This Dvar Torah was written by my nephew, Dr. Ari Shapiro of Cleveland, Ohio.
There is a well-known Midrash (a collection of ancient biblical commentaries) that takes note of the juxtaposition between the offerings of the princes of the twelve Israelite tribes at the end of Parashat (the Torah reading of) Naso and Aharon’s (Aaron, the High Priest’s) commandment to light the Menorah immediately afterward at the beginning of Parashat Be’ha’alotcha.
As the Midrash describes, Aharon thought that his tribe of Levi was excluded from the princes’ offerings because of his own involvement in the sin of the Golden Calf. To dispel this notion, God told Moshe (Moses) to reassure Aharon that the reason he was not part of the princes’ procession was because he is destined for a greater duty; namely, as custodian of the Menorah, which will “forever give light.” The Ramban explains that this phrase is an allusion to the Chanukah Menorah, which is lit “forever,” i.e., even in exile.
Why does the Menorah service of the Temple, symbolized by the Chanukah lighting ceremony, continue on in some fashion, long after both Temples have been destroyed? Why did Aharon merit to personally receive this commandment of the Menorah from God? And how does Aharon’s dark past with the Golden Calf tie into all this?
The sin of the Golden Calf can be described as the Jewish people losing faith in Moshe and his God and turning to alternative gods for guidance. Aharon was deeply involved in this deviation from mainstream Judaism and was imperfect because of it. Why should this flawed individual merit such a sacred task of lighting the Menorah?
However, God gave this Menorah service to Aharon not in spite of his sin, but because of it. This was not a reward he received; it was a form of atonement for the High Priest. God provided Aharon with a path to undo his sins of old, via the Menorah. In fact, the Menorah itself can be seen as a direct reparation for the golden calf, a sort of measure-for-measure. Both the golden calf and the Menorah were formed by gold being thrown into a fire and a completely golden object miraculously emerging.
As we know from the Chanukah story, the miracle of the oil was symbolic of the Jewish way of life – woefully in the minority – deposing the Hellenistic way of life. During that era, the faith of Judaism was under assault by an environment teeming with paganist gods. Many Jews were leaving the fold, giving up on their faith.
It was not unlike the Jews turning their backs on their religion during the episode of the Golden Calf. And just as Moshe cried out, “Whoever is for God come with me!” to rally against the corruption of the golden calf, so too did the Maccabees call out when rallying against the Greeks. The Greeks were eventually defeated and the temple restored, and the Menorah played a crucial role in that. The Menorah was a means for Jews at that time to mend their sinful ways and return to the fold.
So too, did the Menorah serve as an atonement for Aharon for his sin. By lighting the Menorah in the temple, Aharon restored his faith in God and God restored His faith in Aharon.
The light of the Menorah represents the enduring nature of Judaism. Just as the flame in the temple continuously burned, so too does Judaism continue to endure. The story of Chanukah, as simply one snapshot in the tortuous history of the Jewish people, reminds us that many powerful nations – like the Greeks – have come and gone, but the tiny nation of Israel is the only one that still remains. And the reason for its perpetuation is its steadfast allegiance to God and the Jewish way of life.
Out of all the components of the temple, only the Menorah remains, because the role of the Menorah continues to be relevant today. We are constantly facing the outside world, constantly being challenged by competing, conflicting cultures. We need the Menorah every year to shine the light of Judaism and remind us of the ideals that we are fighting for. The Menorah instills in us the strength that Aharon had to bounce back from his sin, and demonstrates that it is never too late for one to change.
Chag Chanukah Sameach! Happy Chanukah!