Parshat Beha’alotecha: The Instruction to Light the Menora

“And Hashem spoke to Moshe saying: “Speak to Aharon, and say to him, “When you light the lamps, the seven lamps shall give light towards the front of the menorah.”” And Aharon did so. He lit the lamps of it so as to give light towards the front of the menorah, as Hashem commanded Moshe. And this was the design of the candlestick: a beaten work of gold; including its base, and including its flowers thereof, it was beaten work; according unto the pattern which Hashem had shown Moshe, so he made the menorah.” (BeMidbar 8:1-4)

Parshat Bahalotecha begins with instructions for the lighting of the menorah. The menorah is the candelabra located in the Mishcan – the Tabernacle. The menorah is composed of a central candlestick. From the central candlestick extend six branches. Three branches extend from each side. The above translation corresponds with Rashi’s understanding of these instructions. Aharon is told that the candles located on the six branches are to shed their light towards the central candlestick.[1]

There are two obvious difficulties with this section. First, the commentaries are troubled by the placement of these instructions at this location in Sefer BeMidbar. Up to this point, the sefer has primarily dealt with the organization of the encampment in the wilderness. In the immediately preceding chapters, the sefer described the sacrifices offered to initiate the Mishcan. Immediately following this section, the Torah will describe the initiation of the Leveyim – the Levites – into their roles in assisting the Kohanim – the Priests and transporting the Mishcan. What is the connection between the instructions for the lighting of the menorah and the preceding of coming material?

Second, after providing instructions for the lighting of the menorah, the Torah provides a description of the design of the menorah. This description was presented in even more detail in Sefer Shemot. Why does the Torah repeat this description?

Rashi provides a well-known response to the first question. He explains that Aharon was the leader of Shevet Leyve – the tribe of Leyve. The leaders of the other shevatim – tribes – had joined together to offer an elaborate set of sacrifices for the dedication of the Mishcan. Each prince offered an identical set of sacrifices and each was assigned his own day on which to present his offering. But Aharon – as leader of Shevet Leyve – did not participate in these offerings. Shevet Leyve was not assigned its own day. Aharon did not offer a set of sacrifices on behalf of Shevet Leyve. Aharon was disturbed with his exclusion from the dedication process. As a consolation, Hashem provided Aharon with the instructions for the lighting of the menorah. Hashem told Aharon that his shevet would have the honor of lighting the menorah each day.[2]

Nachmanides asks a number of questions on Rashi’s response. We will focus on one of these questions. According to Rashi, Aharon received the instructions for the lighting of the menorah as a consolation for not participating in the offerings of the princes. Why was this specific service selected by Hashem to serve as a consolation? He points out that Aharon was entrusted with a variety of responsibilities in the Mishcan. He was the only one who was permitted to execute the responsibilities. For example, only Aharon or a future Kohen Gadol – the High Priest – can perform the service of Yom HaKippur. Why were these special responsibilities not adequate consolation?[3]

In order to answer Nachmanides’ question, we must consider two sets of passages from last week’s parasha.

“And the princes brought the dedication-offering of the altar on the day that it was anointed. The princes brought their offering before the altar. And Hashem said to Moshe: They shall present their offering, each prince on his day, for the dedication of the altar”. (BeMidbar 7:10-11)

“This was the dedication-offering of the altar, on the day when it was anointed, at the hands of the princes of Israel: twelve silver dishes, twelve silver basins, twelve golden pans. Each silver dish weighing a hundred and thirty shekels, and each basin seventy; all the silver of the vessels two thousand and four hundred shekels, after the shekel of the sanctuary.” (BeMidbar 7:84-85)

The first set of passages introduces the section of the Torah that describes the offerings of the princes. Each prince is assigned his own day on which he will bring his offerings to the Mishcan. It seems that the sacrifices and vessels offered by each prince constitute a discrete set of offerings. In other words, over the twelve days that the offerings were brought, twelve separate sets of offerings were presented. However, a careful analysis of these passages communicates a different message. The passages refer to the twelve sets of offerings as “their offering.” The implication is obvious. All of the various sacrifices and vessels presented over the twelve days are regarded as a single offering. In other words, the process of bringing this single offering extends over a twelve-day period. All of the various sacrifices and vessels brought over this period merge into a single offering.

This idea is reflected in the second set of passages. After the Torah describes the sacrifices and vessels presented by each prince on his respective day, the Torah provides a summary. In this summary, the Torah totals all of the sacrifices and vessels by types. For example, in the passages above, the Torah tells us that a total of twelve silver basins were brought. Why is this summary needed? This summary emphasizes the relationship between the various components of the offering. The Torah is communicating that all of the individual offerings provided on each day are parts of an entirety. All of the individual sacrifices and vessels are parts of a single offering.

