OF ANOTHER KIND.  It is appropriate that these servants (the priests) be distinguished and set apart both by their lineage as well as by their garments.  These are therefore recounted one after the other.  Then the text mentions that they must practice their rites during the seven days of the dedication, during which time Moshe is to teach them and to prepare them (29:1-37).  Only afterwards, are they to serve, to offer the daily sacrifices upon the bronze altar (29:38-46), not upon the golden altar, for the latter is reserved for the incense offering and upon its horns they are to offer atonement but once during the course of the year…(30:1-10).


We did in fact isolate three separate pitfalls associated with Ibn Ezra's interpretation: (1) if Parashat Tetzaveh was meant to introduce the service of the priests, then the natural starting point for the discussion should not have been a mention of the olive oil and the lights, but rather the description of the vestments themselves.  (2) Strictly speaking the passage of the lights was not really about Aharon's service in ensuring their perpetual fire, but rather about the role of the people Israel in providing the oil, for it was the oil furnished by the people of Israel that framed the brief passage on both ends.  (3) If the Torah wanted to offer us a brief glimpse into the service of the priests, a literary interlude before it launched into the lengthy and detailed description of their garments, then why did it single out the Menorah, its fuel and its kindling for special mention?  Why did it not provide also (or instead) a short description of the service of the Showbread, the twelve special fresh loaves that were placed on the Table to remain from one Sabbath to the next? 




This week, we will consider another of the few explanations that have been put forth in an attempt to resolve the matter.  Bear in mind that our curious juxtaposition seemingly occurs not once but rather twice, for in Sefer Bemidbar the account of the Mishkan's dedication (7:1-89) that is followed so reasonably by the investiture ceremony for the ministering Levites (8:5-22) is also interrupted by a pointed reference to the Menora and to its kindling (8:1-4).


In his comments to Sefer Shemot, the loquacious Don Yitzchak Abarbanel (15th century, Spain) treats the issue at length.  Abarbanel, descended from a long line of rabbinic scholars and statesmen, served as the treasurer to Alfonso V of Portugal.  In 1483, he fled to Spain and entered the service of the infamous King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.  The latter in particular had been recently whipped up into a frenzy by her fanatical Dominican friars.  These powerful representatives of the Catholic Church, who constituted her spiritual advisors and confidantes, were not content with the results of their cruel Inquisition that had been officially established in 1481 with the express purpose of ferreting out forced Jewish converts to Catholicism who had secretly maintained their Jewish beliefs.  Accordingly, the king and queen were swayed to order the expulsion of all of the Jews in 1492 in order to rid the realm entirely of the "infidels," and Abarbanel, princely bribe in hand notwithstanding, was unable to avert the decree.  He himself, though pathetically invited to remain, left with his compatriots and sailed to Naples.  Eventually, he arrived in Venice where he died in 1503.  His lengthy commentary on the Bible is known for introducing a section with a series of penetrating questions that are then answered in exhaustive and encyclopedic scope.




He relates:


…There are a number of questions to be addressed.  The first concerns why blessed God commanded the matter of kindling the lights here, when the proper place for the command is after the completion of the Mishkan and the placement of the Menora and all of the vessels in their locations…the fourth question concerns what follows, namely "As for you, draw near your brother Aharon and his sons with him from the midst of the people of Israel so that he might serve Me…Make holy garments for Aharon your brother, for honor and for glory."  These verses should have constituted the beginning of the parasha, because at the outset He ought to have commanded the separation of Aharon and his sons from the midst of the people of Israel in order to serve, and only then after they had been properly designated should they have been commanded concerning the kindling of the lights! (Introduction to Parashat Tetzaveh).


