In this week’s Torah portion we read about what was once the preeminent symbol of the Jewish religion – not the Magen David, or six-pointed star (which only gained prominence in the middle ages), but rather the seven branched Menorah. In this week’s Torah portion, God tells Moses to “make a lamp stand of pure gold.” The description of the menorah that follows is confusing and difficult to visualize. Tradition teaches us that even Moses had trouble imagining it and kept messing up the details! According to the Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah, after Moses got it confused for a third time, G-d told him that he need not worry because the artist, Bezalel, would remember the details correctly. Why is it that Moses, so gifted in so many ways, could not grasp what this menorah was meant to look like? Why is it that Bezalel – whose name is only really mentioned in connection with the art of the Temple, could easily grasp it.
When I am leading choir, I sometimes have a hard time predicting whether a particular piece will be viewed as easy or difficult for the group to learn. I am lucky that a lot of music seems intuitive to me, but this sometimes makes it hard for me to tell whether others will find it as easy to learn. At the same time, I remember struggling mightily with math in High School to solve problems that seemed second nature to my friends, who were frustrated by trying to explain the obvious to me. The world needs mathematicians, scientists, and artists, musicians, theologians, and engineers. Not every person can be good at every thing. A student who cannot chant a word of Torah may write a brilliant D’var Torah, and one who can barely speak might make the most beautiful music. The Temple needed a Moses to exist, but it also needed a Bezalel. The Temple needed law and Torah, but in this week’s Torah portion the people are asked to bring gifts. The gifts make it beautiful, make it sparkle and shine and glow. The gifts bring it to life.
The only thing that makes a menorah treif, ritually impermissible, is if the lights are not all at the same level. As a society, we sometimes value some traits over others. We pay football stars millions of dollars, but barely pay school teachers enough to live on. We turn our noses up and fear autism, without which we probably would never have had the advances in science, technology, and art that we all enjoy. One thing that the pandemic taught us is that everyone has an important role to play in the full functioning of our society together. Those who deliver mail, take away our trash, work in the grocery store, and (perhaps above all) teach our children are some of the most essential, yet underappreciated workers in our society. It is the nurses who take on most of the burden of the day to day care of the sick, yet the doctors get much more prestige and money.
What does it mean that the symbol of our faith is a seven branched menorah with all the lamps at even height? Lights which are all at the same level add to one another’s strength and make a brighter lamp. Take a moment this Shabbat to appreciate the light in yourself – your gift that you bring to the world and also to appreciate the light in someone else whom you may have overlooked in the past. We are the branches of humanity’s menorah and when we help one another shine – holiness manifests.
Cantor Sally Neff