Why is it necessary for the Torah to communicate this information? What difference is there as to whether we view each prince’s sacrifices and vessels as an individual offering from that specific shevet or as a part of a larger offering?

We can appreciate the importance of this distinction through reviewing the order in which the princes present their offerings. The first prince to provide sacrifices and vessels is the Prince of Shevet Yehudah. He is followed on the next day by the Prince of Yisachar. Once these two princes present their offerings an order is established that guides the remainder of the princes. What is this order?

During their sojourn in the wilderness, Bnai Yisrael’s encampment was organized surrounding the Mishcan. Each shevet was assigned a specific location. When the nation traveled, this order was preserved. The nation traveled as a procession of shevatim. The place of each shevet in this procession was based upon and reflected its location relative to the Mishcan where the nation was encamped. As a result, the nation camped and traveled as a system of shevatim. In other words, the camp of Bnai Yisrael was designed as a system of shevatim – with the shevatim functioning as component units within the nation of Bnai Yisrael.

The order in which the princes presented their offerings reflected and was based upon this order – the order in which the various shevatim camped in and traveled through the wilderness. Shevet Yehudah led the procession of shevatim in the wilderness. Accordingly, the first set of offerings was presented by this shevet. Shevet Yisachar followed Shevet Yehudah in the procession through the wilderness. As a result, the second set of offerings was presented by Shevet Yisachar. All of the remaining shevatim presented their offerings in the order in which they traveled through the wilderness.

The order in which the offerings were presented reflected the relationship between the offerings of the various shevatim. In their travels and in the wilderness encampment, the shevatim each functioned as a unit within the overall nation. They were components of a greater entirety – the nation. The offerings were presented in this framework. Each shevet separately, and on its own day, presented its offerings. But each shevet presented its offerings as a component unit within the entirety of the nation of Bnai Yisrael. In other words, the offerings were not presented by the shevet as an independent social-political entity. Instead, the offerings were presented by the shevet as a component unit within the entirety of the greater unit of the nation.

This answers our earlier question. Why does the Torah emphasize that all of the offerings presented by the individual shevatim were parts of an overall offering? The Torah is teaching us that although the offerings were presented by the individual shevatim, the offerings merged into a single offering of the nation of Bnai Yisrael.

We can now reconsider Aharon’s concern. Rashi is not suggesting that Aharon was disappointed that his shevet did not participate in the presentation of offerings. His concern was based upon an understanding of the nature of this offering. In this offering the component shevatim of Bnai Yisrael presented an offering on behalf of the entire nation. Shevet Leyve did not participate. This implicitly excluded the shevet from functioning as a unit within the nation.

Rashi explains that Aharon received instructions for the lighting of the menorah as a consolation for his shevet’s exclusion from the presentation of offerings. How did these instructions provide consolation?

Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno’s comments regarding these instructions will help us answer this question. Sforno deals with two issues. First, why is it necessary for the branches to spread their light towards the central candlestick? Sforno explains that this requirement is intended to symbolize an important idea. The nation of Bnai Yisrael is made up of a multitude of individuals. The various members of the nation have different talents and abilities. But in order to enjoy the blessings of Hashem, we must join together in a single mission – service to Hashem. All the candles – from the candle on the extreme right to the candle on the extreme left – must all join together in creating one central illumination. (This is not intended as a trite political statement.) So too, the members of the nation cannot allow the disparity of their talents and dispositions to compromise their commitment to the shared mission of serving Hashem.[4]

Second, Sforno explains the significance of the Torah’s review of the menorah’s construction. The passages above describe the menorah’s design. It is beaten from a single ingot of gold. The menorah is not composed of individual components that are welded together. The menorah’s design is intended to reiterate and reinforce the message communicated by the lighting instructions. Like the menorah, the nation must function as a single entity. It must be unified in its devotion to Hashem.[5]

Now we can understand how Rashi would respond to Nachmanides’ criticism. Why was Aharon consoled by the instructions for the lighting of the menorah? The menorah does not only represent the unity of Bnai Yisrael. It explains the basis for the unity. We are not unified merely by a shared history or culture. We are unified by a shared mission. We must all join in the mission of creating light – serving Hashem. The service in the Mishcan was performed by the Kohanim and Shevet Leyve. The efforts of the nation towards the fulfillment of its mission achieved expression through this service. In other words, the most important aspirations of Bnai Yisrael were reflected in the service performed by Shevet Leyve. These services were the actualization of the mission of the nation. They were the element that unified Bnai Yisrael. Shevet Leyve did not participate in the presentation of offerings. But its service represented the element that unified the various shevatim into a single nation.

[1] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 8:2.

[2] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 8:2.

[3] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 8:2.

[4] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer BeMidbart, 8:2.

[5] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer BeMidbart, 8:4.