An adolescent girl with waist-length hair walks down the street making her way through a playlist. Her friend comments on the delicate Star-of-David pendant peeking out from beneath her ribbed tank, and her grandmother’s soft face flits across her mind’s eye.
* * *
A brother and sister in their mid-50s leave their families for a week to clean out a basement. They vacillate hourly between waves of nostalgia, complaining about the mold, and resenting their parents’ refusals to purge while they still could. Decades-old Scotch tape crumbles under their fingers, as they make their way through boxes they both remember their father promising he would get to “next Sunday.” Buried under mismatched teacups they find a set of tarnished candlesticks. Something gnaws at them for the rest of the day.
* * *
A woman watches her son wrap his brand new tefillin around the arm he complains isn’t muscular enough. As she slows her breath, to steady her heartbeat, she emits a silent prayer about luck, and about continuity.
* * *
The Ark at the front of a synagogue.
The hollow of a mezuzah the tour-guide points out, as they stroll through narrow European streets.
Zodiacs on stained glass.
The billowing flag of a resuscitated people.
Whether we want them to or not, symbols resurrect memories. Whether we authorize them to or not, they transmit narratives. Whether we admit it, or not, they have been encoded into our collective consciousness.
But symbols are also harnessed.
* * *
Indiana Jones was not the first to go searching for The Lost Ark. For millennia, literary archaeologists have attempted to sift through layers of penned traditions, in the hopes of uncovering the fate of the vessels that once adorned Solomon’s Temple. The biblical remains have been confusing. On the one hand, the end of the Book of Kings tells us that Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, removed the treasures from the Temple “and fractured the vessels of gold which Solomon, King of Israel, had made in the Temple of the Lord.” In the book’s final chapter, we are given the impression that vessels of the Temple were stripped, and the valuable metals they were made of, were brought back to Babylon. “The fire pans, and the basins, that which was of gold, in gold, and that which was of silver, in silver, the captain of the guard took away.” Those that were not stripped, we are told, were shattered. The pillars of brass, for example, “that were in the house of the Lord, and the bases and the brazen sea that were in the house of the Lord, did the Chaldeans break in pieces and carried the brass of them to Babylon.”
If the Book of Kings were our only resource, it would be difficult to imagine that any vessels from the First Temple remained in one piece. And yet, if we fast-forward about half a century, and read Ezra-Nehemiah’s description of the Jewish return to the Jerusalem in the mid-sixth century BCE, we are told that Persia’s King Cyrus “brought forth the vessels of the house of the Lord, which Nebuchadnezzar had brought forth out of Jerusalem, and had put them in the house of the gods.” According to Ezra-Nehemiah, along with sanctioning, and partially funding the Second Temple building project, the benevolent Persian king returned the vessels of the First.
As readers searching for a linear and consistent version of history, these seemingly conflicting portraits seem confusing. But as students of Tanakh, we know that when we encounter apparent contradictions such as this one, the question to formulate is not “which account is true?” but rather, “what truth is being communicated in each account?” In all likelihood, many of the vessels were stripped, others were destroyed, and still others were carried off intact to Babylon’s royal treasure rooms. Each account chose to portray a different slice of reality. As students of Tanakh, our challenge is to try to understand what the author of each book was attempting to communicate through that conscious, artful decision.
The Book of Kings is a work that recounts the royal history of Israel from its early years as a united monarchy, through the exile of its northern and southern kingdoms in the eighth and sixth centuries BCE, respectively. Depictions of the vessels’ destruction at the work’s end, is not accidental. The Book of Kings develops the argument that the people’s disregard for their covenantal relationship with God is the reason for their exile. Years of foreign worship and, with few exceptions, refusal to commit to the parameters of a monotheistic religion, led to their expulsion.
The author of Kings describes the destruction of the vessels so that, as we read of the final phase of the epoch, we reflect on what was lost. The author of Kings wants us to visualize the graceful hands of the artisan all those centuries earlier, sculpting the ornate flowers that graced the Temple’s columns, and he wants us to watch those flowers transformed into a molten mass. Invoking Solomon’s name amidst the devastation, the author invites us to step back in time, to imagine the pride Israel felt at the Temple’s inauguration, and be thankful that, at the very least, those that consecrated it, did not witness its ruin. The destruction of the Temple and its furnishings in the Book of Kings, symbolizes the failure of its era.
