I and other Chicagoland Rabbis walked carefully, single file, down the narrow, dark and musty passage of the cavern that was part of the Jewish Catacombs of Rome. These catacombs are the ancient burial place of the Jewish community that lived in Rome before, during and well after, the time of Jesus. Above and to the sides of many of the burial places there are depictions of the menorah –but not he menorah that we are used to seeing. To our shock and astonishment, these seven branched candelabras stood on what seemed to be a tripod!
The Menorah is one of the oldest Jewish symbols. In the Book of Exodus, G-d shows Moses the design of the Menorah, which is then executed by the artisan Bezalel. It is made out of one block of pure gold. In this week’s Torah portion, Aaron is commanded to light the Menorah in the Tabernacle every evening. Perhaps the most famous depiction of the Menorah, the one that shapes our idea of what the Menorah in the Temple looked like, is found in bass relief on the Arch of Titus in Rome. After the Roman general Titus destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, Rome erected a triumphal arch at the entrance of the Roman Forum to commemorate the event. The south panel of the arch depicts the sacred objects looted from the Temple and brought to Rome. The most prominent among them is the Menorah. The menorah depicted on the Arch of Titus was quite unlike the ones we saw in the catacombs with a tripedal base.The Menorah on the Arch of Titus was a stepped polygonal base.
We don’t know the reason for the difference. Did King Herod re-design the menorah when he expanded the Temple, replacing the tripedal base with a stepped polygonal one? Or, because of the sacred nature of the Menorah, was it always depicted in art a little differently than it was in reality? The Bible never describes the base of the Menorah. So, this remains a mystery.
The founders of the modern State of Israel decided to use the Menorah as the central symbol on the national emblem. But, which depiction of a Menorah should they use? What model should they follow? They could follow the model of the menorah on the Arch of Titus. But that was a symbol of foreign conquest. Or, they could use the model that was widespread in antiquity, the tripedal model found on coins, at burial sites and on the mosaic floors ancient synagogues. It may surprise you what they chose, and why.
The Menorah that appears on the official Emblem of the State of Israel, flanked by two olive branches, is the Menorah as depicted on the Arch of Titus. In using this image, the founders took a symbol that represented defeat, destruction and humiliation and turned it into a symbol representing triumph and rebirth. The Menorah that had been carried away to Rome would now, symbolically, at least, be returned to the Land of Israel as a symbol of the new state. While the Roman Empire had its day and would be no more, the Jewish people had endured and would rise again in a modern Jewish State.
Moreover, that depiction of the Menorah on the Emblem of the State of Israel is flanked by two olive branches, one on the right and one on the left. These olive branches represent the hope for peace. The image as a whole also brings to mind the vision of Zachariah in this week’s Haftorah. In his vision, Zachariah sees a menorah between two olive trees. An angel asks him if he knows what that means, but Zachariah confesses that he does not understand the vision. It means, explains the angel, “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, says G-d.”
Perhaps Zachariah’s vision represents the only chance for peace between Israel and her neighbors. Neither Israelis nor the Palestinians will achieve peace through the naked use of might or power. In order to achieve peace, both sides will need to have something of the “spirit of G-d” in them. They will need to compromise and to recognize one another as human beings entitled to live freely and securely on their own piece of earth. Both sides will need to give up some of their most cherished dreams, chief among them, to put it baldly, the fantasy that the other side will simply disappear.
Judging from the events of the past month, we still seem to be far from a time of peace. Yet, I believe there is hope. The Jerusalem Talmud records an opinion that the word for heavens –“shamayim”, in Hebrew, is a composite formed out of two Hebrew words, Aish, meaning “fire” and “mayim”, meaning water. That is, G-d brought these two competing elements, fire and water, together in order to create the heavens. According to this midrash, the water immediately tried to extinguish the fire, and the fire in turn tried to evaporate the water! Each wanted to obliterate the existence of the other. G-d was able to bring peace between them, because they were both needed to make “shamayim” — the Heavens. This is the meaning of the phrase –”Osheh Shalom Bimromav: “May the One Who makes peace above make peace for Israel and all humankind.”
Like the fire and water in the heavens, Israelis and Palestinians need one another. May the spirit of G-d enter both so they can create a little bit of Heaven in the Middle East.