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PARASHAT B'HA'ALOT'KHA

THE FRONT OF THE MENORAH

by Yitzchak Etshalom



I

P'NEI HAM'NORAH At the opening of our Parashah, we read:

  1. YHVH spoke to Mosheh, saying:
  2. Speak to Aharon and say to him: When you set up the lamps, the seven lamps shall give light in front of the lampstand.
  3. Aharon did so; he set up its lamps to give light in front of the lampstand, as YHVH had commanded Mosheh.
  4. Now this was how the lampstand was made, out of hammered work of gold. From its base to its flowers, it was hammered work; according to the pattern that YHVH had shown Mosheh, so he made the lampstand.

What is the "front of the lampstand"?

Rashi (following the Sifri) explains that the "P'nei haM'norah" refers not to the front (as we translated it), rather to the "center" - the middle light. In other words, Aharon was commanded to light the lamps of the Menorah in such a way that the outer six lamps would face inward, towards the middle lamp.

R. Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (the "Netziv" - d. 1893) challenges Rashi's explanation on two fronts:

  1. The Sifri interprets the beginning of v. 3 - "Aharon did so" - that "he made a 'Panim' (face/front) for the Menorah;
  2. In a related verse (Sh'mot 25:37), we are told that "the lamps shall be set up so as to give light on the space in front of it" - thus we see that the entire Menorah has a "Panim".

The Netziv offers an alternative explanation to that proffered by Rashi - that the Torah is commanding Aharon to establish a "front" for the Menorah. Since the lamps could have been lit from either side - front or back - the Torah commanded him to light them from one side and to make that side the permanent "front" of the Menorah - which he would accomplish by firmly setting the riser, used to ascend to light the lamps, on one side.

Illuminating as this explanation is, it leads us to two other questions - one of detail and one more over-arching:

  1. Why was it necessary to have a "front" of the Menorah - and why is it called "Panim"?
  2. Why is the entire section of Menorah repeated here - we have already learned about the Menorah in Shemot 25 and Vayyikra 24!



II

THE PURPOSE OF THE MISHKAN

Examining these issues leads us to a larger question - what was the purpose of the Mishkan? Keeping in mind that the original Divine plan - as outlined in our Parashah - was to complete the stand at Sinai (with the construction and dedication of the Mishkan) and then to move immediately to Eretz Yisra'el. At that point, the people would conquer the land until such time that the proper "final destination" of the Shekhinah would be found - later revealed to be Yerushalayim. Why was there a need for a temporary Mishkan, with all of its appurtenances and vessels?

As Ramban explains (in his introduction to Parashat Terumah), the Mishkan was intended to be a continuation of the Sinai experience - with the incense substituting for the cloud, the altar on the outside taking the place of the altar at the foot of the mountain etc. In other words, the Mishkan was a vehicle for continuing the revelation of God's Word - the place where Man encounters the Divine.

It is entirely fitting, therefore, that God's Word was revealed from that place where the two K'ruvim were set, made of one gold piece, on top of the Aron ha'Edut (the Ark of the Testimony). Just as these two angelic/childlike images face each other - uPh'neihem Ish El Achiv - reflecting a mutually respectful and interdependent relationship, so it is with God's Word - revealed to Mosheh Panim El Panim - face to face.

The Mishkan was the place of encounter, as we find that, symbolically, not only the central figures in the Holy of Holies faced each other - but many other elements of the Mishkan were set up in symmetrical form, facing their partners (e.g. the rings of the tent-covers).


III

THE MENORAH - SYMBOL OF WISDOM

As the Netziv points out (in his commentary at the beginning of our Parashah), the Menorah symbolizes all forms of wisdom. This is why it must be made from one solid piece of gold - not welded together - because all wisdom has one elemental Source. He goes on to explain that the middle stem of the Menorah represents the wisdom of Torah, where the three branches on each side represent other forms of wisdom which are, essentially, included in the wisdom of the Torah. The three wicks on each side must face the center - just as all other intellectual disciplines must serve the wisdom of Torah and its study.

We need one more piece of information to explain the need for a "front" of the Menorah. Besides the Menorah, there are two other vessels in the Sanctuary: the Mizbach haK'toret (Incense Altar) and the Shulhan (Table). Whereas the Mizbach haK'toret was further back and in the middle of the Sanctuary, the Shulhan was near the front, just like the Menorah - and on the opposite side of the Sanctuary from the Menorah. In other words, the Shulhan and the Menorah were somewhat matched in the Sanctuary.

What was on the Shulhan?

And you shall set Lechem haPanim ("Showbread") on the table before me Tamid (always)". (Sh'mot 25:30)

The purpose of the Shulhan was to house the Lechem haPanim - bread that has a "face" or a "front" - and that bread was to be on the Shulhan at all times - Tamid. (See BT Menahot 99b).

We now look across the Sanctuary to the Menorah - which was to house the everlasting flame - the Ner Tamid - and the association is clear. In order to complete the symmetry, the Torah commands Aharon to make a "Panim" for the Menorah - such that the "Panim" of the bread and the "Panim" of the Menorah face each other, creating an outside analogue to the K'ruvim.


IV

SUSTENANCE AND WISDOM

If the Menorah represents Wisdom, what is represented by the Shulhan and its attendant Lechem haPanim?

As Ramban (Sh'mot 25:30) points out, the Lechem haPanim was the source of God's blessings of sustenance - the symbolism is pretty straightforward, considering that bread is usually associated with physical existence and nourishment.

So - we have two vessels, facing each other in the Sanctuary - with their focal components consistently present ("Tamid"). What are we to make of this phenomenon?

The Rabbis already taught us:

If there is no flour (bread), there is no Torah; and if there is no Torah, there is no bread". (Avot 3:17)

In other words, while the Torah distances itself in no uncertain terms from hedonism, asceticism is also not the ideal. We must balance our physical needs and material pursuits with our pursuit of wisdom - and Torah. We must note that the Shulhan and the Menorah face each other and are mutually interdependent.

All of this notwithstanding, we must remember that the Shulhan is low and has a crown underneath; whereas the Menorah is elevated (hence the opening line in our Parashah) and carries the flames which move ever up. Even though sustenance and wisdom serve each other, we must always remember which is elevated and which drags - and that, ultimately, we live in order to gain wisdom and not the reverse.

Text Copyright © 1997 by Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom.
The author is Education Coordinator of the Jewish Studies Institute of the Yeshiva of Los Angeles

 


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