Lessons from the Sacred Tree
On The Multilayered Nature of Ritual
This is Life as a Sacred Text, an expansive, loving, everybody-celebrating, nobody-diminished, justice-centered voyage into one of the world’s most ancient and holy books. We’re working our way through Exodus these days. More about the project here, and to subscribe, go here.
Let’s talk some more about the layers of meaning that can be held in our rituals and ritual objects, shall we?
So, as we’ve been discussing, in Exodus there’s this big chunk of text about setting up the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. The portable place of worship that the Israelites took around with them in the desert.
And as we’ve seen, there are details. So many details! How many rings of what kind of metal, what kind of wood, how many cubits high, and so forth. But all this detail is meant to tell you important stuff.
For example: the Menorah, the seven-pronged lamp that was lit in the Tabernacle/Temple. (The Hanukkah menorah, or Hanukiya, has 8 branches and a ninth shamash/helper).
This is a coin from the Second Temple era:
A cool lamp, yeah? But look at the description in Exodus—you see there’s more to it than meets the coin.
Here’s Exodus 37:17-24. The ‘he’ in question is Betzalel, chief artisan of the Tabernacle.
He made the lampstand of pure gold. He made the lampstand—its base and its shaft—of hammered work; its cups, calyxes, and petals were of one piece with it.
Six stems issued from its sides: three stems from one side of the lampstand, and three stems from the other side of the lampstand. There were three cups shaped like almond-blossoms, each with calyx and petals, on one stem; and there were three cups shaped like almond-blossoms, each with calyx and petals, on the next stem; so for all six stems issuing from the lampstand.
On the lampstand itself there were four cups shaped like almond-blossoms, each with calyx and petals: a calyx, of one piece with it, under a pair of stems; and a calyx, of one piece with it, under the second pair of stems; and a calyx, of one piece with it, under the last pair of stems; so for all six stems issuing from it. Their calyxes and their stems were of one piece with it, the whole of it a single hammered piece of pure gold. He made its seven lamps, its tongs, and its fire pans of pure gold. He made it and all its furnishings out of a talent of pure gold.
A base with multiple stems issuing from either side, with almond blossoms flowering on them.
It’s a tree.
And not just any tree—the Menorah is an almond tree.
Why an almond tree?
There’s a story of Korach’s rebellion in Numbers, about a play for power. (We’ll get there, don’t worry.) As part of this revolt, there’s a thing where God has the head of every tribe put a staff at the Tent of Meeting, but only Aaron’s sprouts... almond blossoms.
The next day Moses entered the Tent of the Pact, and there the staff of Aaron of the house of Levi had sprouted: it had brought forth sprouts, produced blossoms, and borne almonds. (Numbers 17:23)
So at minimum, the almond tree is about Aaron’s priestly authority. (Shoutout to Dr. Rachel Adler for this wise line of thinking, by the way.)
But the thing with ritual and ritual objects is that they don’t only hold one thing.
They operate on numerous mythic, sociological, theological, spiritual, emotional, pastoral, psychological (and more) levels at once. That’s why they’re so powerful.
I learned this first when I went to go say Kaddish—the mourner’s prayer—for my mother when I was in college. I could only say it among a quorum of Jews, which forced me to leave the hermitage of my grief. As a mourner, I stood to recite it—so other people knew immediately that I was hurting, that I might need some extra tenderness and care. The prayer itself is a praise of God, said by the liturgical leader many times in different forms throughout the service, only a couple of which are designated for grieving. As such, the mourner uses a prayer that is in some ways a mundane punctuation mark as an expression of their suffering—there’s something ordinary and reassuring about that. At the same time, the words of praise in the prayer force the mourner to affirm magnificence and glory at the time when things seem bleakest. A medieval legend suggests that one should say the prayer to help the soul of the dead in the afterlife, thus giving the mourner one last way to help, to stay connected to the family member they have just lost. It was initially a prayer said after Torah study, so it marks the end of the study of the Torah that was this beloved person’s life.
These few short paragraphs live on so many levels simultaneously.
And what’s powerful about this is that when ritual is about not just one thing, layers of meaning might get added—whether personal meaning, what a ritual means for one particular person, or communal meaning as our social and communal and theological and historical story changes and evolves. And it also means that it’s not easily threatened—that the multilayered nature of real ritual means that if one “reason” needs to fall away, it operates on so many other planes at the same time that it continues to be a powerful vehicle for connection to the holy.
If it does not—that is, if a ritual serves only a thin purpose—it might not stand the test of time. That’s OK. Things evolve, and keep evolving. We see what does the thing.
We see what holds us, and what helps direct us to the Source.
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Back to our menorah/tree.
It’s Aaron’s almond staff of authority. But tree also evokes the Garden of Eden, and the famous trees with their famous fruit there. We talk about Torah as the Tree of Life, Psalms talks about the righteous as a tree, and so forth. The Menorah is (maybe) all of these things.
But! But! As Dr. Adler observes, this tree is also on fire. Right? It’s a lamp.
A tree on fire. Hmmm. Where have we seen that before? Oh, yeah.
A messenger of God appeared to [Moses] in a blazing fire out of a bush. He gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed. (Exodus 3:2)
There are so many things happening in this one ritual object. It’s about Aaron’s priestly authority, but also Moses’ first and paradigm-shaping encounter with the divine, his charge from God to tell Pharaoh to release the enslaved Israelites. The Menorah is also about Moses’ prophetic authority.
This is also the tension between Tabernacle/Mishkan and Temple/Mikdash.
That is to say, there is one framework where God is imminent and travels with you, leads you in fire and smoke, shows up on the regular and is accessible, a la the prophetic tradition. And there is another wherein God dwells in a fixed place (Jerusalem), accessible only to an elite class (the priests), or maybe you a little if you travel to that place and can bring a sacrifice.
Two entirely different worldviews and ways of being, both held somehow in this one ritual object.
But every ritual object is like this in some way, every ritual. Holding all of these questions and layers, operating in multiple fields simultaneously.
It’s the paradox that gets us to mystery, to the place beyond language, to encounters with that which is beyond conception.
It’s the layers and layers of meaning that can get us beyond meaning into pure experience.
It doesn’t make rational sense, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.
Not everything worth experiencing happens on the rational plane.
Sometimes you do ritual, and you let ritual hold you.
Let all those layers hold you, even if you don’t see them, even if you don’t know they’re there.
They are, and whether you’re aware of them or not, they might be helping you light a pathway to something beyond yourself.
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