The Menorah as a Tree in a Tiny Forest: Torah This Week

This week’s Torah reading describes how Moses lit the light-bearing Menorah in the portable Mishkan, the Shrine of God’s Presence in the wilderness. And the Haftarah is Zechariah’s imagination of the Menorah in the Second Temple, when it was to be built after the end of the Babylonian Exile. His vision is amazing -- a deeply mystical vision of the future.

The Rabbis designated it also as the Haftarah for Shabbat Hanukkah – hinting at depths of Hanukkah that go far deeper than the Maccabees or even the legend of the one-day bottle of oil that lasted eight days.

Let’s start at the beginning. The Menorah that stood in the Mishkan and then in the Temple in Jerusalem was clearly meant to resemble a tree:

“You shall make a menorah of pure gold; the menorah shall be made of hammered work; its base and its shaft, its cups, calyxes [tight bunches of green leaves that hold the blossom], and petals shall be of one piece. Six branches shall issue from its sides; three branches from one side of the menorah and three branches from the other side of the menorah.

"On one branch there shall be three cups shaped like almond-blossoms, each with calyx and petals, and on the next branch there shall be three cups shaped like almond-blossoms, each with calyx and petals; so for all six branches issuing from the menorah.

"And on the menorah itself there shall be four cups shaped like almond-blossoms, each with calyx and petals: a calyx, of one piece with it, under a pair of branches; and a calyx, of one piece with it, under the second pair of branches, and a calyx, of one piece with it, under the last pair of branches; so for all six branches issuing from the menorah.

"Their calyxes and their stems shall be of one piece with it, the whole of it a single hammered piece of pure gold.” Shemot/Exodus 25:31-40.  

In other words, the ancient Temple Menorah was literally a Tree of Light. It was, in fact, a green menorah. We need to reclaim this powerful symbol of the unity of the natural world with the light that we bring to it.

The Menorah is Fed its Oil Directly from Live Olive Trees

On the Shabbat during Hanukkah, we read the vision of the Prophet Zechariah again -– as if to say, this linking of Light and Tree is extraordinarily important.


[The angel] said to me, “What do you see?” And I answered, “I see a menorah all of gold, with a bowl above it. The lamps on it are seven in number, and the lamps above it have seven pipes, and the lamps above it have seven pipes; and next to it are two olive trees, one on the right of the bowl and one on its left.” (Zechariah 4:2-3)

“And what,” I asked him, “are those two olive trees, one on the right and one on the left of the menorah?” And I further asked him, “What are the two tops of the olive trees that feed their golden oil through those two golden tubes?” (Zechariah 4: 11-13)

This first Q and A is astonishing: Never in the Mishkan or the Temple have there been trees. Indeed, many of the Prophets are deeply concerned to make sure there are no trees that might be mistaken for pagan presences.

So Zechariah is already “breaking the rules.”  Then he goes one step even further, and the rabbis stop short of including his second amazing assertion in the Haftarah. Not only does the menorah have two living olive trees that are actually interwoven with the “golden tree” made by human beings.

The trees are directly hooked up to the menorah, feeding olive oil directly into the lamps. The light of the menorah is actually fed and sustained by a continuous natural source of oil. The menorah, then, is part of a tiny eco-system, an intertwining of trees that grow from the earth (adamah) and a tree (the Menorah) made by human beings (adam), shaped by them both into an interwoven whole.

What a powerful image, the menorah becoming the embodiment of the same relationship that we see between human beings and the rest of nature, as symbolized by the Creation story. In Bereishit/Genesis, adam (human earthlings) are made out of adamah (earth). This is the same as saying, in English, that earthlings were made out of earth.

The shared linguistic root implies an entire unity, an inter-relatedness of human beings with all the rest of creation. That Creation is not “us” vs. “it,” but rather one continuous whole, within which we have a crucial creative and destructive potential, a relationship and a responsibility.

What are the implications of this perception for action?

There can be no Judaism and no Jewish People worthy of the future without this teaching and the action that grows from it.

That means reshaping our prayers (including dance, meditation, music, and pictorial art as well as words). It means including olive trees, squirrels, azaleas, mushrooms in our prayer minyanim – and inventing what that means.

It requires reshaping the kashrut of growing and eating food and creating a kashrut of collecting and using energy.

It means reshaping our festvals, which are the offspring of a love affair between the Jewish People and Earth, into celebrations capable of healing our wounded parents -- Earth as well as human Earthlinds.

It means reshaping our synagogues and havurot into “clusters of resilience,” whose members are able to survive and help each other and other engangered folk in a time of inevitable “natural” and “unnatural” disasters, local and regional.

It means --- that this is a time to dance in God's earthhquake.

Shalom, salaam, paz, peace, namaste! -- Arthur


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