22 Apr Israel: The space between physics and miracles
In a few hours from now, the mourning of Memorial Day will give way to the celebration of Independence Day, Israel’s 67th birthday. But right now, the mood on the street is subdued. The music on the radio is the standard fare for this day, as well as days of war and the aftermath of terrorist attacks – slow, soft and mostly nostalgic tunes. It is often said that the collective mourning of this day brings much of Israeli society together and this year, this seems particularly true so soon after elections.
As I got into a taxi yesterday here in Jerusalem, the radio was tuned to one of the local stations and the host was going on about how much Israeli society has deteriorated. Ein arachim hayom b’yisrael, ani medaber al arachim haverei, al arachim! – “Israelis have no values anymore, I’m talking about values my friends, values!”. As his voice came across the radio, one car cut off the taxi I was in and a few seconds later, another. A kid on the street threw his ice-cream wrapper to the ground. “Yes”, I said to myself, “we do have a problem with values”. But then I hear the voice on the radio continue and explain why it was we had no values. It was clear, according to him, that this was the case since one no longer sees Israeli flags hung from balconies and windows, as was once the practice. He went on an on about how in every other country around the world flags are proudly displayed on that country’s independence day by everyone on every building and every home.
Without commenting on the accuracy of this radio personality’s report about what happens in every other country around the world, I will say that a flag is not a value. A flag, as any other symbol, represents different values to different people and while I’m all for the aesthetic display of flags, I don’t really think it is indicative of values, or lack thereof. On the other hand, dangerous and discourteous driving, as well as littering, certainly do symbolize a certain lack of values.
The truth is that the blue and white flag with the Star of David (in itself, a relatively late Jewish symbol) is not even the official emblem of the State of Israel, rather, it is the 7 branched candelabra, menorah.
A midrashic tradition in the Babylonian Talmud (Menahot 98b), based upon an understanding of the biblical text in Numbers 8:2 that would render: “When you mount the lamps, let the seven lamps give light toward the center of the lamp stand” portrays a miraculous state of the menorah’s flames. Each of the three flames on either side of the candelabra’s main shaft, leaned toward the middle flame. It is for this reason that quite often, one finds images like this (from as early as the 4th century, as found on the mosaic floor of a synagogue in Tiberias) the three flames on either side of the central stem of the menorah, are leaning towards the center as in the images below from the Gross Family Collection:
However, we also find this image from R. Jacob ben Samuel Bunim’s Omek Halacha, a book about Jewish geography and realia published in Amsterdam, 1710. The image below shows an approach, while based on the Talmud, adheres to the laws of physics. Instead of understanding that the flames pointed toward the center, the picture shows the nozzles of each cup are pointed toward the center with the flames rising upward. No miracle here, just simple physics.
An ongoing argument among Israelis, and for that matter, Jews around the world, is whether the modern State of Israel is a miracle, or is it simply the sum total of a lot of hard work. These two versions of the menorah might shed some light on this debate – the reality is somewhere in between!
Hag Atzmaut Sameah