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T'rumah 5782 - The Menorah, The Cherubim and Long-Term Intention

Friday, February 4, 2022

Imagine if you showed up to your job on the first day with zero education and zero experience and were handed a list of things to do. For many of us, we had weeks, years, or even decades of training, study, and apprenticeship before this position became available to us. Some of us are in school now, aiming for a particular career a few years down the road. 

Why do we take so much time and energy to jump through these hoops? Why is what we’re doing with our lives worth it? For some of us, we enjoy what we do more than anything else. It’s fun and exciting! For some, we do it so that we can provide food and housing for ourselves and the people we love. And for others, we do it to educate, heal, or influence our community. Each of us has an ultimate reason or reasons to spend our days how we do. According to 15th-16th century Spanish commentator S’forno, the symbolism of the seven-stemmed menorah points us towards one more ultimate goal.

Today, Rabbi Feivel will read from a section of Torah that details the exact specifications of the mishkan, God’s portable home among the people Israel. Among the holy, symbolic objects inside the Tabernacle is the menorah, beaten out of one solid piece of gold, with three candles on either side of one taller candle in the middle. For S’forno:

The light of the right candles and left candles will be directed toward the center, and it is proper that it be so; that the light of the intellect in the part of Torah which is theory and also the light in the active part of Torah turn and face the Divine, upper light, to serve God in one accord…. When all light is directed to one and beaten out of one solid piece of gold, we learn about unity, and multiple lights will be seen as one great light (S’forno on Ex. 25:31, 37).

In the pursuit of wisdom of God, both the theoretical and the practical are crucial. We cannot perform mitzvot without learning about them first, and our learning comes to nothing without implementation. As we read in Talmud Ketubot, “Study is more important than action, because it leads to action.” Ultimately, however neither learning nor action are enough - we cannot be motivated to learn or act for long without greater intention; in S’forno’s case, it is that intention of serving God. Each of us holds a different balance of key actions and values, and yet, each of us is created by and bound to the same God.

When we accept that unity and service of God as our ultimate goal, we can work backwards. If we return to our initial intentionality for how we spend our days - whether it is to support our families, to have a good time, or to change the world - we must ask that question of how that intentionality works towards greater knowledge of and action towards God. Do the ways in which we work to support our intention actually fulfill it? We can only wake up and study or act for so long without awareness of what we’re actually striving for. Without long-term intentionality, it is too easy to get burnt out, tired, or cynical about our study, our projects, or our day-to-day activities. Each day, it is crucial that we wake up and ask, are we proud of what we are doing and how we are living? If not, how can we change what we’re doing to fit both our material and spiritual goals? 

For those days that are particularly difficult, we can motivate ourselves with a verbal chain of intention - I am getting in the car to go to school. I am going to school to hand in my paper, and I am handing in my paper to pass this class. I am passing this class to become a rocket scientist. I am becoming a rocket scientist to discover life-saving technology, and I will save lives as an act of service to God.

While we may or may not express our ultimate spiritual goals with the same language as S’forno - knowledge and service of God - we are each made of the same stuff. We are each bound to the consequences that exist in this world, like it or not. None of us are alone in our ultimate pursuits; figuring out why we’re doing all of this and how we should proceed does not have to be a solitary activity. Your Jewish community, your professional community, friends, and family are present to help, all fellow lights made out of the same metal and, hopefully, pointing towards the same direction.

One more interpretation of a holy object in the mishkan can shed light on the enormous tasks of knowing and serving God. For S’forno, the two k’ruvim (cherubs) that face one another above the ark are facing slightly downwards, while their wings are pointing upwards. The downward imagery represents this world of learning and action, while the upward imagery represents the more spiritual, mystical world of God’s Presence (S’forno on Ex. 25:21-22). Just as the k’ruvim are pointing both upwards and downwards, we cannot access that lofty goal of perfect spirituality without experiencing material life in the here and now. The more we set worldly, practical goals, the closer we come to discovering what God expects from us. The more we learn from the people, courses, and books around us, the closer we can come to actively building our most perfect world. Shabbat Shalom.

Sun, October 2 2022 7 Tishrei 5783