June 5, 2004
The book of Zechariah is filled with wondrous prophetic visions, many of which have kept the sages throughout the generations busy either attempting to explain their meaning or using these visions as springboards for their own messages. The vision of the golden menorah at the end of this week’s haftarah has just this sort of history: “And he [the angel] said to me [Zechariah]: ‘What do you see?’ And I said: ‘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 by it are two olive trees, one on the right side of the bowl and one on its left side.’ ‘Do you know what those things mean?’ asked the angel who talks with me; and I said, ‘No, my lord.’ (Zechariah 4:2-5) Several verses later (after the end of the haftarah), the angel seemingly explains the significance of the different parts of the vision, including the seven branches of the menorah. The seven branches of the menorah represent, according to the angel, “the eyes of the Lord, ranging over the entire world.” (verse 10)
The menorah image and the angel’s interpretation present an important religious truth. The light provided by the menorah represents God’s providential involvement in the world while the seven branches of the menorah infer that God’s providence is total. (see M. Zair Kavod, Daat Hamikra)
This idea is turned on its head in a dialogue between God and the people of Israel found in the following medieval midrash: [The midrash quotes from a verse from the prophet Zephaniah]: ‘And it will come to pass that I will search out Jerusalem with lamps’ (Zephaniah 1:12) The people of Israel ask God: ‘Master of the World, with all of the honor due us, [what need do] you have to search Jerusalem with lamps? [The people cannot fathom why God would need to search out the world with a candle.] Haven’t You promised the prophets [that You will serve as our Source of light. This they illustrate with a number of verses, including:] ‘The sun will no longer be your light of day, neither for brightness shall the moon give light to you, for God will be for you an everlasting light…’ (Isaiah 60:19)… so how can You [God] say that You need to search Jerusalem by candlelight?’ The Holy One Blessed Be He responded: You [the children of Israel] don’t understand. The answer to your question is found in the image that I showed Zechariah: ‘Behold a menorah of pure gold.’ – the menorah represents the people of Israel. Its base represents the ‘nasi – the patriarch; its stem – the head of its courts; the cups which hold the oil – its sages; the menorah’s calyxes – their students; and its petals – the children who study Torah… (adapted from Pesikta Rabbati 8:4 – Meir Ish Shalom ed. 29b)
In this midrash, the menorah represents not God’s divine providential light, but rather the light which the people of Israel bring to the world when they study and live by the Torah. The people, who assumed conventionally that God is the source of all light, needed to be made aware of their true role. They, too, serve as agents of God’s light in the world.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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