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Parshat Terumah: The Message and Meaning of the Menorah

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Feb 19, 2010

The Menorah is the most well-known of the Klei Ha-Mishkan, "vessels" of the Tabernacle. In addition to the detailed description of its appearance, commentators have added numerous explanations of the Menorah's symbolic significance. Perhaps we can also gain insight from the Torah's presentation of the initial command to build the Menorah.

"V'asisa menoras zahav tahor," and you [Moshe] shall make a Menorah of pure gold, "mikshah te'aseh ha-menorah," the Menorah must be beaten out, "yereichah, v'kanah, givi'eha, kaftoreha, u-feracheha mimenah yihiyu," its base, branch, goblets, knobs, and flowers will be [hammered] from it. (Shemos 25:31)

Rashi cites a Midrash (Tanchuma, Beha'alosecha #3) that is bothered by an apparent incongruity in the verse. Initially Moshe is told "v'asisa," indicating that he should make the Menorah, and yet the Torah subsequently uses the passive "te'asah," which implies that Moshe did not play an active role in the Menorah's construction. To resolve this discrepancy the Midrash teaches that at first Moshe tried to construct the Menorah but that "miskasheh bah,"it was too difficult for him, and therefore Hashem told him to throw a block of gold into the fire and, as a result, "na'asis me'eleha,"the Menorah was actually made by itself.

Many years ago I attended a "Sheva Berachos" celebration where Rav Aharon Lichtenstein discussed this Midrash and asked the following question: What about the Menorah was so hard for Moshe to figure out? After all, Moshe successfully completed many other difficult tasks, including building the other components of the Mishkan, so why, of all things, was it the construction of the Menorah that stumped him?

R. Lichtenstein explained, homiletically, that it wasn't the physical labor of constructing the Menorah that confounded Moshe, but rather it was the apparent contradiction of its deeper messages. On the one hand the Menorah was to be made "mikshah," from one piece of gold. As Rashi elaborates, the Menorah could not be made by melding together different pieces into a larger whole - as one would typically - but instead had to be hewn out of a single piece of gold. Many "Ba'alei Derush" explain that the notion of mikshah represents the intended unity and togetherness - like one solid piece - of the Jewish people.

On the other hand, the Menorah has more details and little pieces - it is more ungapatch - than any other item in the Mishkan. The intricate beauty of the various branches, bowls, goblets, knobs, and flowers all convey the notion of nuance and difference.

Moshe understood the symbolism of mikshah but, continued R. Lichtenstein, he couldn't comprehend how to harmonize this with the complexity of the detailed design. If the underlying message is one of unity then shouldn't every piece of the Menorah look and feel the same? And if there are so many different designs - highlighting the ideal of individuality and differentiated beauty - then why not make the Menorah from many different pieces of gold?

With Moshe stymied by this challenge, Ha-Kadosh Baruch Hu Himselfcreated the Menorah and, at the same time, taught Moshe - and all generations - a vital lesson about the Jewish community.

The unity we strive for should not be confused with unanimity. The ideal of achdus does not require everyone to look or think the same. Beyond the unwavering principles of our faith and the non-negotiable demands of halacha,there is legitimate room for individuality and different ways of thinking.

"Mikshah" can co-exist with the multiple designs and engravings.

This lesson is of profound importance, but it is far from obvious - it even bewildered Moshe - and therefore we must continue to educate ourselves and our children about the true meaning of achdus.

In addition to R. Lichtenstein's important insight, there is another lesson that can be derived from the final pasuk in this section. As part of his last instructions, Moshe is told "u-re'eh v'aseh," see and construct the Menorah (25:40).Explaining the curious reference of "u-re'eh" - see what? - Rashi quotes the teaching of the Talmud (Menachos 29a) that when Moshe couldn't figure out how to make it, God showed him a "Menorah shel Esh," a "Menorah of Fire." Once Moshe saw this blueprint he was then able to complete the Menorah.

Numerous commentators have noted that this description of events - where Moshe ultimately builds the Menorah - seems to contradict the previous comments of Rashi that indicated that Hashem had in fact constructed the Menorah. The common explanation (see Sifsei Chachamim and Mizrachi) is that upon Moshe's initial difficulty, Hashem showed him the "blueprint," but when Moshe still couldn't complete the construction, he tossed the gold into the heavenly fire where the Menorah was supernaturally constructed.

In light of this understanding, the Sefas Emes (5631) questions why Hashem didn't just make the Menorah Himself when he saw Moshe's initial struggles. Why go through the process of stopping and starting when the job could have been completed without any additional frustration for Moshe?

The Sefas Emes explains that it was only as result of Moshe's repeated attempts that he received Heavenly assistance. Hashem would not interfere until Moshe had first tried really hard. He further explains that this was not a one-time occurrence limited to the construction of the Menorah, but is in fact a paradigm of a larger spiritual phenomenon; namely, that we are required to exert maximum effort before Hashem will "step in" to enable our success.

Whether it's in realm of Torah study, tefillah, or any other aspect of religious observance, the Sefas Emes teaches that we must vigorously invest our natural strength and resources and only then will we merit the Siyata Dishmaya to succeed.

Two important lessons have emerged from the construction of the Menorah, one about the definition of achdus and the other about need for our utmost effort.

A third lesson is the important convergence of these insights: Achieving the type of achdus that R. Lichtenstein spoke about can be elusive and therefore requires the persistent effort that the Sefas Emes describes. Genuine closeness with people who may think and look differently than we do is not easy, but even if our efforts fail once and even twice, we must persist until we achieve the ahavah, achvah, v'reus that should define the relationship between fellow Jews.


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