Terumah: Waking Up

April 11, 2011 at 5:11 pm | Posted in Terumah | 1 Comment

(This blog was first posted on January 30, 2011.)

You will make a lamp-stand (menorah) of pure gold; they will be made from hammered-work: the lamp-stand, its trunk, its stalk, its cups, its drupes, and its flowers.  And six stems emerging from its side, three lamp-stems from one side and three lamp-stems from the second side. Three cups like (bud cases of) almonds; on each almond-like stem a drupe and a flower; thus for the six stems emerging from the lamp-stand.  And on the lamp-stand, four cup ornaments like those of almond trees, its drupes, and its flowers.  (Exodus/Shemot 25:31-34)

And you will make its lamps seven, and it will elevate its lamps and shine over the space in front of it.  (Exodus/Shemot 25:37)

meshukadim = like almonds; those who have become awake, alert, attentive

The almond trees are blooming now in Israel.  They’re the first trees to “wake up”, and their white flowers appear before their leaves.

This week’s Torah portion, Terumah (“donations”), describes a lamp-stand or menorah in terms of an almond tree.  God is speaking to Moses on top of Mount Sinai, describing the items to be made for the inner precinct of the sanctuary: to the east, the ark in its own curtained enclosure (the Holy of Holies); to the north, a gold-covered table to hold twelve loaves of bread; and to the south, the lamp-stand.

Ancient commentary says that the Moses could not visualize the lamp-stand from the description, so God had to show him a fiery model of it.  We can imagine it as a flat or espaliered tree.  The term used for the tree trunk is ambiguous:

yerechah = thigh, bottom; a euphemism for genitals; “base” only in traditional English translations of Exodus 25:31.  The word implies a generative source, but given the shape of a human thigh and the insistence in the Torah passage that the lamp-stand is like an almond tree, I translate the word as  “trunk”.

Three branches come out of the left side of the tree trunk, and three out of the right side.  The six branches and the central trunk (which tapers to the size of a stalk) are ornamented with flowers, cups like opened bud-cases, and knobs like almond drupes.  The Hebrew word I translate as “drupe” is also ambiguous:

kaftor = ornament in the style of Kaftor (home island of the Philistines); knob, bulb, small fruit.

Samson Raphael Hirsch, a 19th-century rabbi and etymologist, argued that the kaftor represents the swelling inside a flower where seeds grow, the part that becomes a pod, nut, or  fruit. The “fruit” of an almond tree is a drupe, like a peach or plum (though an almond drupe has no flesh between the outer skin and the woody pit surrounding its single seed).  Since the knobs on the lamp-stand are modeled after almond trees, I translate the word kaftor as drupe.

The branches and the central stalk of the lamp-stand all terminate in oil lamps.  There are seven lamps across the top, three lamps on either side of a central lamp.  (Why seven?  I’ll take up that question in five weeks, when the Torah portion Vayhakheil (“and he assembled”) describes the actual manufacture of the sacred objects.)

Since the lamp-stand is hammered out of pure, solid gold, a fairly soft metal, it cannot be any taller than about six feet, which is the height mentioned in the Talmud.  That makes it the size of a human being.  (The Arch of Titus in Rome bears a relief sculpture of the sacking of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, including two soldiers carrying amenorah somewhat shorter than they are.  We don’t know if themenorah taken out of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. was the same height as the original menorah.)

Lamps are symbols of enlightenment, divine inspiration that casts light so we can see something more clearly.  But a lamp does not just float in the air; it must be supported by something.  The lamp-stand prescribed by the Torah is a ritual object full of symbolism.  Perhaps  it is hammered out of pure gold to indicate that we can only receive divine light when we have purified our hearts, our minds.  Gold, the most holy metal in the sanctuary, is the color of fire, and fire is associated with God throughout the Torah.

The lamp-stand is human-sized because it is our job to receive and spread enlightenment. Being constructed like a tree, it reflects the Tree of Life in the garden of Eden, and also the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad.  After all, enlightenment is a taste of deep knowledge.

But why does the lamp-stand take its design from an almond tree?  I think this is a double symbol, from the double meaning of meshukadim: “like/from almonds” and “those who have become awake and attentive”.  Almond trees flower early, before winter is over, before anything else blooms.  Even in the coldest, most dead time of year, life awakens and blooms.  The human desire for knowledge and for God keeps rising like sap, and blooming before you expect it.

On a less physical level, being meshukadim makes the lamp-stand a symbol of wakefulness, alertness, and diligent attention.  We human beings are all too liable to sink into a semi-conscious state in which we operate automatically, making routine assumptions instead of asking ourselves questions.  Yet when we do pay close attention to the shadowy depths of our own minds, we discover more and more meanings beneath the surface.  By studying and paying attention to wise teachings, and by being alert to our intuitions and our own inner connections that generate meaning, we create an inner lamp-stand.  Then we are ready to receive divine light—inspiration—enlightenment.

This week’s Torah portion indicates that before God’s presence will dwell among the people, they must prepare themselves by making the ark to hold the covenant (probably the ten commandments), the table for the bread, and the lamp-stand for light.  In other words, if we want to connect with the divine, we must first make a commitment to following ethical and spiritual rules, set up our lives so that our bodies will be nourished, and hammer out a psychological structure that will support enlightenment.



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  1. […] complete with flowers and drupes (fruits containing almonds in their pits). (See my earlier post, Terumah: Waking Up.)  Lamps are symbols of enlightenment. Almond trees are the first to bloom, are called attentive […]

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