Parshat BeHaalotcha

This week’s Torah reading begins by instructing Aharon the High Priest on how to light the Menorah as part of the daily Tabernacle service: When lighting the wicks of the menorah, the three on the right and the three on the left must all face the center wick (Numbers 8:1,2). He would daily light the menorah at sundown, the candles burning throughout the night. This is the actual commandment:

ספר במדבר פרק ח

(א) וַיְדַבֵּר יְדוָד אֶל משֶׁה לֵּאמֹר:

(ב) דַּבֵּר אֶל אַהֲרֹן וְאָמַרְתָּ אֵלָיו בְּהַעֲלֹתְךָ אֶת הַנֵּרֹת אֶל מוּל פְּנֵי הַמְּנוֹרָה יָאִירוּ שִׁבְעַת הַנֵּרוֹת:

  • Hashem spoke to Moshe saying, 2) “Speak to Aharon and say to him: When you kindle the lamps, toward the face of the menorah shall the seven lamps cast their light.”

There is something wrong with this verse! Since the commandment relates to the three wicks on the right and left of the menorah, shouldn’t it have said, “shall the six lamps cast their light?”

Rabbi Ovadia Seforno (1480-1550) explains.

ב) בהעלתך את הנרות. כשתדליק את שש הנרות. אל מול פני המנורה. שהוא הקנה האמצעי, וזה כשתפנה שלהבת כל אחד מהששה נרות אל הקנה האמצעי, אז – יאירו שבעת הנרות – כל השבעה יאירו וישפיעו אור עליון לישראל

When you light the six candles towards the central arm and they are all facing it, then, all seven candles will illuminate as one. And what will this unified light do? It will radiate the light of Hashem to the Jewish nation.  

He explains that the Jewish nation comprises two groups. The people whose chosen career is service to Hashem, such as the rabbis, Torah scholars, Torah teachers, and kollel people, comprise one group, while the Jews who have chosen to pursue a vocation and spend most of their time in the working world comprise the second group. The three wicks to the right of the central shaft represent the group who are learning and teaching the Torah, and the three wicks on the left represent the other group. The menorah’s central arm points upwards towards Hashem. Every Jew was created to fulfill the Torah’s commandments, and no matter on which side of the menorah he may stand, he is obligated to direct his talents and resources towards the menorah’s central arm, which points to Hashem.

We accomplish this when the left set of wicks support their brothers on the right, morally and financially allowing them the freedom to learn and teach the Torah. When both sets of wicks work in tandem and channel their collective energies towards the menorah’s central arm, they then bring forth the brilliant light of Hashem’s blessing on all His people. Because the Jewish nation, with all its diverse components, comprises one unit whose components must work in tandem to fulfill Hashem’s will, the menorah could not possibly be made from different assembled pieces. Only in this way, via its seven arms working as one, does the menorah shine with the greatest light from Hashem.

The Chofetz Chaim (Rabbi Yisroel Meir Hakohen Kagan 1839 – 1933) teaches another lesson from the menorah’s needing to be made of one piece of gold. The menorah’s light represents the light of the Torah and its many facets. Just as the menorah’s different features viz, the branches, the cups, the knobs, and the flowers all had to be made as part of it, so, too, the Torah’s many components are all part of the Torah.  This teaches us that all of the Torah’s components, namely, the sources for the laws, the clear principles, the extrapolated deductions, all the particulars, the Oral Torah, and even what a student will ask in the classroom, all comprised the Torah given to Moshe on Sinai, and are all expressly stated or are hinted to in the Torah.

The Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, 1817-1893) adds another layer of understanding the menorah’s seven branches. The menorah’s light represents the light of the Torah, with the seven branches representing the seven branches of wisdom that lie in the Torah, which the Torah needs to be understood and fulfilled properly. For example, without astronomy and mathematics, the laws of the new moon and the Jewish calendar could not be implemented. Without knowing the science of agriculture, the laws pertaining to the plants and fruits of Israel could not properly observed. The Torah’s seven branches of wisdom are necessarily subordinate to it, for the greatest wisdom of all is, of course, Hashem’s wisdom, which is the Torah itself.

