Cultivated Cravings

Not letting desires frustrate us.

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This week's Torah portion begins on a positive, confident note. Moses is commanded to transmit the Divine instructions for lighting the oil-lamp menorah to Aaron, and to dedicate the tribe of Levi to the service of the mishkan (Tabernacle). The instructions are clear, simple, and direct, and the imagery is positive--light, bathing, cleanliness,consecration.

Yet, by the end of the parashah, the Jewish nation has degenerated to the point that they are punished with mass destruction and burial at Kivrot haTaavah, the Graves of Appetite. What ideal is symbolized by lighting of the menorah at the beginning of the parashah,and how did we fail so disastrously to achieve it?

The menorah is mentioned repeatedly in the Torah, usually in conjunction with the shulhan, the table and shelves that held the lehem panim, or "showbread." What is the connection between these two items? The only relationship between the shulhan and the menorah that the Torah mentions is geometric: twice in the Torah we are directed that the menorah is to be placed on the southern side of the mishkan, and the shulhan on its northern side (Exodus 26:35; 40:22-25). 

Conflicting Winds

At a time when our ancestors lived in intimate contact with nature, north and south carried many important connotations. The north wind brings cool, moist air and rainclouds; the south wind (shar'av or hamsin) is hot, dry, and dusty. Like all farmers, ancient Jews hoped that each would arrive at the time when it would bebeneficial. The Talmud (Bava Batra 147a) recognizes this fact:

"The north wind is helpful to wheat when it has completed one third of its ripening, and damaging to olive trees in bloom. The south wind is damaging to wheat that is one-third ripe, and a benefit to olive trees when they are in bloom. Hence, the shulhan was placed in the north, and the menorah in the south."

When do these winds occur? The late spring period between Passover and Shavuot is known in Hebrew as sefirah (literally 'counting'). This name refers to the fact that the Torah gives no date for Shavuot. Rather, we are instructed to count 49 days, beginning with the second day of Passover (Leviticus 23:15-16). The 50th day is then the date of Shavuot; hence its English name 'Pentecost.'

In Israel, the weather of the first weeks of sefirah is still dominated by the northern air masses that arrive during the winter. This cool, moist northern air bring the rains of winter and early spring. An ample supply of water is essential to the growth of any plant part, including seeds and fruits. Thus, the north wind helps the young growing wheat grains to expand. This growth enables the grains to fill with starch and protein later, as they mature.

However, olive trees and other fruit trees flower during this period. Warm, dry conditions favor the pollination of olive flowers. Rain during the first weeks after Passover, while beneficial to wheat, would wash away the olive pollen and discourage pollinating bees from visiting flowers.

Conversely, rain during the final weeks of sefirah, close to Shavuot, promotes the growth of olive fruit, but it also encourages the growth of fungi that can damage the wheat crop. Wet conditions also delay the wheat harvest, leading to rotting of grain or attacks by grain-eating insects and birds.

Placement of the menorah and the shulhan together in the mishkan symbolically reminds us that both natural forces--the rainy north wind and the drying south wind--are under the control of the same God, who rewards us with a healthy balance between these forces.

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Jon Greenberg

Jon Greenberg, Ph.D. received his Bachelor's degree with honors in biology from Brown University and his Master's and Doctorate in agronomy from Cornell University. Dr. Greenberg was a Senior Editor of science textbooks at Prentice Hall Publishing Co. and an assistant professor at the School of Education at Indiana University. He teaches science at Yeshivas Ohr Yosef.