The Paradox of Existence
The Talmud tells us (1) that “Moses found three things difficult (2), until G-d showed them to him with His finger: Menorah, HaChodesh (the new Moon) and Sherotzim (creepers)” (3).
Moses’ difficulty with the new moon was discussed a few weeks ago in this column. The problem Moses had with the “creeps” (creeping creatures) will be addressed in a future column. Today we will focus on Moses’ troubles with the Menorah.
What disturbed Moses about the menorah, that he needed G-d to show it to him (as a menorah of fire (4))?
Commentaries explain (5) that the challenge of the Menorah was in the requirement that it had to be built out of one piece of pure gold (“miksha achas”). Despite its elaborate and intricate structure, all the Menorah’s components – its base, stem, decorative cups, spheres and flowers – had to be hammered out of a single piece of gold; all an integral part of a single gold Menorah (6). As Rashi explains: The Menorah was not to be made “of sections,” nor should “its branches and lamps be separate pieces that are connected afterward in the style of metal-workers which they call ‘solder’ in Old French. Rather, it should all come from a single piece. He (the craftsman) beats it with a mallet and cuts it with craftsman tools, separating the branches to either side… The craftsman draws the parts of the menorah out of the solid block of gold.”
How is it possible, Moses wondered, to build the complex Menorah out of a single piece of gold? (7). Thus, G-d showed him how to build the Menorah.
But this explanation is lacking. As difficult as a task the construction of the Menorah may have been, the intelligent Moses could have researched and consulted craftsmen who knew the art of sculpting gold. Moses surely understood that there were skilled individuals who could get the job done. Even if he needed some Divine guidance, why was he troubled to the extent that this is one of only three instances that G-d Himself had to intervene and point with His Divine finger to a Menorah made of fire?!
The mystics explain (8) that the Menorah – with its multi-faceted, ornate design, all carved out of one piece of gold – carries the “deep mystery” of Divine unity, an indivisible force that encompasses all the intricate details of existence.
What concerned Moses was a far deeper issue than the physical architecture of the Menorah; He was perplexed by the internal architecture of existence itself and its relationship with the Divine.
The entire Mishkan (Sanctuary) was a prototype of the spiritual infrastructure of the cosmos. “Build for me a Sanctuary and I will rest among you:” The Sanctuary channeled the Divine presence into our lives. All the configurations of the Mishkan and its vessels – were meant to align with the human psyche, which is a microcosm of the larger universe, with its Divine source. As such, Moses understood that like all the Temple’s vessels, the Menorah and its need to be shaped, with all its details, out of a single piece of gold, manifested a deep secret: the underlying unity embedded in all of existence.
When he heard that the Menorah, with all its complex design, was to be made out of one piece of gold, he was plagued with the paradox: How do you carve details out of an indivisible unit? How is it possible that the indivisible G-d should extend and be one with the complex diversity of existence? How can we ever bridge the inherent divide between these two diametrically opposed realities: The absolute infinite and undefined Divine with our finite and absolutely defined universe?
The consequences of this dilemma are far-reaching; its implications affecting every aspect of our lives.
As mortal creatures, dependent on a multitude of factors to survive, the argument can be made – as it has been driven time and again into our brains by nay-sayers, scientists and skeptics – that we are ultimately narcissistic parasites, feeding off the fat of the land and off of each other.
Even when we overcome some of our base survival instincts and act with virtue, we have severe limits as to how far we can reach as finite beings. We can maneuver here and there, but we always remain locked in a prison of restricted parameters, limited by a predetermined script – never truly able to transcend the margins of our fixed existence.
Materialism, by its very nature, is dead and inanimate – antithetical to spiritual vitality. How then can we ever expect to break out of our material confines; how can we even attempt to overcome the struggle between physical survival and transcendence; how can we hope to fuse spirit and matter?
Gold is a symbol of the mundane, self-oriented life, the symbol of selfishness and idolatry. How can gold be turned into a Menorah of light?
Not a very hopeful scenario…
As a result of this fundamental quandary – the paradox of uniting the Divine with the mundane – G-d Himself had to “point his finger” (a metaphor for the defined parameters of existence, like the narrow finger) – and show Moses a Menorah of fire (fire representing the uncontained nature of the Divine). G-d imparted to Moses the mystery of Divine Unity: How all the complex details of existence are an integral part and an extension of one single entity.
And with this, G-d revealed to Moses how the intricate detailed design of the Menorah contains the profound secret of life’s ultimate possibilities.
Moses was disturbed because one would think that in this selfish world, we would be driven by the modality of “survival of the fittest” to become plain parasites, selfishly using each other.
The Divine finger, however, points to another possibility: Behold – a Menorah of fire! You Moses, and all humans like you, can and must build and become Menorahs that emanate light and exude warmth to all with whom you come in contact.