If the menorah’s radiating light represents the light of the Torah, then kindling that light can be compared to passing the Torah’s wisdom to the next generation, a hint for which we find, in the first verse of the Parshah.

The word for “kindle” in this verse is peculiar. Instead of using the usual word “להדליק” (the word used in the blessing for lighting Shabbat, Yom Tov, and Chanukah candles, להדליק נר של שבת), the Torah uses the word “בהעלותך” which means “when you make them (the flames) go up.” Why this unusual usage?

The commentator Rashi picks up on this and explains that via this unusual word the Torah is presenting the Cohen with two practical lessons as he lights the menorah.

בהעלתך – על שם שהלהב עולה כתוב בהדלקתן לשון עליה שצריך להדליק עד שתהא שלהבת עולה מאליה ועוד דרשו רבותינו מכאן שמעלה היתה לפני המנורה שעליה הכהן עומד ומטיב

  1. The flame’s nature is to always point upwards, so the lesson is that you need to hold the candle that you are lighting from up against the new candle until the new flame ignites (“goes up”) and burns strongly on its own.
  2. There need to be steps in front of the menorah so that the Cohen can see down into the cups when he cleans them out every day.

What is the reasoning behind these two instructions? Does it make any difference to the new flame how long one held the match to the wick when lighting it? And why did Aharon need a step-stool to light the menorah? The menorah was only about four and half feet tall and Aharon, being of normal height, could easily reach the wicks of the menorah to light them.

A flame is used in scripture as a metaphor for a person’s soul, as seen in this verse in Proverbs (20:27).

ספר משלי פרק כ

(כז) נֵר יְדֹוָד נִשְׁמַת אָדָם

“A man’s soul is the lamp of Hashem”

Based on this, the Cohen’s kindling the menorah lights could serve as a metaphor for educating our children and igniting their souls with the fire of Torah, the first lesson being that only when the educator is “’on fire” with the Torah that he is teaching that he will be able to ignite his students with excitement for the Torah. When they see their teacher’s excitement and passion, they will want to experience it for themselves and share his delight. This is the greatest motivation for learning – to experience the delight of learning Torah and to grow greater through it.

What is the method through which the educator remains on fire with his Torah? Perhaps we can learn this from the second lesson, the need for the Cohen to go up steps when lighting the menorah. How does a teacher keep himself fresh and on fire with the love of Torah? When he, in his personal life, is still going higher and higher, step after step, in his own growth in Torah. When the teacher is constantly elevating himself in Torah, the delight and satisfaction that he feels in his own growth in Torah is sure to spill over to his students and infect them with a love of Torah and learning. This will also give the students the greatest motivation to overcome the challenges sure to crop up along their way to becoming self-sufficient flames capable of sharing their light and warmth with others.

Once the students have gotten a small taste of the sweetness of the material, the next step is for the teacher to provide the students with the tools to learn on their own. This gives them the ability to satiate their thirst for the material they find so enjoyable. This is what is meant when it says “to hold the candle to the wick until the flame goes up on its own.” It is not enough to simply provide information for the student to memorize and give back when needed. A teacher must provide the student with the tools that he needs to be able to study independently on his own, until he is a self -sustaining flame.

The lesson of holding the fire to the new candle until it goes up itself is something that is going on in Yeshiva classrooms the world over. Torah teachers, who are themselves on fire with the love of Torah, are transferring that love and passion to their students and igniting them with the love of Torah, our precious inheritance. At the same time, they are giving them the tools they need to study Torah on their own, enabling them to grow into great Torah scholars.

Giving a child the tools to be independent rather than just giving him information is a concept that applies to education on all levels. All parents are educators, and our goal as parents is, to raise our child to be able to live his life as an independent and self-sufficient person and to have the tools to make proper decisions for himself.

