“The Centrality of Light”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Tetzaveh, speaks at length of the priestly vestments. The parasha closes with a description of the inaugural ceremony of the priests into the priesthood, the requirement of daily Tamid offering and the details and functions of the Incense Altar.

It is therefore quite surprising that parashat Tetzaveh should open with the command for taking oil for lighting the Menorah, a ritual that seems to be entirely unrelated to the other parasha themes. The Bible, in Exodus 27:20, reads “ V’ah’tah t’tzah’veh et B’nay Yisrael, v’yik’choo ay’leh’chah sheh’men zah’yit zahch kah’teet lah’mah’ohr, l’ha’ah’loht nayr tah’mid,” Now you shall command the Children of Israel, that they shall take for You, pure, pressed olive oil for illumination, to kindle the lamp continually.

The Abarbanel asks a cogent question regarding the opening theme of parashat Tetzaveh. Why does the commandment of lighting the candles appear at the beginning of this week’s parasha, rather than after the completion of the building of the Mishkan and the placement of the utensils? True, the kindling of the Menorah plays a central role in the Tabernacle service, but, at this point, the Tabernacle had not yet been built. Furthermore, Aaron and his sons had also not been inducted into the priesthood. Who then would be authorized to light the Menorah?

The Abarbanel therefore suggests that the parasha opens with the commandment to light the candles of the Menorah, in order to emphasize the importance of the priestly vestments, and that a priest may not perform any sacred duties without being dressed in the holy vestments.

The Ibn Ezra suggests that the reason the Torah portion opens with the command that the oil from the Menorah be absolutely pure is in order to underscore that the priests, Aaron and his sons, must also always be in a state of absolute purity and remain separate from the rest of the nation. Furthermore, the priests must make certain that no unauthorized layperson take part in the rituals of the Tabernacle service.

The late great Bible teacher, Nehama Leibowitz, expands on the Abarbanel’s question and proposes some solutions. Professor Leibowitz suggests that perhaps the lighting of the Menorah should more appropriately be included in the book of Leviticus, where all the functions of the priests, their ceremonial role and their duties in the Tabernacle are delineated. Furthermore, she asks, why should the lighting of the candelabra be mentioned at all? After all, no other technical chores associated with any of the other vessels of the Tabernacle are noted. Even the idea of keeping the sanctuary clean is not mentioned. Why then is lighting the Menorah singled out so prominently?

Professor Leibowitz suggests that the lighting of the Menorah is not a mere technical function performed in the Tabernacle, but serves rather as a central symbol of the entire Tabernacle and Temple service. The fact that the candelabra provides illumination for the Tabernacle is almost incidental, and is surely not the primary message of this Torah portion. Rather, suggests Professor Leibowitz, the idea of the lighting of the Menorah, represents the need to lift the human spirit, enabling it to reach the Divine Light. This spiritual uplifting, of course, is best accomplished through the performance of mitzvot.

Professor Leibowitz underscores the importance that “light” plays in Jewish tradition:

Light, which constitutes the first of Divine creations (“Let there be light”), to which all living creatures are drawn, the opposite of which serves as a symbol of doom and destruction, forms a familiar motif in the scriptures. The Torah is compared to light: “For the commandment is a lamp, and the Torah is a light” (Proverbs 6:23), and Israel is destined to be the light of the world: “Nations shall walk by thy light” (Isaiah 60:3). The Al-mighty, too, is the light of the individual person: “The L-rd is my light and my salvation” (Psalms 27:1), and also the light of Israel: “Arise my light, for thy light cometh, and the glory of the L-rd doth shine upon thee” (Isaiah 60:1).

The imagery of light, of course, in the history of humankind is not only prominent, it is also uniquely symbolic and powerful. Light conjures up feelings of happiness, joy, elation, beauty, love, innovation, education and learning, justice, righteousness and morality.

On the other hand, the absence of light–darkness, brings to mind, evil, wickedness, wrongdoing, pain, hurt, depression, sadness, heartbreak, loss, death and immorality.

In the opening sentences of parashat Tetzaveh, the Torah, in essence, declares boldly that Torah is light, that Torah is what lights up a Jew’s life, and the life of all of humankind.

It is certainly no accident that the month of Adar, the month in which the Jews were saved from the evil designs of Haman, is the month in which the Book of Esther 8:16 declares, “ La’yeh’hoo’dim haitah oh’rah v’simcha v’sah’sohn vee’kahr,” The Jews had light, gladness, joy and honor.

While always acknowledging the importance of light, we must not allow ourselves to wrongly conclude that everything new brings light to our lives. Despite the many wonderful recent technological innovations, unhappiness, lack of self-esteem and depression have become more and more common. It is important for all people to learn to appreciate the light, the true light, and find fulfillment in their lives. It is important to frequently express appreciation to others for their kindnesses, as much as we would expect others to appreciate our kindnesses. And for Jews, the most effective “guide book” to achieve and appreciate these values is the Torah.

This is the “light” that is emphasized in the opening words of parashat Tetzaveh. This is the light that Jewish life regards as essential. We must embrace it strongly, and make it part of our most inner essence.

May you be blessed.

Please note: Purim is observed this year on Saturday night, and Sunday, February 23 -24 , 2013. Since the Fast of Esther cannot be observed on Shabbat, it will be observed on the previous Thursday, February 21st , from dawn to nightfall.

This coming Shabbat is known as Shabbat Zachor. It is the second of four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat, a thematic Torah portion is read from Deuteronomy 25:17-19 about remembering Amalek. Most authorities consider it a positive commandment for both men and women to hear this particular Torah reading.

The festival of Purim marks the celebration of the great salvation of the Jews of the Persian empire from the hands of the evil Haman in the year 520-519 BCE. For more information about Purim and its special observances,  click here.