I would be willing to bet that most people, when asked what the symbol of the state of Israel is, they would respond “the Magen David – the Star of David.” But while the Star of David adorns the flag of Israel, the fact is, it is not the symbol of the state of Israel! The symbol is found in this morning’s Torah portion, Beha’alot’cha (Numbers 8:1-12:16) – “to kindle,” kindling the seven-branch menorah in the Tabernacle. It is an example of this menorah which stands outside Israel’s Knesset that is the official symbol of Israel.
But you should know, everything about that menorah is shrouded in mystery. What might it have looked like? It may have looked like the menorah on the wall of our sanctuary! In fact, in most Orthodox synagogues one lamp is missing, just to show that this is not the Temple menorah!
In fact, Maimonides provides us with a completely different depiction of what the Temple menorah looked like … and no one knows for sure. Just as no one knows for sure what happened to the menorah! Yes, it was taken into exile, but what then? Perhaps we need Indiana Jones to find it because we haven’t the slightest idea of where it might be! There are theories ranging from Istanbul to Iran to the catacombs of the Vatican.
It would seem that the one thing we would know for sure is what was the purpose of the menorah? But here, too, there seems to be differences of opinion. Some say the menorah is meant as a symbol of the nation of Israel to be a “light unto the nations.” Others say that the seven branches represent the seven heavenly bodies known in ancient times. And then there are those who say that the seven lights allude to the branches of human knowledge; with the light of God in the center.
So let me tell you this: I don’t know for sure what the menorah looked like … I don’t know for sure what happened to it. But I do know for sure exactly why we were told to kindle the menorah in the Temple and it has nothing to do with the seven spheres, or the “light of the world” or “light unto the nations.” This I know for sure! The reason for the menorah? So that there would be light in the Tabernacle! That’s the reason … plain and simple! Yes, it got real dark in the Temple at night. That’s why there was a menorah … the menorah made it possible to see what you were doing and to know what’s going on!
Judaism does not want us to be in the dark. That’s no way to live! In fact, the Torah itself is referred to as “Torah Ohr – the Light of Torah.” As Jews, we must be aware, informed and indeed, enlightened. Unfortunately, that is not the case, as recent events show. We see the increased presence of antisemitism and the poor public response. It seems that many are simply in “the dark.”
Nowadays, we are also struggling with American Jews, many young, progressive, seemingly intelligent Jews who are in the dark regarding Israel’s whole conflict with the Palestinians. I know that Israel is not without fault; however, why is it always portrayed that Israel is the only one wrong in this situation? Many Jews fall for this. On social media, in newspapers I read of Jews saying that they are ashamed of what Israel is doing. We need to stop being in the dark and learn more about the complicated situation.
It is interesting to note that the menorah is the only temple article that Jewish tradition has us remember in the synagogue through the Ner Tamid – eternal light. We don’t have an altar or a basin or a sacrificial table… all that and more was needed in the Temple. But light? Light we need … eternally, at all times and under all circumstances. Let us remember where Israel’s menorah – its symbol – comes from.
When the State of Israel chose the Menorah as the new state’s emblem, no one knew exactly what the original gold Menorah the ancient Temple had looked like. Then some remembered the sculptured reproduction of the Menorah on the arch of Titus, built when the Romans exiled us from our land. On the side of the arch are sculptured images of the Temple vessels, including the menorah, being taken into exile with the words: “Judea capta – Judea is captured, Judea is vanquished.” This reproduction was copied and made into the national emblem of Israel. Out of the very jaws of defeat, out of the symbol of the destruction and humiliation of our people, we were able to find a symbol: the rebirth and new beginning of the Jewish state. But through it all … L’yehudim hayta ora v’simcha – for the Jews there was light and joy – so shall it be for us.