The portion from Numbers this week shares with its companion in Zechariah an intense interest in the importance of the Menorah, the lamp stand in sacred space.
Why is the Bible concerned with the people’s appreciation of light and lamps in the Tabernacle? Why does the prophet focus so intensely on the candelabrum of the Second Temple, one that doesn’t yet exist? And why does any of all this matter to us?
Let’s take a look.
First, note the Hebrew word that initiates the discussion when God instructs Moses on how Aaron must approach and treat the lamps. The word, behaalotecha, has so many possible interpretations. It could mean Aaron is supposed to mount the lamps. Or it could mean he is to light them, or ascend them, or come to them, or even bring or offer. Or, it could carry all such meanings.
We talked last week about the significance of “rising up” to serve God and others. The Zohar, a Jewish mystical text, says that making ascent and making good are one and the same here. There appears to be something very important to God about the priests in sacred space (perhaps including the priest in us) coming forward, ascending, and mounting to light the lamps.
Let’s begin with the light itself and the lamps from which it shines. This light, as we have been taught so often, is a manifestation of the light of God, representative of God’s ways and expectations of us, particularly as to living true to loving-kindness and righteousness, mercy and justice.
As we learn in Genisis, God created light, even before the sun. This light, for people of faith is much more than physical light. We associate it with hope, truth, salvation, and the Divine Self of God. Indeed, it goes even further than that. In God’s image, we are called to be “a light to the nations,” first, by being guided by this light, and, then, through service and mission, by spreading goodness throughout the world.
Yet, the light doesn’t shine without our effort. We are to make the lamps, bring the oil, and light the Menorah – all, because the crucial enterprise of light requires a partnership between God and us, in mutual effort.
In a way, one could say we rise up, seeking, in all these acts, to become the light ourselves.
What does the prophet add to this understanding?
Zechariah recounts a tale of an angel asking him what he saw in a vision. He tells a beautiful account of the Menorah – one made of gold, with seven lamps, and tubes on top of it, near to two olive trees. Uncertain what to make of this, he asks the angel what it means. The angel, foreseeing the day when the Temple would be built, says God is teaching that it will happen, “not by might, not by power, but by My spirit.”
Doesn’t the light of the envisioned Menorah carry this message, too? The power in the light, as we have discussed, comes from the Spirit of God that is inherent to it.
I believe Zechariah would affirm that it is this light that causes us to “sing joyfully and be glad.” It is this light that manifests God’s intention to “dwell in our midst.” And it is this light that will lead us all to that day when “many nations shall join the Lord,” and they “shall be My people.”
With both Aaron and the prophet, we hold to this bold vision and commit ourselves to kindle the lamps in our own sacred space so that they “shine the light forward.”