I would be willing to bet that most people, when asked what the symbol of the state of Israel is, would respond “the Magen David – the Star of David.” But while the Star of David adorns the flag of Israel, the fact is, it is not the symbol of the state of Israel! The symbol is found in the Book of Numbers, in the Torah portion, Behaalotecha – “to kindle,” kindling the menorah in the Tabernacle.
It is the menorah that stands outside Israel’s Knesset that is the official symbol of Israel.
But as basic as this symbol is, everything about the menorah is shrouded in mystery. What did it look like? The Temple menorah had seven lamps, but if you look on the walls of a lot of synagogues, there are six; one lamp is missing, just to show that this is not the Temple menorah.
In fact, Maimonides provides us with a completely different depiction of what the Temple menorah looked like … and no one knows for sure. Just as no one knows for sure what happened to the menorah. Yes, it was taken into exile, but what then? Perhaps we need Indiana Jones to find it because we haven’t the slightest idea of where it might be. There are theories ranging from Istanbul to Iran to the Vatican.
It would seem that the one thing we would know for sure is what was the purpose of the menorah? But here, too, there seems to be differences of opinion. Some say the menorah is meant as a symbol of the nation of Israel to be a “light unto the nations.” Others say that the seven branches represent the seven heavenly bodies known in ancient times. And then there are those who say that the seven lights allude to the branches of human knowledge; with the light of G-d in the center.
So let me tell you this: I don’t know for sure what the menorah looked like … I don’t know for sure what happened to it. But I do know for sure exactly why we were told to kindle the menorah in the Temple and it has nothing to do with the seven spheres, or the “light of the world” or “light unto the nations.” What was the real reason for the menorah? So that there would be light in the Tabernacle! That’s the reason … plain and simple! Although we memorialize the menorah by the Ner Tamid – the Eternal Light that glows in every synagogue – that light is called “eternal” not because the menorah burnt all the time in the Temple, it’s called “eternal” because it burned every day in the Temple. But it didn’t burn for 24 hours a day. You know when it burned? At night! You know why? Because it was dark. Yes, it got very dark in the Temple at night. That’s why there was a menorah … the menorah made it possible to see what you were doing and to know what’s going on.
You might be interested to know that this is the same reason why every Friday night we have the sacred ritual of lighting the Shabbat candles in our home. All sorts of mystical and poetic reasons are given for this. But the real reason for lighting the Shabbat candles is because you are not allowed to turn on a light on Shabbat and if the candles were not lit before Shabbat, the home would be dark.
Judaism does not want us to be in the dark. That’s no way to live! In fact, the Torah itself is referred to as “Torah Ohr – the Light of Torah.” The Jewish person must be aware, informed and indeed, enlightened.
It is interesting to note that the menorah is the only temple article that Jewish tradition has us remember in the synagogue through the Ner Tamid. We don’t have an altar or a basin; all that and more was needed in the Temple. But light? Light we need: at all times and under all circumstances.
Let us remember where Israel’s menorah – its symbol – comes from. When the State of Israel chose the Menorah as the new state’s emblem, no one knew exactly what the original Menorah in the ancient Temple had looked like. Then some remembered the sculptured reproduction of the Menorah on the arch of Titus, built when the Romans exiled us from our land. On the side of the arch are sculptured images of the Temple vessels, including the menorah, being taken into exile with the words: “Judea capta – Judea is captured, Judea is vanquished.” This reproduction was copied and made into the national emblem of Israel. Out of the very jaws of defeat, out of the symbol of the destruction and humiliation of our people, we were able to find a symbol: the rebirth and new beginning of the Jewish state. Through everything we’ve been through, L’yehudim hayta ora v’simcha – for the Jewish people, there always has been light, and joy.