“A Flame in Every Jewish Heart”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This coming week’s parasha, parashat Tetzaveh, focuses primarily on the design and manufacture of the priestly vestments. The parasha, however, opens with a commandment to take (Exodus 27:20) “Shemen zayit zach, kah’tit la’mah’or,” pure pressed olive oil for illumination, that is to burn continuously in the Menorah–the candelabra, that stood in the Tabernacle.

In previous studies, we have elaborated on the meaning of the Menorah and its candles. While the various branches represent the range of all of human wisdom, the central branch of the candelabra, from which all the branches extend, underscores the centrality of Torah to Jewish life and human intelligence. The verse in Proverbs 6:23 reaffirms that message: “Kee nehr mitzvah, v’Torah ohr,” for the commandment is a candle, and Torah is illumination. Our rabbis have explained that, while the commandment is a candle, the mitzvah’s purpose is to illuminate the path to Torah, the source from which all light comes.

In addition to the literal meaning that we glean from this parasha concerning the centrality of the Menorah and the light of Torah, our rabbis have explained these verses homiletically as well. Pardesei Yosef, cited in Itturei Torah (vol. 3, p.229), declares that every Jew must light a Ner Tamid (a perpetual light), the light of G-d, in his/her own heart, but not only in the Tabernacle, the synagogue or in the house of study, or during the time of prayer, but also (Exodus 27:21) “mee’chutz la’pah’ro’chet,” outside the curtain–in the street, in business when engaging in common matters, and during one’s interaction with others.

Yes, of course every Jew is expected to have a flame in his/her heart, to feel inspired, invigorated, and excited about Jewish life. The well known rabbinic interpretation of the verse in the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:6), “Asher ah’no’chee m’tzav’chah ha’yom,” these things that I command you today, underscores that G-d’s commandments should always be fresh in our hearts and minds. Every single day and every moment of our lives a Jew should feel that the Torah was given that very day or moment. The implication is clear that every Jew is to feel excited about being Jewish, feel the thrill of performing mitzvot, and to discover the passion of observance and the fervor of celebration.

But, the interpretation of the Pardesei Yosef goes further than most conventional interpretations: Yes, every Jew must have a flaming fervor in his/her heart, but not only in the Tabernacle, not only in the House of Worship, not only in the Yeshiva, not only during times of prayer, but outside the pah’ro’chet as well, outside the curtain–in the street, in business, at the baseball game, and in the supermarket.

Unfortunately, many 20th and 21st century Jews, even those who are observant and religiously committed, expect their rabbis and rebbetzins to be passionate, while they themselves are cool about their observance, and casual about their Jewish practice. They feel as if they’ve fulfilled their obligation because they’ve delegated “surrogates” to be excited for them, while they themselves are often indifferent, or preoccupied with other matters.

A major issue of concern that is now raging in the circles of the committed Jewish community is the matter of “children at risk.” There is what has been called an epidemic of young Jews who grew up in observant homes, attended the finest yeshivot and Day Schools, and have abandoned the religious life, sometimes to embrace not only a secular lifestyle, but also to engage in socially unacceptable activities such as vandalism, theft, substance abuse, and promiscuity. Significant numbers of youngsters have also begun to run away from home. Estimates of the numbers of children at risk range from more than 6%, to close to 16% in some heavily populated religious neighborhoods.

Although scientific studies of this population are still scarce, various authorities have begun to suggest factors that might be at the root of this large-scale defection. One reason that is often suggested is that the freedom of the modern world makes it easier to leave Judaism and to slip away. Others blame the decadent values of the outside world, the overemphasis on sex, violence and materialism. Another reason often cited is that the outside world is more alluring, more fun, and the religious world too restricting.

In her forthcoming groundbreaking study of the issue entitled, Off the Derech, Faranak Margolese suggests that, in many cases, Jews are opting out of Judaism not because “the outside world pulled them in, but rather because the observant one pushed them out.” Margolese goes on to document how these young people who grew up in observant families and have forsaken Jewish life still have great regard for Judaism. In fact, very often, in their opinions, all other alternative lifestyles pale in comparison to Judaism. If that’s the case, why did they leave? They leave because they found that practicing Jews were often unsavory and unacceptable role models–angry, bitter, mean, and dishonest.

There’s much more that can be said and written about the “dropout” issue. But, if we are serious about addressing the issue of those who are leaving Judaism in large numbers, it will be necessary for committed Jews to see themselves as “ambassadors” for Jewish life, who are prepared to serve as inspirational role models, who feel the excitement of Jewish life every moment of the day, every day of the week, every week of the month, and every month of the year.

If we are to stem the tide of the large-scale abandonment that is taking place within the committed community, and to win back the 90% of America’s Jews who long ago gave up on Jewish life, we need role models, positive role models, role models who are willing to ignite the flame in their hearts, to light the Ner Tamid in themselves, not just in the Tabernacle or in the tent, not only in the synagogue or in the school, but in the street, the marketplace, the home and outside the home. If we do this, we will not only survive, we will prevail.

May you be blessed.