This week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs takes a look at parashat T’tzaveh, in which the Israelites are commanded to create the ner tamid (eternal light) in the Tabernacle. He wonders: How is light symbolic in the Jewish tradition, and how can we best shine our own light toward others?
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[URJ Intro] Welcome back to "On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah," a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a little bit about the Torah portion in just about 10 minutes. This week, Rabbi Jacobs teaches us about Parashah T'tzaveh, and he pushes us to think about where we let light in and how we put it out into the world.
[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] This week, we focus our attention on Parashat T'tzaveh from the Book of Exodus. And we have been introduced last week into the whole secret endeavor of creating the first praying place in Judaism, the portable Mishkan that was carried throughout our ancestors wandering in the desert, and in this second of the parshyiot that described the plans for and the building of this Mishkan.
In the opening of T'tzaveh, we have one verse-- that's chapter 27 of the Book of Exodus, verse 20, which says, "The [HEBREW]" You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring clear oil of beaten olives. Why? For the lighting of the Nir Tamid-- the perpetual light, the eternal light, that object in every synagogue throughout the world, through every different movement, every different architectural style. When you look at the Ark-- the Eronah Kodesh-- in the synagogue, you'll see either above or somewhat off to the side a Nir Tamid-- a light that's burning sometimes. It's a candle. Sometimes it's an actual flame. But it is a symbolic reminder of the light in our tradition.
Now on some level, you'd say, why do you need a Nir Tamid, an eternal light over an Ark where the Torah scroll resides? The Torah is called in Aramaic [HEBREW], that it is itself light. And then there is a light over the light. And of course, light is perhaps the master symbol of the divine, of the holy-- in our Jewish tradition, but frankly in every faith tradition. That's simply known and appreciated all over.
I want to start with maybe some colloquial phrases that are about light and see if we can't uncover some of its many dimensions in our own spiritual lives. You know, if someone says, hey, I'm going to shine some light on a subject, what they mean is that they're going to share an insight or some good thoughts that brightens a potentially dark or confusing subject. Who could forget Peter Yarrow's great song, "Don't Let the Light Go Out--" the light of hope, the light of courage, all those lights that we fear could at any dark moment in history go out.
And I remember when I was a kid, my mom would say, if I went out or my sister went out, I'm going to leave a light on for you. And of course, you'd say, well, that's just going to waste electricity. I know how to turn the light on when I come in.
But I actually think my mom was saying something different, saying that that light will be a beacon to help you back from your travel, whatever it is that you're going to do. And I bet a few of you on the podcast who are listening today can remember a mom or dad leaving a light on for you. Or maybe you are now that parent leaving a light on for your own loved one.
Who can't remember being told to lighten up when we're being a little too intense? Of course, that maybe is about light as a kind of an image of something being heavy. Or let some light in and see if we can't do a little better. And we all know those famous cartoon images where someone has an idea. And there's a thought bubble over them which literally shows a light bulb going on. So an idea, some insight, all can help us brighten the world.
There are all kinds of prayers and songs about light in our tradition. The Vaha Virah Naneh-- we sing every day-- enlighten our eyes-- or that very, very beloved spiritual, this little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine. Now of course, if I just sang for a little bit, I could potentially bring the wrath of the Jewish people on me for, first of all, not singing too well. I'll probably sing in my favorite key, which is B minus.
But maybe you're in the car or washing the dishes or taking a walk in the woods somewhere. So maybe you'll just sing along with me and drown me out. But you know that beautiful song, this little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine. This little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine. Well, you can finish that. And you can send me-- don't send me all those texts or emails saying, Rabbi Jacobs, just talk. Don't sing. Leave that for the cantors and the musical ones. But that's just one of those songs you just can't get out of your head.
We also know the very beginning of Genesis. What's the first thing that's created on the first day-- V'yehe Or-- God says, let there be light. That's not the light of a planet. It's not light of the sun or the moon. It's not the light of fire. It's a primordial light, the light, we think, of divine consciousness.
And then every day we say in our morning prayers, Yotzer ohr.. -- praise him, the one who creates light and darkness. Always powerful and easy to understand how God could be the creator of light, but God, creator of darkness-- that's absolutely a little bit perplexing for us but important to reflect upon. At the end of that Yotzer ohr prayer in the morning, we have an additional line-- [HEBREW]-- let a new light-- [HEBREW]-- light is [HEBREW], new-- shine on Zion-- [HEBREW].
And I'm recording this podcast today from Israel. I've been here for a week and a half of meetings and teaching and soaking up the remarkable spirit of this Jewish state, something that is always inspiring. But I also have to say that the last two nights, the sky has been lit up and not with fireworks-- the kind that we do on Yom Haatzmuat or on July 4th. The light in the south of Israel has been lit up by dozens and dozens of rockets that have been fired from Gaza to the south of Israel, landing in some cases, and other cases being shot down.
The kids are at home in bomb shelters for the second day in a row, and there's always fear. It's not an unfamiliar experience for Israelis and particularly Israelis who live in the South. But it is always, always upsetting and caused deep concern throughout our world. So I know that all of us have prayers for their safety on our lips, and we hope that the light that shines for them is a light of peace and of calm.
