David Kalb
Rabbi Kalb directs the Jewish Learning Center

Menorah Lag B’Omer Fire Spirituality and Respect

This week’s Torah Portion Emor, mentions the Menorah (a seven branched candelabra) that was used in the context of serving God in the Mishkan (Tabernacle) Vayikra (Leviticus) 24:1-4. The Menorah burned a fire of spirituality that helped connect us to God. However, there is more to the Menorah. Let me explain. Later on a Menorah burned in the First and Second Beit Hamikdash (Temple). Since the Second Beit Hamikdash was destroyed the Menorah has not been seen. On the Arch of Titus in Rome there is a relief of Roman soldiers carrying away the Menorah. Therefore, some believe that the Menorah is somewhere in Rome.

Whenever I discuss the whereabouts of the Menorah, someone inevitably says, “The Vatican has the Menorah hidden away and that is the reason that the Church does not allow scholars full access to their library.” I have no doubt that there are secrets kept tucked away in the Vatican’s archives, and while anything is possible, this scenario is as likely as the Lost Ark being stored in some federal warehouse as the Indiana Jones movies would have us believe.

The current location of the Menorah is a colorful topic. It reads like a novel by Dan Brown. However, what interests me is, what would transpire if the Menorah were ever found? What would occur? Total pandemonium? There would be a massive argument about where the Menorah should be placed. If this scenario ever occurred, I believe events would unfold as follows.

Many Orthodox Jews would want the Menorah placed at the Kotel (the Western Wall, the last remaining wall of the Temple). Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Jewish Renewal and some Modern Orthodox Jews would object due to the policy that only Orthodox services are permitted at the Kotel. They would then advocate for the Menorah to be erected at the Ezrat Yisrael (the portion of the wall near Robinson’s Arch, where different forms of prayer can take place). Other Orthodox Jews who are very oriented to the Beit Hamikdash, would feel that it should be on Har Habayit (the Temple Mount) which is where the Temple actually once stood. This would, of course, cause friction between Jews and Muslims because of the Qubbat al-Sakhrah (Dome of the Rock) and the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount. This interfaith conflict would lead to further arguments between politically liberal and politically conservative Jews.

Then a new group of Orthodox Jews would come forward and articulate other locations to avoid conflicts. The Great Synagogue in Jerusalem would offer itself up as the perfect venue. However, the leadership of other synagogues would counter, “no, why not my Synagogue?” The Chief Rabbinate would of course get involved and determine that the Menorah should be in their office. Jews who are critical of the Chief Rabbinate both from the right and from the left would have issues with this plan and engage in protests. Various Yeshivot would offer their locations. Liberal seminaries would disagree, stating their institutions were the perfect spots. Still secular Jews would feel that the Menorah should not be in any of these venues; it should be placed on top of the Knesset (The Israeli Parliament). Academics would articulate, that none of these locations are acceptable. Rather, the Menorah must be in a museum where it could be cared for properly and studied. The religious groups would counter, issuing the following statement. “How dare you try to put the Menorah in a museum! That is where you want to put us. That is where you want to put Judaism. Not in real life, but behind glass where it can be admired from afar, but where it has no effect on people’s lives.” Who knows? Maybe diaspora Jews would get involved and say that the Menorah should go on a world tour.

This argument about where the Menorah would be placed would go on and on and on and thus the meaning of what the Menorah is about would be completely lost. In fact, if this story unfolded as I am suggesting, we as a people would be conducting ourselves in exactly the opposite way of what the message of the Menorah is. What is the message of the Menorah?

If you were to look at the Menorah, you would note that there are seven branches, but they all come from one base. The message of the design could be that there are different types of Jews but with all of our diversity and all of our disagreement, we are all one people. Am Echad, Im Lev Echad, one people with one heart.

That is what we should be, but are we living up to the message of the Menorah? I do not think so. Look at the conflicts, intolerance and disrespect that exists between Jews of different religious or political orientations. There is nothing wrong with disagreement. I am not in any way advocating uniformity in Judaism. We are richer because of our diversity. However, we must come to understand the concept of respectful disagreement. A person can maintain their point of view passionately and intensely without in anyway degrading or devaluating someone they disagree with.

This learning comes at an auspicious time. We are now in Sefirat Haomer (The Counting of the Omer), the 49 days in between Pesach and Shavuot. This counting connects Yitsiat Mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt, to Matan Torah, the giving of the Torah. These days should be a festive and happy time. However, within these days is a mourning period.

Why? What are we mourning? According to the Talmud, Yevamot 62b, it was during this time that a plague killed the 24000 students of Rabbi Akiva. According to the Talmud the plague struck them because they were not respectful to one another.

Many of us have philosophical issues with this type of schar and onesh (reward and punishment) theology. We find such religious positions offensive, especially as we continue to deal with the Coronavirus. For the Tanakh (Bible) and the Talmud to make such pronouncements is one thing. However, for us today, to determine why such horrific events occur, is insensitive and theologically arrogant.

Presumedly, when the students of a Rabbi Akiva were engaged in the study of Torah and a difference of opinion came up, they were not able to respect each other in spite of their disagreement. They were not able to understand that very often in the study of Torah, more than one opinion can be correct. This lack of understanding degraded itself into disrespect.

Perhaps what the Talmud is ultimately saying is that this problem of not being able to respect one another or see the value in each other in spite of our disagreement is a plague. It is a threat from within that has far greater potential to destroy us than any threat from the outside.

What do we do about this threat from within? In the learning of Torah as in all areas of life, our disagreements must be respectful and we must strive to find ways to learn from and work with those we disagree with. However there is more that the story of Rabbi Akiva can teach us.

According to at least one position the plague ended on the 33rd day of the Omer, Lag B’Omer (Meiri on theTalmud Yevamot 62b). Lag B’Omer takes place this year on Monday evening May 11 and Tuesday, during the day on May 12.  In addition, Lag B’Omer was the day that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai one of the top five students of Rabbi Akiva who survived the plague (Yevamot 62b) came out of  the  cave  that  he  and  his  son  were  in  for  thirteen  years while they were hiding away from the Romans and engaged in study (Talmud Shabbat 33b). Rabbi  Shimon  Bar  Yochai died  on Lag  B’omer and revealed to us the Zohar, the central book of Jewish Mysticism (Birchei Yosef 493:4). On that day, fire and light abounded (Idra Zuta, ZoharIII:287b–296b). The word Zohar means splendor, radiance, brightness, glow or gleam as in light.

Therefore, there is a Minhag (custom) to light bonfires and candles to celebrate Lag B’Omer (Aruch Hashulchan 493:7). Since Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai brought light into the world, we light bonfires or candles to reenact this experience and to show Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai respect.

The fire of Lag B’Omer, like the fire of the Menorah, is a fire of spirituality. However, also like the Menorah, it is a fire of Jewish unity in that the day is a time for us to think about the students of Rabbi Akiva. The story of the students of Rabbi Akiva must kindle a fire within us that will help us to see the dignity in our fellow Jew and in our fellow human beings even if, or better yet especially, when we disagree.

About the Author
Rabbi David Kalb is the Rabbi of Jewish Learning Center of New York where he is responsible for the creative, educational, spiritual, and programmatic direction of the organization.
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