Abarbanel then goes on to discuss the topic at length.  For our purposes, the following excerpts will suffice:


The style of the verses would seem to indicate that the text does not here intend to introduce the COMMAND of the oil for lighting or else to caution concerning the kindling of the Menora's lights.  Rather, the primary intent was indeed to command the matter of the sacred garments unique to the priests…the mention of the kindling of the lights here is not for its own sake, but rather to indicate the NEED for the fashioning of the special garments for Aharon and his sons.  This is because it is they who will enter the holy sanctuary evening and morning to kindle the lights while all others are barred from that place.  Thus the text says "You will command…" (7:20) and not "Command" (using the imperative form)…The kindling of the lights is therefore mentioned here only as an introduction to the necessity of fashioning the priestly garments for Aharon and his sons…




For the Abarbanel, the Torah's mention of the kindling of the Menora is not to be understood as the command to do so, since at this point in time such a command would be premature.  How can one command the kindling in the absence of properly attired priests as well as a properly fitted location?  Rather, what appears in our section to be an imperative form ("tetzaveh") is in fact the more neutral future tense, and comes to indicate nothing more than the fact that the command to kindle the Menora will follow in the future.  What we translated earlier as "As for you, command the people of Israel to provide pure olive oil from the press for the lighting..." should actually be rendered "As for you, you WILL command the people of Israel…," and in fact that very command does ensue in Sefer Vayikra 23:


"God said to Moshe: Command the people of Israel to furnish pure olive oil from the press for the lighting, to kindle the lights perpetually…(24:1-3).


But here, the Abarbanel maintains, the MENTION of the Menora's kindling is no more than a paradigm for a type of priestly service that necessitates appropriate priestly garments.  Because the Kohanim will be kindling the Menora (as well as performing their other sacred rites in the consecrated space of the Mishkan) therefore they must be provided with appropriate attire.  Hence, the care of the Menora and its lighting are here related by the Torah as EXAMPLES of ongoing activities (for they are to be carried out evening and morning in perpetuity) that call for the exclusive involvement of the priests.  And priests, understandably, need glorious garments that bespeak the solemnity of their exalted tasks.  Thus, the seemingly unrelated passage of the Menora is, for the Abarbanel, the pivot point of the entire section as well as its integral textual glue!  It is as if the Torah says: "fashion garments for the Kohanim for they will need to be suitably attired, in order to carry out their daily functions such as kindling the Menora." 


Presumably, for Abarbanel the sacrificial service that was to take place in the outer courtyard, though it also hinged upon the involvement of the priests, was not a priori necessarily exclusive enough to warrant priestly garments.  After all, even non-priests could be present in that space (or at least part of it) dressed in garments that were not unique for the occasion.  But to enter the building proper, where the kindling of the Menora was to take place (along with the presentation of the Showbread as well as the offering of the incense) was not permitted to non-priests under any circumstances.  Thus, the Torah introduces the need of the Kohanim for special garments with the mention of an activity that intuitively called for such attire.




The explanation of the Abarbanel certainly goes a long way in resolving the question of the Menora's mention at just such a junction.  At the same time, however, at least one of our earlier questions directed against the interpretation of the Ibn Ezra would seem to apply here as well.  Why single out the Menora from the other possible rituals that constituted the exclusive preserve of the priests in the services of the Mishkan?  Why not mention the presentation of the Showbread or else the offering of the incense on the Golden Altar, both of which were also confined to the sanctified space of the sanctuary and both of which were also to be performed only by the descendents of Aharon?


In years past, we have investigated the symbolism of the Menora and have noted that its primary and defining quality is that is it a vessel for light.  The term itself is based upon a widespread Semitic root NUR that implies "fire," "light" or "heat."  In our tradition as in many if not most other cultures, light is of course symbolic for wisdom, understanding and the good.  Even today we speak of illumination or enlightenment when describing the process of becoming ennobled by a teaching or an idea.  Could it be that the kindling of the Menora, a task entrusted exclusively to Aharon and his descendents, is also a pointed reference to their role as teachers and guides of ancient Israel? 




