The Temple in Jerusalem – where Jews once had a special connection to God – was destroyed 2,000 years ago. Any discussion of it today must seem arcane. What difference do the symbols of the Temple make to our collective life in the modern age? Can they still make changes in us?
One of the special vessels in the Temple, which is still very much part of our identity, is the menorah.
The menorah is part of Chanukah, and lighting it is often the only mitzvah that still speaks to people who are far from Judaism.
Like the other vessels that were in the sanctuary, the menorah has symbolic value. It is a reflection of the way that the soul finds its expression in this world. The menorah reflects the fire of the soul and its unceasing desire to rise to the source. The seven branches represent the seven channels of spiritual self-expression.
What exactly is that spiritual self-expression?
The term is hard to pin down. We can gain a sense of its meaning by looking within ourselves.
Our identities are enormously complex. When you ask a child “Who are you?” the answer given is usually associated with the physical as in “I am a girl.” When the same question is put to a 30-year-old, the answer given is often associated with the intellectual, as in “I am a lawyer.”
However, we all know that our sense of self is not tied down to our ever-changing bodies nor to our intellectual prowess – we had an identity before we had a profession.
Our most basic longings for love, for meaning, for truth are aspects of our souls, not of our bodies nor of our careers. Our other spiritual facets include a sense of there being more to life than the moment – a sense of humility, of desire for relationships that are stable and meaningful, and of yearning to give of ourselves totally. Without these, we suffer the frustration of living in a spiritual vacuum.
These are the spiritual branches of the menorah within us. What do we gain by giving them physical expression? And how does constructing and lighting the menorah change us?
The Torah tells us that the effect of the sanctuary, and every article within it, was to make the Jewish people holy.
This word holy is tricky. The root of the Hebrew word kadosh, usually translated as ”holy,” literally means “separate.” But separate from what? The Jewish answer is separate from everything that constrains us.
Our vistas are cramped by time, space, and of course, our own desires and subjectivity. The Torah opens up our inner landscape. In it, God tells us, “Make me a the sanctuary, and I will dwell in you.”
It would seem more appropriate for the Torah to say, “make me a holy place and I will dwell in it,” rather than “dwell in you.” But the phrasing communicates the fact that the physical act of building the sanctuary affected spiritual changes.
And we also learn that the physical actions performed within the Temple – like lighting the menorah – did the same.
How does a physical act accomplish a spiritual goal?
Effects of a Mitzvah
In the renowned philosophical work “Guide to the Perplexed,” Maimonides says that we can gain insight into the reason for God giving us any given mitzvah by observing the effect that that mitzvah has.
He tells us that the mitzvot of the Torah undeniably have an effect. The focus of the effect of the mitzvot is not the outer world but the inner world – the world of the menorah. He tells us that the mitzvot affect profound changes in our identity. Each mitzvah presents specific means of self-expression and self-change.
Maimonides divides the possible influence of any given mitzvah into four groupings:
- Mitzvot that channel the basic components of our personalities – such as visiting the sick. Not only is the patient taken beyond the confines of isolation and pain, but also the visitor is taken beyond the confines of self-absorption and ego. The visitor becomes a more compassionate person. The effect on the patient may be transient, but the effect on the visitor will last a lifetime.
- Mitzvot that keep us in reality – included in this group are the many prohibitions against various superstitious and idolatrous practices. Too many lives have been wasted on illusion, for us not to appreciate the enormous significance of this category upon earnest seekers.
- Mitzvot that commemorate events that happened in the past. By celebrating the holidays, Shabbat, etc. we bring the memory of the fact that God is here with us, in this world, into our present. Our ability to rise above despair, to see ourselves (and everyone else) as divine creations can be transformational.
- Mitzvot that alter and refine our relationship to the physical world – such as keeping kosher. We elevate ourselves and the world in which we live when we relate to it as neither confining nor base, but as being full of spiritual potential.
While many mitzvot belong to more than one group, what they share in common is that they affect the individual by using the real world as a medium. Feelings and thoughts are grounded and concretized.
Meaning of the Menorah
What does this have to do with the menorah?
Nothing is simultaneously more real and more ephemeral than our yearnings and strivings. The message is that we must do something about it. We must concretely give voice to our deepest identity. We must not be afraid of seeking, but that must never be the end of our journey.
The Maccabbes lit the menorah when they reentered the Temple after it had been defiled by the Greeks. The second Temple, which had been built with enormous spiritual fire under the aegis of the prophets Ezra and Nechemia had become a home to Greek idols.
The defeat of the Greeks was far more than a miraculous military victory. It was a victory of the spirit of Israel. When they re-lit the menorah, it reflected their full commitment to move beyond the limits that Grecian rationalism as well as Greek paganism placed on the human spirit.
They didn’t express the spirit of the law alone, but insisted on precision in every concrete detail as well. They would use no oil that didn’t have the seal of the High Priest. Their minds, spirits, emotions, and bodies all had to travel the same road.
One of the most enduring lessons of Chanukah is the light that they ignited endured. Thousands of years later, no matter how much darkness surrounds us, we still light the menorah. We still know who we are, and who we can be.