We also want to just take a minute, think about how pervasive this metaphor of light is, a positive metaphor throughout biblical Hebrew, throughout the Tanakh, the Hebrew bible. We know that light is the symbol of redemption, of truth, of justice, of peace, and even of life itself. That's pretty powerful that light is so alive in our imagination that it can symbolize all of these things.
There is a really beautiful teaching in Etz Hayim-- the Conservative Movement's commentary on the five books of Moses on the chumash. I just have to quote it. And I first read it by Rabbi Lauren Burken, who's my friend who is a phenomenal leader at the Shalom Hartman Institute. She called it to all of our attention in a piece she wrote. And here's that quote. It says, "Why has light been such a favorite symbol of God? Perhaps because light itself cannot be seen. We become aware of its presence when it enables us to see other things. Similarly, we cannot see God, but we become aware of God's presence when we see the beauty of the world, when we experience love and the goodness of our fellow human beings."
That's itself worth the price of admission today for the podcast. If you take away that, I think you'll be well rewarded. We also know that in our tradition, light serves as a metaphor for the human soul. The book of Proverbs in chapter 20, verse 27 says, [HEBREW]-- a candle of God is the soul of a human being, that line from Proverbs teaches us.
There's also, I have to say, a pretty unique and really eye-popping teaching about light. It comes from Rabbi Joshua HaCohen Falk, who was a 16th century Polish commentator to the very authoritative code of Jewish law known as the [HEBREW]. He wrote in his sefair-- just listen to that. His book called The Enlightenment of the Eyes. He writes that court cases had to take place only during the day, not during the night. Why was that, he said. He said, because at night litigants would not see each other, and the judges would not see the litigants. In other words, he teaches, justice would become dark and murky.
Something about seeing the light of another's face, being able to look people in the eyes and see who they are and be seen and heard-- that that actually is essential for the administration of justice. Wow, a medieval Torah commentator coming up with a whole way for us to think about our justice system. And I wonder if actually trials could take place during the day, but still not have litigants see each other, or are judges even seeing those in their court? So we need light shining every which way.
I want to just share a story. I think I've shared a condensed version of it maybe an earlier podcast couple of years back. But it is one of those touchstone stories for me. It's a story about a remarkable spiritual master. His name is Delroy Alene. He was, for many years, the custodian of Brooklyn Heights Synagogue and our resident wise teacher.
It was just before the high holidays, and the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue was still kind of a young, not very well resourced startup. And we would have to gather up all the sacred things from the brownstone building where our sanctuary was in Brooklyn Heights and bring everything over to Plymouth church. They were very gracious and continue to be gracious to let us use their beautiful historic space for our high holidays.
So I walked into the kitchen-- it was Erev Yom Kippur. I had a million things on my mind. We were packing up boxes were getting ready to schlep all this stuff over to the Plymouth church. And I see Delroy in the kitchen on the stove, melting what looks like these candles.
And I just looked at Delroy. What are you doing? We've got so much to do. You're doing some arts and crafts project. I was really impatient.
And then he reminded me that what he does during the year is that-- you have these beautiful candles that we light for Shabbat. But they're so tall, and we're not there for hours and hours after we light them that we can't leave them burning in the brownstone building with fear that the whole building will catch on fire.
So he takes those half-consumed candles, and he saves them all year long. And right before Yom Kippur, he was melting them down and melting them into a candle that would become the Nir Tamid for Yom Kippur for our congregation. So he explains to me that's what he's doing, and my jaw drops. I think to myself, oh, my god. I'm supposed to be the rabbi of this congregation. This is the rabbi. This is the spiritual teacher. He is from a wonderful island, Grenada.
And wow, he distilled a bit of every Shabbat from the year, and made it into one candle with the light from all of the previous Shabbato burning over our Ark on Yom Kippur. This is just pure inspiration, and I got really embarrassed about my impatience with my spiritual master, who was trying to teach the rabbi a lesson about light and about shedding and spreading the light.
We know in our tradition that doing a mitzvah, a sacred act, is like lighting a candle before the Holy One. And our job says the safed ahmed-- the great Hasidic commentator, Rabbi Yehuda [INAUDIBLE]-- he says, doing a mitzvah is like lighting a candle for God. It is preparing a place where God's glorious presence can dwell. By means of this, you enliven your soul. And the more light a person brings about in the physical darkness through the doing of holy acts, the more that one will enlighten one's soul from the light above.
I got to tell you, friends, I'm not sure how I'm doing. I'm not sure how much any of us is doing to kindle that extra light and to spread it. But I know that Delroy, in that story, in that sacred deed, was-- boy-- setting forth a blinding, bright light of hope and possibility. And I hope that we can all be inspired. And the last teaching is a Hasidic teaching that every single one of us has to light a Nir Tamid-- an eternal light-- not only in our buildings and our sacred places where the ancient mishkan-- or the temples that stood in Jerusalem. But says this Hasidic teaching, we have to light the light in our hearts, that Nir Tamid that will burn inside of each of us.
So be inspired by Delroy. Be inspired by all people of courage and imagination who've had big ideas and have shared that light and then helped to enlighten our world. So I hope this week is filled with brightness and light and hope for you, for all of us, and for our oftentimes dark world.
[URJ Outro] Thanks for joining us on this week's episode of "On the Other Hand-- Ten minutes of Torah." Want more? You can download a new episode each Monday on Apple Podcasts or Google Play or Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you hear, write us a review, or share the podcast with a friend.
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