Hammered Work—by Michael Aronson

The Menorah made from a sing piece of gold
The Menorah
made from a
sing piece of gold.

We read in this week’s Torah portion, “You shall make a lampstand [menorah] of pure gold; the lampstand shall be made of hammered work; its base and its shaft, its cups, calyxes, and petals shall be of one piece.” (Shemot 25:31). The text emphasizes that all of the structural and aesthetic elements of the menorah are a part of its being. The menorah is one, constructed as an essential unity and not from diverse prefabricated parts.

How difficult would it be to carve a menorah out of a block of solid gold? Perhaps, when God chose Bezalel and Oholiav (Parshat Ki Tissa), He helped them see the menorah within the raw material. They knew what to do on instinct. This would have made things easier.

On the other hand, perhaps God granted them a deeper understanding of gold itself, and how craftsmanship works. Our text repeatedly emphasizes that the menorah is to be “hammered” work. Perhaps the artisans were given to understand gold’s malleability, and that the menorah had its own process of becoming: each hammer blow brought the menorah one more step out of the block of gold and one more step into itself. This meant that the menorah of the sanctuary was meant to be unique and could not be replicated; subsequent attempts would realize unique processes of becoming, and bring about unique results.

What does it mean to become? Our knowledge of becoming is diminished in our increasingly modernized, globalized world. The world turns faster and faster, and ever more rapid and efficient means of production promise ever more rapid and efficient gratification of our desires. Our comfort and ability with replication makes this possible. With our god-like powers to bring things into our daily lives so quickly – to buy things using “1-Click” ordering on Amazon Prime; to say, “let there be,” and it is, over and over again – do we sacrifice our appreciation of the world around us, and our very sense of what makes our world a world? Do we understand how our power reflects both human profit and human cost? Have we become the Faustian Man?

Do we also lose touch with ourselves? The more we expect the world around us to respond to our every whim, don’t we also expect our own bodies and souls to do the same? Anyone who has tried to lose weight, by wishing away the pounds or by portion control, knows that life doesn’t work this way.

Like the menorah, every human being comes into being through his or her own unique process of becoming. The human process is life, and our individual processes are informed by our gifts. Some of us are born rich. Others are born poor. Some of us are naturally clever. Others struggle with two plus two. Our experiences all incorporate unique combinations of advantage and disadvantage that shape our lives. At times, things are smooth sailing. At times, we are battered by life. Or, dare I say, “hammered” by life. Like the menorah, aren’t individual human beings also made of one piece, a oneness of advantage and disadvantage and nobility and flaw, continuously brought into being as “hammered work” by life in the hands of God?

Where we differ from the menorah is that we have choice. Gold is inanimate. Life is animate. Gold lacks self-knowledge. Humans have the privilege to know what happens to them and respond. Our responses reflect how we interface with the divine in daily life, whether we partner with the divine in our own processes of becoming, and whether we make ourselves the best bits of hammered work we can possibly be.

L’Chayim, indeed.

*All translations are courtesy of the JPS 1985 edition.