Parashat Terumah begins with Moses being asked by G-d to speak to the children of Israel that they should give a portion as their heart motivated them for the building of the Mishkan (sanctuary) and its accompaniments. This was a voluntary contribution rather than a tax. It serves as a prototype for the generosity that has been practised in Jewish communities throughout history. It can also represent the key contribution that those Jews living in Israel are making for the growth and development and survival of the Jewish people.
The Mishkan was to be built so that G-d could “live among them”. The Mishkan was the portable dwelling place of G-d’s presence, that could be assembled, dismantled and transported during the time in the desert. Through its construction and presence, it was to raise the spirituality of the people,and in Rambam’s view, to limit the cult of sacrifices, a vestage of pagan religion.
G-d was to dwell in the people’s hearts and minds.
The main room of the Mishkan was to include a table for lechem hapanim (showbread) and two bowls for levonah (incense), as well as a menorah of pure gold.
When the modern state of Israel was established in 1948, and an emblem was to be decided that demonstrated Israel’s sovereignty among the community of nations, it was the menorah that was officially chosen.
Before a final decision was made nine months after the State was established, multiple designs were submitted to committee several times. Two opposing ideologies tried to dictate the character of the emblem; religious and ritual on one hand, and secular and sovereign on the other. Much importance was attached to symbolising the continuity and fulfilment of the Zionist dream in the emblem. Different designs held sway at different times during the process. The design that was finally decided upon was modelled on the menorah from the Arch of Titus. The Menorah is returned from the Arch of Titus where it symbolised defeat and destruction, and is installed in a place of honour on the emblem of the State, the establishment of which is testimony to the eternal continuity of the Jewish people.
The combination of olive branches and the Menorah can be traced to the mystical vision of the prophet Zecharia. From this perspective, the establishment of the State of Israel corresponded to the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem after the return to Zion. Rashi explained the meaning of Zecharia’s prophecies in the historical sense. The Menorah served to inspire the confidence of Zerubabel, the ruler of Judah. Just as the olives, hanging from a branch over the Menorah ripen by themselves and their oil pours naturally into the row of lamps, so the building of the Temple will be not just the work of man but due to the spirit of G-d in motivating all those involved.
The 7 branched Menorah was considered as the symbol of the light of the spirit, and it was in Zecharia’s vision that the angel said “not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit says the Lord of hosts”. The light shining from the Menorah represents the victory of the spirit over material forces and this spirit draws its inspiration from G-d.
The 6 outside lamps of the Menorah, 3 on each side, are turned towards the middle lamp. This could symbolise the centrality of G-d, or the centrality of Israel within the Jewish world.
Abarbanel stated that everything recorded in the Torah is designed to provide us with a permanent source of inspiration and divine wisdom. The details of the structure of the Menorah were specified and Abarbanel took the view that “we have no alternative but to assume that they have an allegorical meaning over and above their immediate literal sense”. Rambam on this matter regarded it as futile to try to justify every detail of a particular commandment. Abarbanel went on to write that the seven lamps symbolise 7 degrees of wisdom to be found in the divine law. Pure gold implied that the wisdom must not be tainted by alien ideas. The fact that the Menorah was made up from one piece symbolised the fact that all the sciences have one common source.
Through the menorah, the past, present and future of Israel are combined. Olive branches beside the Menorah symbolize the desire for peace.
References include commentaries by Rashi, Nechama Leibowitz,and Rabbi Elie Munk, and the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs (see here for further discussion on the emblem decision process).