by Leah Zimmerman, outgoing Director of Education
Like most of you, I imagine, I have many facets to my being and many identities. There was a time when I was living in New York that I felt confused when someone asked me what I “did,” or was stumped when I had to fill in a line on a form that asked for my profession. At the time, I had numerous educational positions. I tutored b’nai mitzvah, I was in acting, singing and dancing classes, and I was regularly performing around the city. I did so many different things that seemed to have no relationship to each other.
Over time, I have come to see that my journeys in Judaism, education and the performing arts have not been three isolated paths, but three branches in my life that move closer to each other. Together, they have helped me learn who I am and what matters to me in this world. In retrospect, I realize that being a public school teacher, a Jewish religious school teacher, participating in Jewish life, and training in the performing arts were really three expressions of one core self.
In this week’s Torah portion, we read about the lighting of the menorah in the Tabernacle. God gives directions to Moses to give to Aaron about how to make the menorah and to light it. We read:
Speak to Aaron and say to him: “When you mount the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the lamp stand.” Aaron did so. He mounted the lamps at the front of the lamp stand, as the Lord had commanded Moses. Now this was how the lamp was made: it was hammered of work of gold, hammered from its base to its petal. According to the pattern that the Lord had shown Moses, so was the lamp stand made. (Numbers 8:2-4)
The Hebrew word translated by the JPS Torah as “mounted” reads literally as “raising up” and shares a root with the word for “aliyah,” being called “up” to the Torah. As you may know, the Hebrew word for “light” is “ohr” and Ohr Chayim (the name of our family education program) means the “light of life.” A teacher’s job is like Aaron’s, to light the lamps, to raise up the student so that the student’s inner light may shine. When our students can radiate and glimmer with their curiosity, discovery, thoughts, ideas and learning, they illuminate all of us.
Ohr Chayim takes place on Shabbat when there aren’t other competing BCC events using the space. Consequently, most of you don’t see the light of our students, and most of our students and families don’t experience the light of the Shabbat candles in the sanctuary very often. In some ways, we are like the menorah, different branches of one main object, each branch holding it’s own light. We feel like separate parts, discrete segments of a community.
Rashi, a medieval rabbi who wrote a definitive and comprehensive commentary on the entire Torah, tells us that the phrase “it was hammered of work of gold, hammered from its base to its petal” teaches us that in fact the menorah was hammered from a single block of gold which was beaten and chiseled so that its branches would spread, and that it was not made of segmented pieces.
I find this to be a beautiful and inspiring teaching. The seven branches of the menorah are not seven different segments; they are seven parts of a whole. Ohr Chayim, Friday night services, Torah study, and the other activities at BCC are not separate entities, but all a part of a whole. While we may ignite our own flames, our own ohr, light, we burn together as part of a single entity. One menorah, one container for holding flames, has seven branches. We at BCC have many parts that make us a whole, each one connected to the other.
In my personal life I now understand that what felt like three segmented parts, were three ways of expressing my desire to connect, empower and inspire communities and individuals. I love storytelling whether it is onstage, in the Torah, or our rich Jewish literary history. I love digging into texts for meaning, whether it is with a class of elementary school students reading books, with Jewish students studying Torah, or with fellow actors getting to know a script and working through a play. I love using words, phrases, teachings and stories to connect with others, to move and inspire others, to uplift a community.
I love getting to know the inner workings of a person whether it is a child’s way of learning and thinking so that I can connect that child to new ideas and discoveries, or whether it is as part of a Jewish community sharing life cycle events and going through our most vulnerable and human moments together, or whether it is on stage living the life of another character and through her accessing our shared humanity.
I think we can learn from this Rashi that what may appear to be segmented parts can really belong to a single whole. We don’t have separate “me’s” as much as we have different branches in our lives for expressing our core selves. When we are one way at work, another at home, another with our friends, when we have parts of ourselves that lie dormant be they untended emotional, creative or other kinds of needs, when we cut ourselves from important relationships and compartmentalize ourselves, our menorah burns with fewer branches. We cut short our light when we carve out parts of ourselves. To be a fully lit menorah, to feel whole and fully alive, we need to see all the parts of ourselves as expression of one integrated person.
What would happen if we extended this metaphor to our society as well? What if we could view different groups within our society as branches that all come from the same menorah made from the same plate of gold? What if instead of approaching our political, social and religious disagreements from the perspective or right or wrong, we listened to all the viewpoints as if they were all voices in the same chorus, capable of finding the harmonics and singing in tune together? Instead of dividing ourselves by our differences and our contrasting opinions, what if we viewed those who hold a different perspective or attitude as a different branch of a common menorah? What if instead of shutting out others, we looked for the light in them, even in those who offend us, disappoint us, and enrage us? How much brighter might we all radiate and shine!
Rashi teaches that in the menorah made from a single chunk, with all its lights facing center, the wicks of the ones on the east face center, the wicks of the ones on the west face center. The Sforno, a 15th century commentary, builds upon Rashi’s teachings. Sforno teaches that the wicks all facing center underlines the spiritual unity, a whole people jointly striving to attain the same spiritual objective. This image also gives me a sense of hope. Within our society we may feel segmented like separate branches, but one day, maybe one day, we can be like the flames of the menorah. One day, we may all, from our different perspectives and unique viewpoints, value each flame, and turn towards the center and accept our interconnectedness and our oneness. Maybe then, our lights can burn together and spiritually be aligned.