The Menorah, the seven branched candelabra which stood in the Temple, is one of Judaism ubiquitous symbols. Its role in the Mishkan and in the Temple, as described in this week’s parasha seems obvious: “And the Lord spoke to Moshe, saying, ‘Charge the Israelites, that they take clear beaten olive oil for the light to kindle a light perpetually. Outside the curtain of the Covenant in the Tent of Meeting Aharon shall set it out from evening till morning before the Lord perpetually, an everlasting statute for your generations…” (Leviticus 24:1-4) A cursory reading of this mandate would lead one to assume that the purpose of the Menorah was to provide light in the Mishkan in the evening when natural light was not available.
From the rabbinic perspective, the most obvious reason for God to command humans to provide light in the Mishkan would be for divine purposes. This, of course, seemed silly to them, since God, the Creator of light and the natural sources of light, the sun and the moon, certainly had no need for manmade light. Consequently, the Menorah had to have some other purpose. The following midrash is one rabbinic attempt to answer this question:
Rabbi Avina said: “[Said the Holy One Blessed be He:] The globe of the sun is one of my servants and at the hour that it goes out into the world, no creature can set its eyes upon it. As it says: ‘A river of fire streamed forth from before Him.’ (Daniel 7:10) And for your light, I need? Said Rabbi Aha: ‘The Lord desires His servant’s vindication. (tzidko)’ (Isaiah 42:21) I did not say [it] except for your merit (l’zkhutkha). (adapted from Leviticus Rabbah 31:8, Margulies edition pp. 726-7)
Since, according to Rabbi Avina, God has no physical need for human beings to provide him with Him with light, this must mean that God gave them for a different purpose. This teaching echoes an earlier, more general teaching found in the Mishnah – “Rabbi Hananiah ben Akashya says: The Holy One Blessed be He wanted to grant merit (l’zakot) Israel: therefore, he multiplied for them the Torah and mitzvot, as it is written: The Lord desires His servant’s vindication (tzidko) that he make the Torah great and glorious” (Makot 3:16)
Reflecting this teaching from the Mishnah, Rabbi Avina has repurposed the significance of the kindling of the Menorah in the Mishkan/Temple and transformed it into a model for the significance of the mitzvot/commandments as a whole. Two words shine forth in this teaching: “tzedko – his vindication” and “zechut – merit”. The performance of God’s commandments is what justifies (vindicates) who we are as Jews and human beings. Carrying out God’s will and making the world God’s place is what we were set here to do. In doing so, we kindle God’s Menorah and cause its light to shine forth for all.