The placement of the table and the menorah: Reflections of humanity

Every aspect of the Temple reflected the infinite wisdom of God, from the measurements to the materials to the shapes of the keilim to the locations.

Rabbi Dr. Dvir Ginsberg, | updated: 00:20

Judaism Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg
Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg

The Torah portion of Terumah does not, on the surface, present the usual drama found in other readings. It presents as a detailed instruction manual in construction. The Shulchan, the “table” used in the Tabernacle (and future Temple), does not really stand out from the other keilim, or vessels. After the commands involving the construction of the Aron, the Torah introduces the Shulchan (Shemot 25:23):

“And you shall make a table of acacia wood, two cubits its length, one cubit its width, and a cubit and a half its height.”

The Shulchan, as we see later, was commanded to be placed in a very specific location (ibid 26:35):

“And you shall place the table on the outer side of the dividing curtain and the menorah opposite the table, on the southern side of the Mishkan, and you shall place the table on the northern side.”

The location of the Shulchan, then, was opposite that of the Menorah.

There is a Midrash that explores the significance of the location of the Shulchan. It begins by explaining that the objective of this kli was not for food or drink. Rather, as we know, the actions of man are revealed before Hashem. There are those who only desire food and drink in this world, and the command to construct the Shulchan is in response to them. How so? The Shulchan was placed in the north of the Temple, the same location as the evil inclination, or yezter hara, in humans (which corresponds to the left of a person). The Menorah was placed in the south (corresponding to the right of a person), a hint to the Sages who learn Torah at night by the light of the candles. The Shulchan, though, was placed on the left, a hint to those who follow their evil inclination.

After making a point concerning tefillin, the Midrash concludes with an observation concerning the Mizbeach, the primary alter for sacrifices. The Mizbeach’s location was directly between the Menorah and the Shulchan. Why? The Mizbeach is comparable to a beit midrash, a study hall of Torah. A person cannot succeed in learning all day without eating, as he must sustain his body. Therefore, the Mizbeach was placed directly in the center.

While one may commend this attempt at trying to explain the purpose and position of the Shulchan, the overall concept being presented is quite difficult to understand at first glance. The locating of the evil inclination may be one of the opaquest to comprehend, and we will leave that to the side. The notion of the yezter hara being associated with the Shulchan is very bizarre. Add to this the “opposition” of it by the location of the Menora, which reflected the dedicated learning of great Sages by the lights of the candles, and the lesson becomes even murkier. The Mizbeach’s somehow naturally fitting in between the two and being compared to a beit midrash? What lesson is being conveyed in this Midrash?

What is most fascinating about this Midrash is the idea of tying the state of the human condition with the various keilim of the Temple. As we will see, the Sages understood why this theme was of the utmost importance to all Jews.

The simplest step to take is to understand that the idea of the placement of any object in the Temple as being haphazard should be tossed aside. Every aspect of the Temple reflected the infinite wisdom of God, from the measurements to the materials to the shapes of the keilim to the locations. The Sages step forward in this instance to assist us in discovering these rationales.

The vision of humans solely driven by the desire to eat best reflects the idea of being guided by one’s base instincts. It is considered the lowest level for humanity, where the differentiation from the animal world is nil. The Torah dedicates a tremendous amount of Jewish law and philosophy to combating this terrible state for humanity. The Shulchan, then, reflects this one extreme of humanity.

The Midrash then points to the Menora, a presentation of the other extreme of humanity. We are blessed with our minds, tools which thirst for inquiry and knowledge. The scene in the Midrash captures an attitude towards learning that is so unique. Daytime is usually reserved for accomplishment and success. These individuals use the time of night, the period the world utilizes for relaxation and sleep, as more precious moments to learn. The light illuminates the texts, and one can imagine them squinting to see every single word. The illumination of the text by the lights of the candle point to the primary function of any Menora. Light helps us see, interpret and comprehend. It ties to the core aspect of the human who seeks knowledge.

What we have, then, are two keilim which reflect the great conflict that defines the human existence. We have a strong inclination towards our base instincts, drawn towards the illusion of pleasure as being the end all for our existences. We also have our minds, equipped with a powerful interest in inquiry and investigation. We are not dormant creatures; rather, we want to engage with the universe around us, peel away the layers, and comprehend more and more. The keilim reflect the two extremes of each aspect of humanity. The individual who is solely focused on the physical world versus the individual whose entire focus is on the world of the abstract.

The position of the Mizbeach, and the analogy to a beit midrash, fits the above concept quite well. While our makeups are defined by these tensions, we must learn to work with them together, rather then discard one for the other. The hedonist can never live in line with the correct path for humanity. But the person who only sees the mind can end up denying the importance the physical world plays in life. Asceticism is not a value found in the Torah, and often leads to an even more difficult time being part of the other world being sought out. Of course, a person naturally may not desire as much from the physical world as others. The key is that it is natural, not a decision to become something one cannot be.

The beit midrash is the location where the two parts of the person can be brought together in perfect harmony. There is learning, of course. Alongside is the reality of the physical world benefiting the person, and its role is clearly defined. When one works in service of the other, the ideal state of humanity is reached. The Mizebach reflects this idea as well. When one brings a sacrifice, the animal is being used in the service of God. Taking that which represents on its own the base instincts, and redefining it now for usage in the Temple, truly reflects the ultimate bringing together of the two worlds.

Why is this message to be found in the keilim of the Temple? The idea of a central place of worship to God is something that we understand is of the utmost importance. What role does the average person play? While the kohanim had full access, the general populace was kept away. Yes, there were moments, such as certain some sacrifices and holidays, where the people came to the Temple. However, they are never part of the entire service, especially when it comes to such keilim as the Shulchan and Menorah.

The idea of this exclusivity could lead one to conclude the service to God that takes place there is of a different quality and type altogether. The concepts are something beyond the reach of the citizen, and one must “settle” for the best that can be done outside the Temple domain. The message here is that the Temple encapsulates that which is humanity. It is the paradigmatic expression of who we are, and many of the concepts contained within are built from us. We should not think of the Temple as a location off limits. We should see in the Temple the portrait of who we are, and within the keilim important beacons to guide us on the proper path of life.