The menorah is forever enshrined as the symbol of Hanukkah and one of the most important public symbols of Jewish identity. Ancient coins were minted with a menorah and ancient Jewish homes were identified with a menorah on the lintel as much as by a mezuzah on the doorposts. The preeminence of the menorah seems to emerge following the Maccabean rededication of the Temple in 165 BCE. Yet hardly any consideration is given to why of all the Temple furnishings the menorah stands supreme.
While the Talmud (Yoma 21b, 52b) reports that King Josiah his the Holy Ark from potential capture by invaders (and hid it so well that it has never been found), and thus removing it from the focus of Maccabean celebration, the altars upon which the service to God was performed still remained. The incense altar – and especially the sacrificial altar – was at least equally as important and meaningful a symbol as the menorah. Similarly, the table upon which the showbread was displayed, representing the unity of the twelve tribes and the blessings of God, could also have been a potent symbol. Hence, the question of the choice of the menorah as the preferred symbol of Judaism remains.
Of course the story of the miracle of oil placed in the menorah at the time of rededication could serve as the determining factor in making the menorah the symbol of choice. However, much doubt remains about the historicity and veracity of the oil miracle story even among the traditional authorities. The fact that of all the miracles surrounding Hanukkah mentioned in the liturgy the miracle of the oil is omitted is testimony to its dubious origins.
Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoah (France, ca. 1250), however, offers the best explanation of the ascendance of the menorah. Of all the furnishings in the Temple, the menorah alone was made of solid gold and had no blood sprinkled on it at the time of consecration (Commentary on Exodus 39:37). No blood was sprinkled on it because it alone was pure and inure from any contamination. Thus it alone was worthy of immediate use at the time of Hanukkah. The menorah stands as a symbol of the spiritual purity of the Jewish people and its resistance to foreign contamination – a fitting statement for Hanukkah and beyond.
These same characteristics inhere in Joseph who retains his Jewish identity and values even while rising to highest echelons of power in Egypt. Both the menorah and the person of Joseph are symbols of the grand idea that we today should heartily embrace.