This concept is hidden in a contranym in the Torah. A contranym is a word that has two opposite meanings such as the word dust, which means to clean a surface (“dust off the table”) and to cover a surface (“dust the cake with powdered sugar”).

The word גמל (gomel) in the Torah means to give or bestow. At the same time, it means to wean a nursing baby from its mother. When weaning her baby, the mother intentionally withholds her milk from her child. That is the exact opposite of giving! How does this work?

The answer is that the greatest gift that a mother can give to her baby is freedom from his dependency on her. She is giving him his autonomy and allowing him to go off on his own to pursue his own interests.

As educators for our children, our job as parents, is to provide our children with the tools and skills they need to lead productive and meaningful lives. When a child achieves independence from his parents, he has acquired all the lessons and skills that he will need to live a meaningful and productive life on his own.

To this end, we want to tell our children, “Let me show you how to do that,” rather than, “Let me do that for you.” This shows them that we know that they are capable of doing it themselves and do not need us to do it for them. If we never let go of the bike, he will never learn to ride on his own. This also builds self-confidence in our children by giving them the ability to believe in their own abilities. Weaning them from us is giving our children the greatest gifts possible- independence and confidence.

The second lesson, to have steps in front of the Menorah so the Cohen can see into the cups, is a second essential component that an educator must have to ignite his students with excitement for learning. He must have a broad and deep knowledge of the material that he is teaching. When the students sense that the teacher is teaching them just the tip of the iceberg and that there is so much more to learn that the teacher is not teaching them (because it is not on their level), this whets their appetite for more. It also provokes deep and probing questions, as the students attempt to get more of the hidden information that they sense is there. The teacher can also give enrichment to students with greater abilities by giving them additional areas to explore for homework.

We see this idea symbolized in the difference in perspective between someone who is eye level with the menorah’s cups and someone who is perched above the menorah on steps. When standing at eye level, the Cohen can only see one cup at a time, and he cannot at all see carefully and deeply into each of the cups. From a vantage point high above the menorah, however, he can see the entire menorah at one time, and can also peer deeply into each of the cups as he cleans and prepares them. This perspective represents one of a broad and deep knowledge of the material.

Applying the metaphor that the flames represent the souls of the children, we can learn a second lesson from the Cohen’s elevated position when lighting the menorah. The educator must be in a position from which he can peer deeply into the souls of his students. He must be able to determine what is troubling them and what they are dealing with so that he can properly address their issues. Additionally, he must be able to see the entire picture. This means that he must be able to see the student not only as an individual, but also as part of the class. How a student interacts with the other students in the class is also a very important component of his education so that, individually and together, they all can radiate the light of the Torah that they are learning.

תלמוד בבלי מסכת שבת דף כב/ב

מחוץ לפרוכת העדות יערוך וכי לאורה הוא צריך והלא כל ארבעים שנה שהלכו בני ישראל במדבר לא הלכו אלא לאורו אלא עדות היא לבאי עולם שהשכינה שורה בישראל מאי עדות אמר רב זו נר מערבי שנותן בה שמן כמדת חברותיה וממנה היה מדליק ובה היה מסיים

The Talmud in Tractate Shabbat 22b explains that the menorah served as testimony that Hashem dwelled with the Jewish people. How was that? Through the נר מערבי  – the central flame. When preparing the candles each morning, the Cohen would put enough oil in each cup for its flame to burn through the night. However, the central candle with the same amount of oil, would continue burning throughout the next day. When it came time to rekindle the menorah, the Cohen would use the flame of that candle to kindle all the others. Then he would extinguish and relight it. This daily miracle proved that Hashem was always with the Jewish nation.

Understanding that the light of the menorah represents the light of the Torah, we can see the presence of Hashem is still with the Jewish people.  The miracle of the menorah’s light burning beyond its natural ability continues in the light of the Torah which is still shining brilliantly right here at Partners Detroit!

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