Although the festival of Shavuot was just a few weeks ago, my mind and stomach are already looking forward to Chanukah. On Shavuot, many of us celebrated our receiving the gift of Torah by eating blintzes, kugel and cheesecake. But I've already started to crave latkes and jelly doughnuts.
Amidst my cravings, I'm already envisioning one of my favorite ritual items – the menorah. The Chanukah menorah, also known as a chanukiah, is one of the most familiar and pervasive symbols of Jewish identity. All of my children were able to draw chanukiot from memory from the time they were in preschool.
But how many of us could draw the menorah that is described in detail in this week's Torah portion? How many of us can even visualize the menorah of biblical times that stood in the Mishkan during our ancestors' trek in the wilderness?
There is something unusual about the form of this menorah as it is described in Parashat Behalotecha. God instructs Aaron to light the lamps of this menorah and to "let the seven lamps give light in front of the lamp stand."
According to the Talmud and a midrash in Bamidbar Rabbah, the menorah was set up in such a way in the Mishkan so as to shed light on B'nai Yisrael, rather than shedding light upward toward God. This aspect of the menorah's form is symbolic of a deeper meaning. The light of the menorah was meant to provide for human growth, rather than to meet a divine need.
According to the midrash, God says, Lo l'orah ani tzarich, "I do not need its light." God did not require the light of the menorah; the people of Israel required it.
Why did B'nai Yisrael need the light of the menorah?
Why do we, as Jews of the 21st century, need this light?
The menorah and other ritual items provide us with a concrete means of expressing our spirituality. In Judaism, concrete actions trump beliefs.
By performing commanded ritual acts, we get psychological, social, spiritual, and intellectual fulfillment as we express our love for God and the Jewish people. In the process, we not only bring ourselves closer to God and the community, but we also improve ourselves and the world around us.
Another aspect of the biblical menorah's form that is imbued with symbolic significance is described in Parashat Terumah.
Rather than being comprised of multiple branches that are attached to a vertical base – as many Chanukah menorahs are constructed today – the menorah of biblical times consisted of mikshah achat zahav tahor or "one hammered work of pure gold."
The menorah in the Mishkan was constructed of one piece of gold, from which seven distinct lamp holders branched out. We may consider the branches as reflective of the diversity within the Jewish community. Diversity within Judaism is not a threat; diverse viewpoints are a source of richness and vitality.
Yet the diverse branches of the menorah are rooted in one solid-gold base. And this comes to teach us that various groups within the Jewish community must be unified in some way. We must all be committed to some common goals.
Our tradition values unity, but not uniformity. Within our individual synagogues and other Jewish organizations, we should strive to be like the menorah in this week's parashah, unified but not uniform. We are am echad – "one nation."
Each of us may be fashioned from the same piece of pure gold, but we each branch out in different directions. Each of us shines brightly in our own right.
May the biblical menorah in this week's parashah serve to remind us of our core values as Jews.
Rabbi Lisa Malik is the religious leader of Suburban Jewish Community Center-Bnai Aaron in Havertown.