“A Flame in Every Jewish Heart”
(updated and revised from Tetzaveh 5765-2005)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This 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) שֶׁמֶן זַיִת זָךְ, כָּתִית לַמָּאוֹר, pure pressed olive oil for illumination, that is to burn continually in the Menorah–the candelabra, that stood in the Tabernacle.

In previous studies, we have elaborated on the representative meaning of the Menorah and its candles. While the various branches of the Menorah represent the range of all human wisdom, the central branch of the candelabra, from which the other six branches extend, underscores the centrality of Torah to Jewish life and, in fact, all of human intelligence. The verse in Proverbs 6:23 reaffirms that message: כִּי נֵר מִצְוָה, וְתוֹרָה אוֹר, 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 radiates.

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 נֵר תָּמִיד–Ner Tamid (a perpetual light), the light of G-d, in his/her own heart–not only in the Tabernacle, the synagogue or in the house of study, or during the time of prayer, but also (Exodus 27:21) מִחוּץ לַפָּרֹכֶת, outside the curtain–in the street, in business when engaging in common matters, and especially during 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 being a Jew and passionate about Jewish life. The well-known rabbinic interpretation of the verse that is found in the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:6), אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם, 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 life a Jew should feel as if the Torah was given that very day, indeed that very 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, remember that the interpretation of the Pardesei Yosef goes further than most conventional interpretations: Yes, every Jew must have a flaming fervor in his/her heart–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 פָּרֹכֶת–pah’ro’chet as well, outside the curtain–in the street, in business, at the baseball game, and in the supermarket.

Unfortunately, many contemporary Jews, even those who are observant and religiously committed, expect their “surrogates,” often their rabbis, rebbetzins, teachers and communal leaders, to be passionate, while they themselves are cool about their observance, and casual about their Jewish practices. They feel as if they’ve fulfilled their obligation because they have delegated others to be excited for them, while they themselves are often indifferent, or preoccupied with other matters.

A major issue that is of great concern today 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, who attended the finest yeshivot and Day Schools, and have abandoned 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 scarce, various authorities have begun to suggest factors that might be at the root of this growing rate of defection. One reason that is often suggested is that the freedom of the modern world makes it easy to leave Judaism and 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 ubiquitous blandishments of the outside world that are extremely alluring, are much more fun, and the religious world too restricting.

In her groundbreaking study of the issue entitled, Off the Derech, published in 2005, Faranak Margolese suggests that, in many cases, young Jews are opting out of Judaism not because “the outside world pulled them in, but rather because the observant ones pushed them out.” Margolese goes on to document how these young people, who grew up in observant families and have forsaken religious 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 left because they found that practicing Jews were often unpleasant, unacceptable role models; angry, bitter, mean, and at times, dishonest.

There’s much more that can be said and written about the “dropout” issue. But, if we are truly serious about addressing the issue of those who are leaving Judaism in ever-larger numbers, it will be necessary for the seriously committed Jews, to step-up, and share the positive, joyous features of our extraordinary heritage with those who are on the fringes.

Now is the time to mobilize large numbers of committed Jews to serve as “ambassadors” for Jewish life, to serve as inspirational role models, who feel the passion and 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 significant numbers of young people who are abandoning the committed community, and if we truly hope to win back the vast numbers of American 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 own 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, and especially in the hearts of our fellow Jews.

If we do this, we will not only survive, we will surely prevail.

May you be blessed.