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



Every Shabbat morning, I act as the "Weaver" for an hour’s conversation about a passage from the Torah reading of that Shabbat. This past Shabbat, as I read the weekly portion, looking for a passage we could focus on, I had ringing in my ears and in my heart the president's announcement that he had ordered a mass round-up of immigrants living in clusters in several major American cities, for mass deportation.

So I was happy to find that in the very Torah portion we were about to read, the Torah was already prepared with a challenge to this piece of subjugation:

 “Now when immigrants sojourn with you and wish to make a Passover-offering to YHWH  / Yahhh/the Holy InterBreath of Life, in this way shall they make it: according to the law of the Passover offering and according to its regulation. One law is there to be for you, for immigrant sojourners and for the natives of the land.” (Num 9: 14)

My understanding of this teaching is that if foreigners want to join with you in the Festival of Freedom, in celebrating the liberation of slaves from slavery to Pharaoh, welcome them! –for only by affirming one law for foreigners and natives can your land continue as a land of Freedom. 


And this passage reminded me to look up another passage from a Torah portion we will be reading in mid-September:

“If those who are oppressed {“serfs,” “servants,” slaves”} seek refuge with you from their masters, you are NOT to hand them over to their masters. Let them dwell beside you, among you, wherever within your borders seems good to them. Do not mistreat them!!” (Deut. 23:16-17)


Do I invoke these ancient texts just because they are written in Torah?  No, I invoke them because they show that this question of the treatment we owe to immigrants and refugees has stirred the moral heart of our communities for at least 2500 years, and our moral forebears came down on the side of love, not fear.

The community in which this writing emerged saw itself as a whole nation of runaway slaves seeking freedom. So it was clear that other runaway slaves and all who celebrated freedom from Pharaoh’s slavery were to be welcomed, not excluded.  And notice that this applied to “economic refugees” fleeing a tyrannical boss as well as those fleeing a tyrannical government.

If we wish to see America as “sweet land of liberty” we must be open to these freedom-seeking immigrants and refugees, welcoming them to wherever THEY choose to live.

Not deported, not imprisoned in concentration camps, not tearing children, even babies,  from their mothers’ breasts, their fathers’ arms, to throw them into cages.

Oh yes, these ARE concentration camps. Not extermination camps, not yet. Those politicians who have denounced the use of that word as if it meant the same as “death camp” ignore the history that genocide happens in stages. Here is my analysis of where we are in that process:


  1. I think it is a mistake to have a linguistic debate over what label to apply to these detention centers for immigrants by -- on the one hand -- denouncing the use of the word  “ concentration camp” as if it were the same as “death camp,”  or -- on the other hand -- supporting the use of the words and explaining they are NOT the same as “death camps.”   BOTH THESE APPROACHES AVOID FACING THE TRUTH that dehumanization and ultimately genocide come in stages. “Concentration camps” may come early or in the middle of the process. If no one interrupts the process, it moves forward into death camps. The Nazi state opened the first “concentration camp” at Dachau in 1933 as a prison mostly for leftists. Humiliation and dehumanization of Jews and other "Untermenschen" went forward in many scattered spheres until the massive public attacks supported by the state on Kristallnacht. Even then, it took the years from 1938 to 1942 for the Nazis to make a formal decision to murder all the Jews of Europe.

Dehumanization and genocide are a process, not a single event. Most Americans so much want to believe that “it can’t happen here” that many of their minds go blank in facing the early and middle stages of the process, and desperately want to attack any language that hints that this process is under way and will continue unless we, they, act,. .

3, The Trumpists have taken step after step on that path, from Trump’s Hitlerian rhetoric on the down elevator in Trump Tower when he announced he was running, to the deliberate attacks on children -- and beyond.. Since the deepest instinct of every species is to protect its offspring, the only way some human beings can be persuaded to take part in or permit the destruction of human children is precisely to do that destruction, thereby proving those particular children are not human. So even if this project is especially difficult to carry out against opposition, it is crucial to the whole process to carry it out anyway.

  1. The planned mass deportations can only be carried out by defining certain neighborhoods and communities inside the United States – – in 10 major cities – – as really outside the American border and making war on those neighborhoods.   I think this may be the “Kristallnacht” moment in the process, or maybe just one stage less.  If that is allowed to happen,  the process will keep going. The two-week delay that Trump announced was probably a response to warnings from ICE that they simply did not have the manpower to carry it out. Several months ago, when the leadership of DHS said the same thing to Trump, he fired them. If I were Trump (God forbid), I would think the obvious solution is to use the U.S. Army. Plenty of manpower there. Illegal, of course, but that did not prevent his using them on the border. Maybe using them in NYC, Chicago, etc etc is still a bridge too far.
  1. This march toward genocide of brown-skinned folks who speak Spanish is not the only target for Trumpist subjugation. The list is long. It includes starving Iran into submission, after throwing away a remarkable diplomatic achievement in the nuclear disarmament of Iran, instead setting up a situation geared for war. . It includes the abuse of women, both personal and political. It includes the efforts to murder many millions of human beings and many other species that are crucial to Homo Sapiens,  for the sake of Hyper-Profits for the Corporate Carbon Pharaohs, and perhaps for the sheer joy of subjugation. That one has so far been the most successful and the least opposed.
  1. I think it is time to take Sifrei Torah into the streets. And Communion. And salat –Muslim prayer services. And Buddhist bells and drums. Into the streets and into the offices of Congressmembers and ICE. And the fence around the White House.  Please keep in mind that the great surge in support of the Green New Deal came when 150 young people sat-in on Speaker Pelosi’s office.  I do not believe that it is any longer sufficient to visit the concentration camps. We and the public now know how evil they are.  The focal point should now be the seats of power and the places that carry out their orders for arrest and deportation raids.

Because this dehumanization happens in stages, it can be stopped before it reaches genocide. Stopped IF we act. That is our job. Our religious commitment. Our moral obligation. Our spiritual fulfillment.

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

Hanukkah, Oil, & the Green Menorah: Talking Points for Sermons and Op-Ed Pieces

By Rabbi Jeff Sultar & The Shalom Center's Green Menorah Covenant Campaign
(215) 438-2983

During Hanukkah, we celebrate the use of one day’s worth of oil to meet 8 days’ needs. Hanukkah can be seen, then, as the festival that has the most to teach and inspire us about energy use.

And it couldn’t come at a better time:

• We are living in the beginning stages of a global climate crisis caused by human activity.

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