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The commandment to create the seven-branched candelabrum for the tabernacle in the desert appears in the Torah. According to a rabbinic tradition, despite the precise, detailed instructions spelled out in Exodus, Moses could not figure out exactly what was intended until a visual representation was shown to him. Many of us who deal with both images and words understand his predicament perfectly. Words can never fully convey the impact of an image; and no image can capture the precision of verbal thinking. Our culture clearly weighs in heavily in favor of words. This makes us take special heed of those few images—like that of the Menorah—whose power comes from its visual impact.

The fact that no one knows the precise description and arrangement of the various elements of the Menorah has given rise to thousands of years of endless speculation and contemplation. The prophet Zechariah saw its image as a striking divine message. Philosophers have seen it as a model for conceptual categories or cosmic patterns. Mystics have seen it as a rich source for meditation. Indeed, of all the Jewish images, that of the Menorah has been the most ubiquitous. From the Exodus to today it has been intimately connected with our people.

For me, its three most prominent features perfectly capture much of the essence of Judaism. Its most immediate characteristic is its perfect balance. I believe that the perfection of Judaism derives to a very large extent from its harmonious balance in virtually all aspects of life. All the forces, factors and aspects of the universe and of life are acknowledged, accepted, embraced and then balanced in perfect harmony. What better image could there be of this than the Menorah’s arms reaching outwards to embrace all and to bring them into that strong, perfectly centered middle column? This is the horizontal aspect of the Menorah.

Vertically too, the Menorah seems to be a very apt image of Judaism. Like Judaism it is firmly rooted in the earth and delights in all the details of the earthiness of life—food, agriculture, sex, work, society, commerce, politics. Judaism, however, takes all these earthy elements and sanctifies them by raising them upward like the branches of the Menorah.

Both functionally and etymologically the Menorah is essentially about light. It is a source of physical light and a symbol of divine light. Atop each branch is a pure, shining light suggesting that the godly light that fills the universe is somehow accessible to us if we seek it.

Edition of the Pueblo Portfolio

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