By Rachel Adler
All of us recognize this sanctuary as sacred space. In it are objects full of meaning to us. I remember when I got my first tour here, I commented that the Ark is semi-transparent and I was told, “nothing in this shul is closeted.” There are the stained glass panels from the old building, and if you don’t know what they symbolize, I’m sure Davi Cheng would be glad to tell you. And you would be able to explain to a stranger about the copper strips around the Ark. There is symbolism all over in here, yet you decode it easily. You understand what your sanctuary means.
In contrast, now we’re reading the second half of the book of Exodus. Week after week we’re getting detailed descriptions of the construction and furnishings of the Tabernacle, and we’re bored out of our minds. We don’t know how to decode these symbols. Why include this data? Why does it matter? I didn’t understand why It mattered until I read the historian of religions, Mircea Eliade, and I learned that in the ancient world, a temple was a model of the cosmos.
Take a Babylonian ziggurat, for example. It is a temple built in the shape of a great tower consisting of winding stairs going up and up. At the top the priests communed with the gods and made sacrifices to them. A ziggurat is a stairway to heaven. Our mishkan, our Tabernacle, is a different model of how you reach God. In the mishkan, instead of going up and up, the priest went in and in and in. The mishkan was an elaborate tent, which was collapsible, just the thing for a semi-nomadic people with a God who moves from place to place. And if you went all the way in, as the high priest did on Yom Kippur, you would be in the Holy of Holies where the only piece of furniture is a massive ark. That ark is at the core of the cosmos for in it is kept the record of the covenant between God and Israel: the two sets of tablets Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai, one whole and one broken but still holy. For the Israelites the functioning of the whole universe depends on right relations within that covenant.
Professor Eliade’s corollary point is that if a temple is a model of the cosmos, not only how the temple is designed, but how it is furnished, and where objects are positioned, express symbolically what its builders believe about the nature of the cosmos. That is why our Torah portions are so finicky about exactly how the furnishings are constructed and exactly where in the mishkan they are placed.
Vayakhel gives us the specifications for all these symbolic furnishings, but it does not tell all that they mean. Symbols and metaphors exist precisely because they point toward what cannot be entirely expressed. Moreover, symbols and rituals are not static. They grow and change along with the people who use them, acquiring new layers of meaning along the way.
As an example, let’s look at a symbolic object from the Tabernacle that Vayyakhel gives a lot of instructions about. I’ve given you sheets with the specifications for this piece, made by the artist/craftsman Betzalel. We begin with chapter 37 verse 17. “He made the lampstand of pure gold. He made the lampstand– its base and its shaft– of hammered work: its cups , its calyxes, and petals were of one piece with it. Now let’s stop here for a moments and try to visualize this object. It has a base and a shaft, so a horizontal piece at the bottom that keeps it stable and a long stem rising upward. The thing also has cups whose purpose we do not know. But what do you make of these calyxes and petals? What kind of object has those? Anyone? Yes! A calyx means the outer envelope of a flower and petals? Right. They make up flowers. What are flowers doing here?
Let’s read a little further for clues. Verse 18 says, “six branches issues from its sides, three branches from one side of the lampstand and three branches from the other side of the lampstand.” So the thing has branches and these branches issue from the two sides , presumably, of the shaft or stem. What kind of object has a stem and branches?
You got it. This is a replica of a tree. The text goes on in verse 19 to say”There were three cups shaped like almond blossoms each with calyx and petals on one branch and There were three cups shaped like almond blossoms each with calyx and petals on the next branch, and so for all six branches issuing from the lampstand. Now we find out what the cups are for. They are representations of almond blossoms. “On the lampstand itself there were four cups shaped like almond blossoms each with calyx and petals, a calyx of one piece with it under a pair of branches and a calyx of one piece with it under the second pair of branches and a calyx of one piece with it under the last; pair of branches: so for all the branches issuing from it. Their calyxes and stems were of one piece with it, the whole of it a single hammered piece of pure gold.” Yes friends, what we’ve got here is a huge golden replica of an almond tree. And what do you do with this tree? YOU SET IT ON FIRE! Strange! You know any stories about a tree on fire?
