את חטאי אני מזכיר היום, writes Abarbanel to Rabbi Shaul ha-Kohen toward the end of his life—“today I recall my sins.” He writes that when he was young, he was interested in science, read “Greek and foreign books,” “wasted [his] ingenuity,” and almost “damned [him]self.” Once he realized his mistake, he writes, he began fixing the situation by devoting himself to the Rambam—“not that I absolutely accept everything the Master has written.”
One thing the Rambam writes in his Guide to the Perplexed is that “the ways of God’s wisdom are incomprehensible,” and, with regard to the mitzvot, while “[they] have a cause, and are certainly intended for some use, although it is not known to us,” he writes that whoever tries to figure out what everything in the Torah means and how it is motivated “descends in my eyes to the depths of absurdity.” This means that, for example, although we receive very detailed instructions in this week’s parashah on the construction of the Menorah, the Rambam would likely not recommend analyzing those details to death.
Physicists who have worked with quantum mechanics understand this approach. If one stops and tries to truly picture what he is working with, tries to understand it conceptually—that way lies madness. On those scales, the behavior of matter is simply not intuitive to us, though the mathematics work out and predict everything accurately. The expression used in the field, familiar to all physicists, is “shut up and calculate.” Perhaps the Rambam’s suggestion for the Menorah, and the Temple in general, would be “shut up and build.”
Abarbanel violently disagrees. With those kinds of details, he writes, “we have no alternative but to assume that they have an allegorical meaning over and above their literal sense.” Rabbi Isaac Arama, some decades earlier, writes similarly: “We should look for a reason for every detail.” He notes that a sefer Torah is disqualified if a single letter is missing—and that therefore every detail must be important. The Rambam would agree with that part, of course; it just seems that Rabbi Arama insists that at least some level of understanding is within our reach.
Rabbi Moshe Alshich analyzes the Menorah as symbolizing a man—that is why he says it is the height of an average man. He says that it is of pure gold because man must purify himself; he says it must be מקשה—beaten, because the only way to attain such purity is through suffering. A man should be one integrated whole, he writes, and that is why the Menorah must be a single piece, not multiple pieces put together.
Rav Alshich writes that there are three particular passions that a man must control: sex, speech, and food and drink. The word in the Torah for the base of the Menorah is ירך, which the dictionary translates as “thigh,” “hip” or “loin,” and so it seems reasonable that Rav Alshich associates the base of the Menorah with control over the first of these passions. He associates the trunk and branches with speech, and the fact that they are also specifically beaten, with the idea “that his words should be pure and few and he should refrain from answering back, receiving insult but not giving.”
At the ends of the branches are cups, knops (ornamental knobs) and flowers. Rav Alshich associates the cups with drink and the knops with food and clothes. He then associates the flowers with what blossoms and grows from man’s proper development. And then he returns to the fact that the Menorah is all of one piece, writing that it also signifies that one should “not trespass on others, but rest content on his own.”
Abarbanel himself, after discussing the table (honor) and the bread on it (wealth), turns to the Menorah, which he associates with wisdom. He writes that the seven lamps symbolize the seven degrees of wisdom, and then he discusses how six of the lamps turn inward to face the center one, and then they all face the curtain hiding the Ark—symbolizing that true wisdom must harmonize with the fundamentals of the Torah. He associates the pure gold of the Menorah with an implication that wisdom must not be tainted by foreign ideas. He writes that the cups, knops and flowers symbolize the various sciences, branching out from each other. And he writes that the fact that the Menorah is all one piece symbolizes that all sciences have one common source.
What Abarbanel learns from the Menorah is, on its own, fairly abstract; we would argue that if one knows how to use it, it gives a framework to test the “legitimacy” of certain types of knowledge. But where Abarbanel’s analysis is abstract, Rav Alshich’s strikes us as very practical. And it raises some immediate questions, perhaps one of the most important of which (for the “current events” category) is: which of our world “leaders” exemplify the traits Rav Alshich discusses?
Of the three passions Rav Alshich discusses, the one most relevant in a political leader is speech. If we have the stomach to follow politics in America in the last few years, then we know of the multitude of videos of our current president calling people who challenge him liars, old, fat and stupid—and that is when he is not going off on incomprehensible rants about things we would rather not discuss. We could link to hours of such footage. We shall refrain.
We should note that his predecessor, our previous president, was also not known for being careful with his speech. In fact, looking around the world today, we may be hard-pressed to find a leader of whom Rav Alshich would approve. What is wrong with the world today?
Specifically with today, we would argue: nothing. The problem is with expecting greatness out of people with political power. The problem is with calling those people our leaders. The problem is that anybody has ever looked up to them. Political “leaders” should be people we look to weaken as much as possible, to prevent them from meddling in our business so that we can ignore them and look to our true leaders.
השיבה שופטינו כבראשונה ויועצינו כבתחלה, we say during the Amidah—restore our judges as in earliest times, and our counselors as at first. The Artscroll commentary interprets this as asking to restore the Sanhedrin and bring back Neviim. But these are specifically not political leaders; in fact, as we continue this prayer, we say ומלך עלינו אתה ה’ לבדך—and reign over us, You, God, alone!
Our problem is not that our political leaders are not the most refined people; our problem is that we have political leaders. Politics do not typically attract refined people. That is why in the Amidah, we ask for real leaders—and ask God to take over politics.