I, G-d, give you My power to not suffice with being mere takers; you are to be givers. (9) Do not be satisified with being creatures; become creators that go out and transform the universe. Turn its raw materials into Divine fuel. Take the dark universe and make it a place of light. More: Make it a source of light – a Menorah.
Just as the Divine “finger” pointed from the Egyptian abyss at the new moon to show Moses the secret of birthing, that same finger now showed Moses the secret of illuminating and changing transforming the world around us.
The new moon gives us hope to survive; the Menorah gives us power to thrive and illuminate the universe
Yes indeed, we mortals of flesh and blood, consumed by a world of material gold, can transform ourselves and our gold into forces of change. We fragile creatures that are so dependent on outside sustenance (air, food, drink, sleep, shelter, protection) living in an insecure world, can become instead of parasites – walking, living Menorahs – that illuminate our surroundings with holy light.
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This also explains the prominent role the Menorah and its flames play in Jewish life. Besides the Menorah in the Temple, which is showcased in the Torah more than all the other parts of the Sanctuary, we also have the Chanukah Menorah, the Shabbos candles and on the other extreme – the flames we light in memory of departed souls.
Indeed, light is a central theme in Torah, and today has become a vital component of understanding the nature of existence. In the last century physics has come to discover the critical role that light (energy) plays in the universe; it defines the essential nature of existence – something that the Torah has been teaching for millennia. Light, with its paradoxes, straddles the boundaries between wave and particle, and between existence and beyond-existence. Light, the fundamental metaphor used in Kabbalah for Divine energy, is the ultimate bridge that unifies existence, and links it to the Divine, as discussed in earlier articles (see: The Physics of Chanukah, Light, Intimate Light)
But the journey of light – the Menorah’s secret of unity – began 3319 years ago, when the Divine finger showed Moses how to build an intricately designed Menorah out of a single piece of gold, and Moses was told to “carefully observe the pattern that you will be shown on the mountain and make [the menorah] in that manner (Exodus 25:40).
Ever since, we have the power of the Menorah to sanctify our lives. Throughout history, till this very day, the Menorah gave the human race the power to transcend their boundaries. Today too we can glean much from the Menorah.
All this power – in a five-foot-tall seven-branched golden candelabra, kindled every evening in the Sanctuary, which cast its sacred radiance to the outside world.
A Menorah that teaches us that our diversity need no be annihilated in the face of the Divine; it can and must be integrated as an inseparable part of the indivisible whole of the Divine.
That we can experience in our limited lives the highest levels of transcendence, reaching to places that are beyond any defined parameters of existence.
That our material lives, even our money and gold – symbols of self and often greed – can become fuel to emanate spiritual light.
That instead of being takers we become givers.
That we become living Menorahs illuminating our surroundings.
(1) Menachot 29a. See also Mechilta Bo 12:2. Sifrei 8:4.
(2) A second opinion in the Talmud adds another item that Moses found difficult – the laws of Shechita (ritual slaughter). The Midrash adds Anointing Oil (Shemos Rabba 15:28). The Ramban and Bechaya (Numbers 8:2) cite a Midrash that includes Korbon (the High Priest offering – Leviticus 6:3) – thus the four items that Moses found difficult create the acronym for the word “mikshe:” Menorah, Korbon, Sherotzim, HaChodesh.
Moses was shown other items as well (though the expression that “he was troubled” is not used): The Holy Ark and the Shulchan (table) – together with the Menorah of fire (Menochot ibid). Shekel (Yerushalmi Shekolim 1:4) – see Tosfot Menachot ibid. Chulin 42a. Commentaries elaborate on the distinction between the things Moses was shown and those he was “troubled” by (Gur Aryeh; Divrei Dovid – Terumah 25:40). But see the Midrash (Tanchuma Terumah 9. Nosso 11. Bamidbar Rabba 12:3. Pesikta Rabsi ch 16): Three things caused Moses to tremble: The Mishkan, the Korbonot and the Shekel.
(3) Acronym of the name Moshe, Mem, Shin, Heh – Menorah, Shekel, HaChodesh (Zohar II Terumah 157b). The Zohar replaces Sherotzim with Shekel.
(4) Rashi Exodus 29:40.
(5) Maharsha Menachot ibid.
(6) Exodus 25:31; 36.
(7) “Mikshe” is also related to the word “koshe” – difficult (Sifrei; Tanchuma Yoshon Numbers; Ramban ibid). See Ohr HaTorah Behaalotcho p. 354.
(8) See Zohar II 157b. Ramban, Rekanti, Shaloh – Terumah ibid. Gur Aryeh Shemini 11:2.
(9) See Ohr HaTorah Behaalotcho p. 356.
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