Elsewhere in the Torah, and even more so in the Tanakh, this other function of the Kohanim is spelled out with unusual vigor (and, conversely, with harsh censure when it remains unfulfilled):


When a matter is unclear to you in judgement, whether concerning criminal law, litigation or ritual, any case of a dispute in your local courts, then you shall go up to the place that God your Lord will choose.  You shall approach the Kohanim and the Levites, and the judge that shall preside at that time, and when you shall make inquiry then they will indicate to you the decision in the matter…In accordance with the teaching ("Torah") that THEY SHALL INSTRUCT YOU and according to the judgement that they shall tell you, you shall do… (Devarim 17:8-11).


Hearken to the word of God, House of Ya'acov, and all of the families of the House of Israel.  Thus says God: what iniquity did your ancestors find in Me that they distanced themselves from Me and instead followed futile vanities to become like them?  They did not say "where is God who brought us forth from the land of Egypt, who guided us through the wilderness, a dry and cheerless land, an arid and deathly place, a land not traversed by anyone and unsettled by all."  I brought you to the beautiful land to eat of its produce and of its bounty, but you arrived and defiled My land, rendering My possession an abomination.  THE KOHANIM SAID NOT "WHERE IS GOD?," while the upholders of the teaching knew not me, the shepherds of the people transgressed against Me while the prophets prophesied for the Ba'al and strayed after that which cannot benefit! (Yirmiyahu 2:4-8).


…My covenant is with the Levites, says God of hosts.  My covenant was with them for life and for peace, and I extended these to them because they revered Me, and before My name they did show deference.  True teaching was upon their lips and evil was not found in their words, for they walked with Me in peace and uprightness, turning back many from transgression.  FOR THE LIPS OF THE KOHEN SHALL PRESERVE WISDOM AND GUIDANCE WILL BE SOUGHT FROM HIM, for he is like a messenger of the God of hosts…(Malachi 2:4-7).




Perhaps, then, the mention of the Menora at precisely this juncture is not simply a technical introduction to the necessity of the Kohanim for priestly garments, but is also an emphatic statement of the true nature of their service.  Poised to enter the holy space where Israelites may not tread, prepared to conduct a service with the holy vessels that is ritually beyond the reach of their compatriots, soon to be bedecked in garments of royalty that will highlight their exclusivity even more, the Kohanim and the Leviim must remember their august responsibilities to the people of Israel.  They have been selected to kindle the Menora, to spread light and teaching, to provide inspiration and guidance, and when inattentive to this indispensable aspect of their role, their service is but a sham. 


Most significantly, then, the kindling of the Menora is framed by references to the people of Israel – "As for you, command the people of Israel to provide pure olive oil from the press for the lighting, to kindle the lights perpetually…an eternal statute for generations from the people of Israel" (27:20-21).  This is because the lighting of the Menora, though performed by the Kohanim in ritually splendid isolation, is symbolic of their essential involvement in "spreading the light" that must actually be public in the extreme.  The task of the people of Israel is to provide the proverbial fuel for the fire, but it is the Kohanim who must take that raw material, place it in its proper setting, ignite it with the spark of their guidance, and then lovingly nurture the flame to bring light into the world.


In the end, of course, the Kohanim failed to live up to their task, the people of Israel strayed from God, and the Mishkan/Temple was destroyed.  Eventually, the centrality of the priestly service was replaced by more populist worship, and the unique role of the Kohanim as teachers and guides, for so long jealously guarded though rarely observed except in the breach, was eclipsed by the Sages and those that followed in their footsteps.  But the thrust of the Torah's message remains startlingly relevant long after these events: those who would devote themselves diligently and sincerely to the service of God, perhaps acquiring along the way well-deserved tokens of their respected office, must always remember the essential nature of their mandate: to banish ignorance, to increase knowledge, and to spread the light as well as the warmth of the Torah's guidance and teaching "in uprightness and in peace."


Shabbat Shalom


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