The tree and the menorah

The menorah was not just a candelabrum. It symbolized the Covenant between God and the Jewish people.

Menorah (photo credit: REUTERS)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Although many symbols were available to represent the State of Israel, the menorah was chosen. Central to the mishkan, the Tabernacle, the focus of worship during the years of desert wandering and the early Israelite settlement of Eretz Yisrael, two menorot stood in front of the Temple in Jerusalem.
After the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, a representation of the menorah carried by Jewish slaves was carved into the Arch of Titus in Rome. Representations of two menorot are common in Talmudic period mosaic floors, a sign of the symbol’s importance.
The menorah was not just a candelabrum. It symbolized the Covenant between God and the Jewish people.
Representing light, it was a symbol of Jewish spirituality and the unique mission of the Jewish people – living Torah.
As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes in his commentary on Parshat Terumah: “Made completely of gold, it symbolizes precisely that unchanging firmness and timelessness which, as indicated by its form, is to blossom and develop in the Sanctuary of God through the spirit of God’s Law... to put awareness into practice by doing good... goodness and truth are eternal and immutable.”
Resembling a tree, the menorah symbolized awareness of God. But the symbol of a tree is also important in the history of the Jewish people.
When the Jewish people were about to enter Canaan, Moshe sent 10 scouts to explore the land and he instructed them carefully. Concerned for the safety of the Jewish people, he needed to know what resistance they might encounter. Curiously, however, he also asked them to look for “a tree” (Numbers 13:20).
Translations render the word in the plural, “trees,” since sometimes in Torah plurals are written in the singular, and it seems to make sense.
But during a dangerous and sensitive military reconnaissance, why look for trees? Trees are important practically as signs of abundance and settled communities and the scouts brought back huge fruits as proof of their existence. But perhaps the use of the singular is also correct. In which case, what “tree” did Moshe have in mind? When Abraham purchased a burial cave, Machpelah, in Hebron, he included in the contract not only the cave and surrounding fields, but “the tree” – again, singular in Torah, although translated as plural (Genesis 23:17). Why is a particular tree important? According to Midrash, this tree led to the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve were buried, and Abraham knew that – which explains why this tree was special.
When Noah sent out a dove from the ark (Genesis 8:11) it returned with an olive branch, a symbol of hope and renewal. According to a Midrash, that branch was from a tree that had survived the flood, a tree from the Garden of Eden. What tree could that be? The most famous tree in history is the Tree of Knowledge (Genesis 2:17), the source of our awareness of Good and Evil, forbidden to taste. Moses knew about this tree and therefore directed the scouts to search for it.
The tree was the epicenter of Jewish consciousness and a symbol of the connection between the Jewish People and Eretz Yisrael. An eternal source of imagination and inspiration, this tree symbolizes Jewish history: Exile, Return and Redemption.
To paraphrase, this was not only the “Tree of Knowledge,” but the Tree of Authenticity; it gives the Jewish people the strength to withstand persecution, self-doubt and fear.
The two great menorot that stood on the Temple Mount represented understanding and consciousness, its seven branches representing the sevenfold eternal cycles of freedom and learning (mikraei kodesh). The symbol of tree-as-menorah represents the belief that the Jewish People will not only survive, they will prevail, and one day there will be true and everlasting peace.
As Israel’s national symbol, the menorah represents uniqueness, not simply as an artificial political construct, but as an essentially Jewish entity, and the basis for the Third Jewish Commonwealth.
On Independence Day, walking through parks filled with Israelis celebrating our national collective holiday with barbeques, it is a reminder of the korbanot (ritual sacrifices) that were offered on the Temple Mount thousands of years ago. And on Independence Day, we thank God for our Jewish state.
So light the fires; we are home and counting our blessings.