After describing the appointment of Betzalel and Oholiab to be the prime architects of the Mishkan, the Torah proceeds to list all the vessels that will be constructed. In 31:8, and in sharp contrast to all other vessels, the menorah is strangely described as “HaMenorah ha’t’horah” — the pure menorah.
Commentaries are quick to jump on this bizarre terminology. From the fact that the menorah is described as being pure, are we to assume the other vessels were impure? (Siftei Chachamim)
Rashi quotes the Talmud (Menachot 29b) that says the “purity” refers to the essence of the gold — its being naturally refined and untainted by outside influences. The Maharal of Prague even explains that all the other vessels are certainly not impure and one should not imply from the verse that other vessels were impure
Chizkuni says the term “purity” is to be taken literally, as the menorah and the shulchan (table) are the only two vessels described as being pure (the shulchan is described as pure in Vayikra 24:6) because they are the only ones upon which no sacrifice’s blood is ever placed, in any context.
It is Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (Netziv) who presents the most innovative approach to understanding the significance of the purity of the menorah in a comment where he directly disagrees with the approach of Rashi. The purity of the menorah has nothing to do with “pure gold,” he explains, it is purely a function of the menorah’s essence, not the essence of its only ingredient. Netziv explains that the light of the menorah can only shine when the generation itself is pure in its deeds. A generation which is itself impure will only merit to see the menorah become extinguished.
Since the purpose of the menorah is to serve as a metaphor for the light of the Torah, it lights the way for innovation in Torah learning, also known as the concept of Hiddushei Torah. (Netziv Shmot 25:31)
The Mishkan itself is replete with symbolism. Much of commentary on these parshas and the latter half of the book of Shmot, focuses on the hidden message embedded within the images we have in our heads of golden structures and holy vessels aimed at creating an edifice of spiritual pursuits.
What are we doing to achieve our own purity? Do we focus on the ingredients — the “frum-looking external deeds” a.k.a. pure gold — or do we focus on the purity of the totality of our existence?
It has been said before that more people ask their rabbi about the kosher status of food items and restaurants than about other aspects of their personal religious experience — such as whether it is appropriate to cut corners when declaring income for tax purposes. To use one example, a friend of mine who is a pulpit rabbi, who also teaches in high school, marvels over how he gets “emergency” calls of the status of pizza shops kosher certification while he is teaching.
Symbolically, the light of the menorah represents the light which shines in the darkness, aimed at setting us on the proper path in our Jewish lives. Let us focus, as the Netziv says, on the purity of the totality of our existence, rather than on the purity of the ingredients which may make us “look” more observant.
The essence of the good Jew is one who is “tocho k’bar’o,” whose inside is as honest and ethical and living the straight life as is the outside image he presents to the world.