Vayakheil: Seven Lamps

April 11, 2011 at 4:40 pm | Posted in Vayakheil | Leave a comment

(This blog was first published on February 21, 2011.)

In last week’s Torah portion, while Aaron is at the foot of Mount Sinai making a golden calf, Moses is on top of the mountain receiving divine instructions for making the sanctuary God wants.  Moses descends and destroys the calf and the people who worshiped it.

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayakheil (“And he assembled”), Moses calls together the surviving people and gives them God’s instructions for making the sanctuary.  These include God’s description of the lamp-stand (menorah), and God’s choice of Betzaleil as the master craftsman.

Moses said to the children of Israel: See, God has called by name Betzaleil …  He (God) filled him with a spirit of God in wisdom, in understanding, and in knowledge, and in every creative skill.  (Exodus/Shemot 35:30-31)

chochmah = wisdom, knowledge of a craft, thinking in terms of unity

tevunah = understanding, discernment, insight, thinking in terms of distinctions

da-at = knowledge, direct knowledge (either sensory or intuitive)

He (Betzaleil) made the lamp-stand of pure gold …  He make its seven lamps and its tongs and its fire-pans of pure gold.(Exodus/Shemot 37:17, 23)

Why does the lamp-stand have seven lamps?

Of course there are many theories.  One is that the seven lamps stand for the seven days of creation at the beginning of the Torah.  The seventh day is the sabbath/Shabbat, when God rested from the creative work.  At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Moses first tells the people to do their own creative work (malachah) on six days, but make the seventh day holy through a complete rest for God.  Only after reminding them about this rule does Moses begin to describe how they will create a sanctuary for God.

If the seven lamps reflect the seven days of creation, we also need to look at the master craftsman who creates them: Betzaleil.  Classic commentaries (from the 5th-century Tanchuma on) say that Moses could not visualize the lamp-stand from God’s original description.  But Betzaleil could.

What gave him this ability?  The Torah says God filled Betzaleil with chochmah, tevunah, and da-at.  In Kabbalah, chochmah (wisdom), binah (discernment; from the same root as tevunah), and da-at (knowledge) are three of the ten sefirot (divine powers; facets of God’s emanation, which creates the universe).  Chochmah, binah, and da-at are the three highest sefirot accessible to human beings, containing the most divine energy.

There are ten sefirot.  Once I noticed that God fills Betzaleil with the top three sefirot, I looked for the other seven.  Since divine emanation is so often symbolized by light, I thought of the seven lamps in a row across the top of the golden lamp-stand.

It’s not easy to decide which of the seven lower sefirot corresponds to which lamp.  I’d say that the three lamps on the side closer to the Holy of Holies containing the ark represent the middle triad of sefirot: chessed (kindness), gevurah (discipline), and tiferet (harmony).  The three lamps on the other side, closer to the entrance and the altar for animal sacrifices, would represent the lower triad of sefirot: netzchak (endurance), hod (beauty in physical movement), and yesod (ego).  That leaves the middle lamp for the sefirah at the bottom of the tree of sefirot, malchut (kingdom), also called shechinah.  Shechinah is the place of divine emanation of our whole physical universe, and the spirit of God in our universe. The shechinah comes closest to us on the seventh day, Shabbat!

Still, speculations about specific correspondences between lamps and sefirot are not as important as the idea that God’s blueprint for the lamp-stand calls for not one lamp, but seven.  The orthodox 19th-century Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch noted that a single lamp would imply a one-sided spirit of service.  Seven lamps imply that the spirits of those who serve God must have many different aspects.

Betzaleil, the master craftsman, was filled with not one but three different aspects of the divine, three different sefirot: wisdom, understanding, and knowledge.  And in the same verse, the Torah says God filled him with ruach Elohim, which means a “spirit of God” … or a spirit of gods, in the plural.  Elohim is the word for God that appears first in the story of creation; but some Kabbalists believe the unknowable God created the universe through “gods”, through various divine powers emanating from the One God; in other words, through the sefirot.

Reading about the lamp-stand in the sanctuary can remind us that we serve God by lighting all the lamps of our spirits.  We can move toward holiness—and spread enlightenment—through discipline as well as through loving-kindness, through individual egos as well as through harmony.

May we be blessed to kindle all of our lamps.

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