He gazed and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed. . . . YHWH called to him out of the bush: “Moses! Moses!” He answered, “Here I am.” And He said, “Do not come closer. Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.” (Ex.3:2-4).
However, this is no thornbush. It’s an almond tree. If this lampstand is associated both with a thornbush ans with an almond tree, we’re looking at a complex metaphor here. But metaphor has rules, just like tennis or Scrabble. One rule is that there has to be some link between the message or comparison and the concrete image that is its vehicle. What, then, is the meaning of an almond tree in flower?
The almond tree, it turns out, is the legitimating emblem of the priesthood. At the end of Korah’s rebellion in Numbers 17, Moses deposits the staffs of all the Israelite chieftains in the Tent of Meeting, “and there the staff of Aaron of the house of Levi had sprouted: it had brought forth sprouts, produced blossoms and borne almonds.” (Num.17:23).
Now I’ve teased you enough. What is the word lampstand in Hebrew? Right, !t’s menorah. This is the big menorah that stood in theouter room of the mishkan. Part of its meaning is that it reminds us of the thornbush Moses saw in the wilderness out of which God revealed Godself to him. Part of its meaning has to do with the almond tree associated with the Aaronite priesthood. But part of the meaning must have to do with the menorah’s function: to give light. Light is an important element in our own ritual acts as well. We kindle lights for Shabbat, for Yom-tov, for Havdalah, for yahrzeits. The philosopher Ernst Cassirer says that the creation of light which begins many creation myths represents the creation of consciousness. Perhaps, when we ritually kindle light we reenact the dawning of consciousness which enables us both to know God and to be aware of ourselves. Is the menorah a lamp representing the light-giving or knowledge-giving aspect of the cosmos?
Trees, as well as light, are associated with consciousness for Jews. Our moral consciousness comes from having eaten the fruit of a tree. The Torah is “a tree of life to all who hold fast to her.” (Pvbs 3:17). Trees are elders of the living earth. Their rootedness, their endurance, their capacity for renewal is a blessing extended to the righteous: ”the rightous shall flourish like the date palm” (Ps.92). The righteous too shall be trees of life. But we still haven’t accounted for why the menorah is an almond tree on fire.
In his book, Sinai and Zion, Professor Jon Levenson talks about how the religion of Sinai is transformed into the religion of Zion. When the Israelites inhabit the land of Israel, Sinai, the wilderness mountain of the s’neh, thornbush, the site of Israel’s revelation and covenant, is refashioned as Zion, the holy mountain of the Jerusalem temple. The burning bush itself is reproduced as a golden tree lighted by priests. Levenson speculates that the emblem of the deity of Sinai was some sort of tree. He points out that the blessing on the tribe of Joseph in Deuteronomy 33 identifies God as shokhni s’neh, “the one who dwells in the thornbush.” This thornbush image was conflated with the image of the miracle of Aaron’s rod, so that in the two temples, the tree crowned with fire is the almond tree of gold.
The feminist theologian Nelle Morton describes metaphor as an explosive process with a trajectory, like a meteor. The tree on fire that is not consumed is an image on an immense journey. It has traveled from Sinai thornbush to Zion’s priestly almond tree, and onward, to Exile where the menorah is a favorite emblem of our Jewishness, to restoration in the land of Israel where the menorah is a logo of the state, and we have not even begun to exhaust its resonances.
A tree on fire embraces what we misperceive as antitheses: earth and heaven, matter and energy. What we are accustomed to polarize, is revealed to us in blazing union. A tree on fire unconsumed proclaims that what is material, temporal, perishable, can sustain what has been called the “fearsome and fascinating mystery” of the presence of God. If we were only able to see, perhaps the whole earth would appear to us like a tree on fire, and we would see a tree on fire in every human frame.
We cannot relive the moment when a startled shepherd sees a terrifying and wonderful sight: a tree on fire, unconsumed. We can only make a memory-tree to remind us of that moment, an work of art, tamed and civilized, which we ourselves ceremoniously set afire amidst song and liturgy. The memory tree is a tree of wonder only, and not a tree of terror. Nevertheless, we take our chances, stubbornly continuing to set our memory-tree on fire — real fire, with all its potential for enlightenment and for danger, reproducing the encounter with that fiery presence we seek and yet fear, the revealer of mysteries, the dweller in the bush.