The instructions found in the Torah for lighting the lamp inside the holy shrine that the Israelites created to worship God raise many questions that encourage us to seek deeper meaning within the text.
The Torah portion this week begins with instructions about lighting the lamp, the seven-branched menorah that was inside the holy place at the center of the shrine that the Israelites created to worship God. But from ancient times, careful readers of the Torah have noticed that the description of the lighting of the menorah raises more questions than it answers.
First, the Torah speaks of lighting the lamp, but it doesn’t use the usual word for lighting. Instead, it uses the word that gives this Torah reading its name: Beha’alotcha — literally, “When you make the flame go up … ” Why does the Torah specify that the priest is to “make the flame go up” rather than simply lighting the flame?
Second, when the Torah describes the lamp, it makes clear that the flames of each of the seven branches are to face inward, toward the center flame, rather than outward, toward the room. What is the point of lighting a lamp whose light does not fall on the room around it but is concentrated instead toward its center?
The sages answer both of these questions by making the same underlying point: Torah is not simply a manual of instruction for an ancient religion. If it were, we would surely come to see it as an antiquated text that has little relevance to our lives today. Even in ancient times, the Israelite sacrificial cult was only a memory, and the Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed. What purpose could details about its worship serve, if that’s what Torah is?
Instead, the ancient rabbis argue, we must study Torah for the deeper teaching that underlies each sentence, each word and even each letter of the text. The Torah has homiletic, symbolic and even mystical meanings that are not self-evident and require study that goes beyond the surface. It is this feature of Torah that makes it holy.
In rabbinic tradition, the description given in the Torah of lighting the lamp is not simply a practical ritual detail; it is a symbolic act laden with multiple layers of significance, and that is what accounts for its perplexing features and the questions that it raises.
Why is the priest instructed to “make the flame go up?” The midrash explains that the priest would hold a flame against the wick of the lamp until the flame rose on its own. This is a symbolic representation of what the work of the priests with the people was supposed to be. The priests were the teachers of Israel, but their method of instruction was not to force the Israelites to comply with the law. Instead, they would provide an example of a life of holiness (the flame) that they would bring close to the Israelites (the lamp) until the Israelites could rise to a life of holiness on their own. This, the rabbis taught, is what it means to be a teacher.
Why are the lights of lamp turned toward the center rather than radiating outward? We should not think that God would need the light for illumination, for God can surely see in the darkest place. Instead the light of the menorah was a symbolic representation of the divine light reflected in human beings. The task of human life is to focus that light back up toward its center, its source in the Divine.
To study Torah, we must search out its inner meanings and its relevance for our own lives. Then we, too, are lighting the lamp.
Rabbi Adam Zeff serves as the rabbi of Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia. Email him at: [email protected]