The lesson of the Menorah

The holiday of Chanukah, commemorating the second century BCE victory of the Maccabees over the Hellenist Greeks who were in control of Judea, and Jerusalem and its holy Temple, is again upon us. The Hellenists who forbade the most important and basic tenets of the Jewish religion and who defiled the Temple, were with the help of God, defeated and expelled.

Each year on Chanukah we say in our prayers, “The mighty were delivered into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, and the wicked into the hands of the righteous…”

Tradition holds that upon liberation of the Temple, the only available jar of pure olive oil, which would stay lit on the Menorah for just one day, miraculously lasted for eight – long enough to have enough oil processed to continue the lighting without interruption. And so, Jews worldwide celebrate the physical and spiritual victory of the time by lighting a Menorah for eight days.

But is there more to the Menorah, that universally recognizable, ancient, and truly authentic symbol of the Jewish people?

Let’s go back some 1500 years before the story of Chanukah to the forefather Jacob. The Daat Zekeinim Mibaalei Tosafot (a medieval commentary) at Bereishit, Genesis 25:26, says the four Hebrew letters of the name Jacob correspond to the four crowns that God was to adorn on Jacob’s descendants.

What are those crowns? Rabbi Simon in Pirkei Avot, The Ethics of Our Fathers, a tractate of the Mishna (the first edition of Jewish Oral Law, compiled after the destruction of the Second Jewish Temple), Chapter 4, Mishna 13, said, “There are three crowns, the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of royalty. But the crown of a good name is above them all.”

Why does Rabbi Simon say there are three crowns when he mentions four? And wouldn’t it make more sense that something with a crown would be above that which has none, and not the other way around?

To know the answers to these questions, we first need to understand more about these “crowns.” Commentators say each of these crowns was represented by an object inside the Jewish Sanctuary or later, the Temple.

The crown of Torah is represented by the Aron, the Ark – it contained the Torah, the crown of priesthood is represented by the Mizbe’ach Ketoret, the Incense Altar – upon which priests would bring offerings, the crown of royalty is represented by the Shulchan, the Table – upon which was the Showbread, a type of sustenance designating wealth and royalty, and the crown of a good name is represented by the Menorah, and unlike the other three objects, there is no obvious connection to its related characteristic, a good name.

The Ark, the Incense Altar and the Table were made of wood and gold, and there was a rim, or crown, of gold around the top of each. Unlike the other three objects, the Menorah was made out of one solid piece of pure gold, and not assembled in any way. In addition the Menorah had no crown around the tops of any of its lamp branches. Why is that? And how does the Menorah represent a good name?

Rabbis tell us that the three “crowned” crowns could correspond to people who may very well represent their related Sanctuary object, simply by their attributes, Torah knowledge, priesthood, and royalty. But they may not best represent how they should act in concert with the responsibilities they hold because of their positions. For example, a Torah scholar could be very arrogant, and a priest or a king could be very corrupt.

The crowns around the representative Sanctuary objects remind us of the frailty of the human condition and the continuing challenges of how a lofty position might cause lofty conceit. Those in some form of high office wearing a crown symbolically or otherwise, are after all, only human. The Menorah, made from pure gold represents a pure soul, a simple, innocent person of good character, not elevated by position, not corrupted in any way, and with no desire to stray from the straight and narrow. And so, crowns around the tops of the Menorah’s branches are not necessary.

Obviously, a “crownless” person with a good name would rate higher than a challenged “crowned” person. And Rabbi Simon in the Mishna was telling us when it comes to leadership and its responsibilities and frailties, there are three crowns. But there is another crown, a separate one, a fourth crown representing one not easily corrupted. Ironically, this incorruptible person is represented by 100% pure gold, because even were he to own all the gold in the world, he would not let it affect him in any negative fashion.

And I think that takes us back to Jacob. It says in Bereishit, Genesis 25:27, “And the boys grew up, and Esau was a cunning hunter, a man of the field, whereas Jacob was an innocent man, dwelling in tents.” Rashi, the preeminent Jewish medieval commentator, says that as the brothers grew, they went in different directions. Esau learned how to fool his father and hide who he really was, an idol worshiper and trickster, while Jacob was an ‘Ish Tam,’ an innocent man, meaning he was not expert in the wicked and deceitful ways of his brother.

We can compare Jacob to the Menorah. Like gold, he had amazing value, but not because of whom he was necessarily, the son of the righteous Isaac and the upstanding Rebecca, but because of how he acted. And like the Menorah, he had a special shining aura, a brightness that made him worthy of being the third forefather, a patriarch of the Jewish people, a man with a good name from whose other name, Israel, his people throughout the generations would be called.

Lighting the Menorah as we do on Chanukah does indeed memorialize the miracle of the Temple oil lasting eight days and not one. But as we watch the glow of the flames, especially in the eyes of our children, we can be reminded of how we are to act in our daily lives, that we are to have an innocence like an untainted child, a pure newness like the rededicated Temple after the Maccabees victory over the Hellenists – in fact the word Chanukah means dedication, that we are to have a good name above all else.

After all, “A good name,” said King Solomon in Mishlei, Proverbs 22:1, “is better to be chosen than great riches, and loving favor rather than silver and gold.”

May this Chanukah shine bright for you and your loved ones and friends.

Happy Chanukah!

About the Author
Shia Altman who hails from Baltimore, MD, now lives in Los Angeles. His Jewish studies, aerospace, and business and marketing background includes a BA from the University of Maryland and an MBA from the University of Baltimore. When not dabbling in Internet Marketing, Shia tutors Bar and Bat Mitzvah, and Judaic and Biblical Studies to both young and old.
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