The vessels mentioned in Ezra-Nehemiah, play a very different role. We read the first chapter of Ezra-Nehemiah and we imagine the Persian royal stewards, obediently retrieving the stolen vessels and handing them back to their rightful owners. We picture Zerubbabel and Joshua, leaders of the return movement, tenderly loading the vessels onto their caravans and heading in the direction of Mount Zion. The Second Temple foundation is laid, the author tells us, “according to the direction of David, king of Israel.” Speaking to a largely apathetic audience, the author of Ezra-Nehemiah employs an image of the vessels that creates a sense of continuity with the past. The vessels, returned, are reinstated, and the mirage of a seamless flow from one phase of history to the next emboldens the people to revive their ancestral traditions. In Ezra-Nehemiah, the vessels symbolize the unbroken sequencing of Jewish history.
Two books. One symbol. Diametrically opposed connotations.
* * *
In 1949, Jews once again fashioned a symbol from the wreckage. Three weeks after the establishment of the State of Israel, citizens were invited to submit design proposals for what would become the national emblem. Gavriel and Maxim Shamir designed the now famous menorah, flanked by olive branches. The menorah, having been a prominent Jewish image since antiquity, was a natural choice. And yet after the initial drawing was accepted, the brothers were asked to replace the menorah they had designed, with the one featured on the Arch of Titus in Rome. The request was loaded, and inspired, and profoundly symbolic.
The Arch of Titus, constructed in 81 CE, 10 years after the destruction of the Second Temple, commemorates Titus’s successful suppression of the First Jewish Revolt. Of the scenes depicted on the arch, the one that proved most evocative for Jews throughout the millennia was that of the Temple vessels being carried off to Rome. The menorah, carved in deep relief, is the most prominent of the spoils. For the Romans, the arch symbolized their invincibility, for the Jews, their gateway to exile.
And so, it is not surprising that immediately after Israel was declared a state in 1947, five thousand Italian Jews gathered under that very menorah, and paraded ever-so-symbolically through that very arch. The parade, in the shadow of the carved relief, marked the end of their displacement. Appropriated by the Shamir brothers two years later, the menorah came to symbolize Jewish survival, Jewish return, and Jewish continuity. Like the vessels described in Ezra-Nehemiah, a symbol was chosen to manifest the indestructible chain that is Jewish history.
* * *
But symbols, as we have seen, are always multivalent. Learning from, and evolving beyond history, requires that we remain receptive to the variety of nuances they impart. While the menorah from the Arch came to mean one thing to Jews in 1949, there is another important aspect of its story. The sack of the Second Temple depicted in the Arch marked the end of a complicated period in Jewish history. The decades leading up to the destruction were marred by ideological discord among Jewish sects. Jews then, like today, disagreed on ideological, religious, legal, and political matters. Hindsight, though, enables us to recognize that beneath the debates of the Second Temple was something far more insidious. The variant sects were not simply disagreeing; each was claiming to have the monopoly on authentic Judaic ideals, and political prudence. Opinions were presumed by their adherents to be fact, and interpretations of text and of human experience, were regarded as exclusively authoritative. In time, disputes collapsed into bloody feuds. Seven years before the destruction, infighting and civil war erupted between two Jewish kings, prompting the initial siege of Jerusalem and the end of Jewish sovereign. Politics became more important than the people, and egos of individuals, and of factions, trumped national interests. As the ferocity of the infighting intensified, the situation deteriorated until eventually, the vessels were carried off to Rome.
That part too, inheres in our symbol.
* * *
Three young Israelis from diverse backgrounds stand in line at their local polling station. They make small talk while they wait — about the weather and about their plans for the day. As the voter in front of them enters the room to cast her ballot, they catch a glimpse of the familiar blue box embossed with their national emblem. A surge of pride grips them, alongside a sobering consciousness of the roots of that symbol. In that moment, they understand that, while the survival of their state feels tenuous at times, not every threat is an existential one. They recognize that they disagree on important issues, and also that not every disagreement is decisive. They marvel at their nation’s endurance against impossible odds, all the while acknowledging that its strength ultimately derives from a united front. As the door shuts behind her, the white-on-blue olive branches surrounding the menorah disappear from their view.
The Shamir brothers are quoted as saying that they included the branches as they represent “the most appealing expression of the love of peace among the People of Israel.” That day, the voters choose to be proud enough, brave enough, and humble enough, to live up to their national symbol.