Saturday, March 7, 2009

Parashat Tetzaveh

In a terrible accident at a railroad crossing a train smashed into a car and pushed it nearly four hundred yards down the track. The driver of the car survived and took the train company to court.At the trial, the engineer insisted that he had given the driver ample warning by waving his lantern back and forth for nearly a minute. He even stood and convincingly demonstrated how he'd done it. The court believed the engineer, and the suit was dismissed."Congratulations," the lawyer said to the engineer when it was over. "You did superbly under cross-examination."
"Thanks," he said, "but he sure had me worried."
"How's that?" the lawyer asked.
"I was afraid he was going to ask if the lantern was lit!

Up to this point in the Torah, the commandments have focused on the building and lay-out of the Tabernacle. This week we get to hear how it is put to action. The Parashah begins:
"You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, leha’alot ner tamid, to raise an eternal light" (Exod 27:20).

This is a bit of an odd place to begin the Parashah. For one thing, this is the second-to-last verse of the previous chapter. Why not simply finish the chapter? Another oddity is topical. Most of Parashat Tetzaveh deals with the priests. Lighting the ner tamid is about the menorah. Last week we dealt with the structure of the Tabernacle, including the menorah. So why do we deal these verses separately?

Because these verses stand out, there is a wealth of commentary on them, including several midrashim. Leviticus Rabbah tells a story related to this verse. A rabbi gives examples of why God does not need our light. God created the sun, which is so strong we cannot look into it. God created lightning, which dazzles the world from end to end. God created the eyeball, which takes in light through the black part, and nothing is perceived through the white part. To each of these examples of God’s greatness, another rabbi responds with a verse from Isaiah: “Adonai delights in righteousness. He will make Torah great and glorious” (42:21). In other words, I have come, says God, for no other purpose than to endow you [to whom the Torah was given] with the merit [of observing her precepts].

Here, the rabbis compare the Torah to the light that God creates. God makes miraculous light in the huge natural forms of sun and lightning. God also makes miraculous light in the miniscule cells of the eye. It sets a wonderful contrast between the great and the small, all of which are under God’s domain. And the Torah is what gives us our light. The Torah is our guide in the darkness, allowing us to see our way in the world.

This Midrash continues with a further comment. Humans light lamps from fire that is already kindled. But God creates light out of darkness. If out of darkness God created light, why does God need our light? Because kindling fire raises us as eternal lights. This play on the verse from our Torah portion adds another source of light—the Jewish people. We become the light that burns eternally, we become the beacon in the darkness, we are the righteous in whom God delights.

An 11th century Midrash called Exodus Rabbah also comments on our verse. In this Midrash we are reminded that when we light a flame from another flame, the light is not diminished. Both fires burn equally, and the light is doubled. The same is true of our deeds. When we give money or objects, we no longer have that money or object. When we give of ourselves, we give of our light. We can bring wick after wick after wick to our flame, and keep lighting them infinitely. That light is not lost—it is increased, just like when we light one flame from another it doubles the light.

That is why these two verses appear at the beginning of this week’s Parashah. The first words we read this week teach us to establish an eternal light above the holy ark for the Torah as well as in our heart. Only after we understand our role in the community are we ready to understand the role of our ritual leaders. We bring the light of Torah and our own light to as many people as we can, behaving as a nation of priests and an or lagoyim, a light to the nations.

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