Light For A Time Like This

Parashat Tetzaveh
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz

Light For a Time Like This

I’m rather fond of the term ‘living Torah’. I love the immersiveness of it, like a mikveh, but also its intentional ambiguity. Is it the Torah that we live or Torah that is alive? Or both?
I was reminded of this idea of ‘living Torah’ when I met with some Art History students a few days ago. They – and their professor – had reached out to us. They wanted to see our sanctuary for educational purposes, so I gave them a tour and explained the architecture of this space to them. One of the students pointed at the Ner Tamid, the Eternal Light, and asked ‘what’s that?’ Without thinking of this week’s Torah portion, I explained what the Ner Tamid was and what it symbolizes. When I read Tetzaveh, synchronicity struck me: the opening verse of our portion discusses that very Ner Tamid!

Tetzaveh is a Parashah of many things, including an intricate description of the sartorial symbolism of the High Priest’s garb as well as a recounting of sacrifices, inching us closer to the book of Leviticus. However, we’re going to ignore all of that and focus on the opening line of the portion: one verse to be exact.

V’ata tetzaveh et B’nei Yisrael vayik’chu eleicha shemen zait zach katit lama’or l’ha’alot ner tamid.’ – ‘You shall command the Children of Israel to take for you clear olive oil of crushed olives for lighting, to kindle the lamps continually.’ (Ex. 27:20).
One in the ways in which we can consider the Torah as ‘living’ is in how it can speak to us, in ways that appear deceptively simple but are quite profound.
On the surface of it, the pasuk seems simple enough: take high-quality, clear olive oil and light the lamps of the Menorah (candelabra) with it, continuously. However, upon closer examination, complexities arise. If the Torah, which often practices an economy of language, wanted to be efficient, the text could have read ‘lama’or ner tamid’ – to light the lamps always.’ However, we have this extra verb in here, ‘l’ha’alot’, which in this case we would translate as ‘to kindle’. The commentators, with Rashi among them, pick up on this unusual syntax. Is the point of this very specific commandment to let the light in the Menorah burn eternally, as the word ‘tamid’ (always or forever) would indicate? Or is this mitzvah modified through the verb ‘l’ha’alot’, ‘to kindle’, and through the following verse which states ‘me’erev ad boker’, ‘from evening to morning’, suggesting that the flame would die down only to be lit again the next day?
The answer is both. In the days of the Tabernacle, and later the Temple, the lights may very well have been rekindled each day. In our historical synagogue practice, the Ner Tamid above the holy ark would have been left burning constantly – a practice far easier and safer with the advent of electric lights, and as you can see, ours glows contently in its red glass case.

What is more significant than deciphering the practicalities of how this light was understood, is the subtext of this story. What can we learn from one simple line of Torah?

If we are to explore the deeper meaning of the verse, we could turn to Mussar. Mussar is the traditional Jewish discipline that hones our moral and spiritual characteristics. The 11th century Mussar master, rabbi Bachya Ibn Pekudah composed his primary work, ‘Chovot haLevavot’, ‘Duties of the Heart’ as a handbook for inner work.
In his writing, Bachya refers to a powerful verse from 
Mishlei (Proverbs) that speaks to our Parashah.

Ner Adonai nishmat adam chofesh kol chadrei baten’ – ‘the lamp of the Eternal is the soul of man, searching all its inner chambers’ (Proverbs 20:27). It is the ‘duty of our heart’ to probe our inner Mishkan (Tabernacle) and to light our inner Menorah. In fact, our verse provides us with even greater nuance. We read that ‘pure olive oil from crushed olives’ is required to light the lamps of the Menorah. A saying in the Talmud tells us that just like crushing or pounding olives releases the greatest amount of oil for lighting, so too is the Jewish people’s greatest potential realized through pressure or adversity (Talmud Bavli Menachot 53b). This (morally problematic but psychologically astute) interpretation is only strengthened by the notion of ‘shemen zait zach’, ‘clear olive oil’. If we reframe what the Talmud says, we could argue that when it comes to lighting our inner flame and examining our internal chambers, the purity and clarity of our spiritual fuel – our intentions – matter. Only then can we light and kindle, and lift up – the primary meaning of this verb ‘l’ha’alot’. Strikingly, the Torah continues the drash, the symbolic interpretation through the p’shat, the literal meaning of the text by recounting that the lights would be kindled ‘me’erev ad boker’, ‘from evening to morning’. The light burns in the darkness; at the time we need it most.

Sometimes the Torah has a knack to give us the teachings that we need. The human brain is wired to see patterns, we are a species predisposed to make meaning. This week has been a difficult, heart-wrenching week in America and like many Americans, I too have felt immense pain and shock in light of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida. Yet, we can be encouraged by the eloquence and courage of the nation’s youngest citizens in lifting their voices to hold this country accountable and seek for a way to heal it.
As we sit in the warm glow of our sanctuary, beneath the flame of the Shabbat candles and the light of the Eternal Lamp, we are charged to turn inwards, to examine the ‘chadrei baten’, the ‘inner chambers’ of our society. It is the Torah’s calling to prompt us to wrestle deeply and authentically with what it means to pursue justice and repair the world. It is the Torah’s offering to bring us hope and life when we least expect it and most need it.

Among the brokenness of our world, we are charged to be a light. Our spirits may be crushed, but our hearts can be purified. We can light and lift, illumine our souls and shine forth to the world, in accordance of the dual function of the Menorah. Being so close to Purim, we can close with the rousing words of Mordechai that spurned Queen Esther to action: ‘im le’at kazot’ – ‘for such a time as this?’ (Esther 4:14).

May light and life burn in us and shine forth from us for such a time as this.

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