I believe in the sun even when it is not shining.
These words--inscribed on the wall of a cellar in Cologne, Germany, where Jews hid from the Nazis--speak to us of faith, even when it is troubled by doubt; of light, even when it is enveloped by darkness. Such is the external and enduring power of light, as demonstrated in this week's Torah portion, Tetzaveh. In this parashah the Israelites are instructed to bring clear oil of beaten olives for lighting the ner tamid or "eternal light." (Exodus 27:20) According to scholars (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, p. 618), a more accurate translation is "[for] kindling lamps regularly." Thus the lights of Tetzaveh were to burn continually, just as God's light and the light of Torah are always present.
One midrash on Exodus 27:20 (Exodus Rabbah 36:2) suggests that God, the Source of light, doesn't need light. Rather, the ner tamid is for the people so that "you can return light to Me as I give light to you." Furthermore, we learn that it is Aaron and his sons and not Moses who are instructed to set up these kindling lamps. Does it not seem ironic that the name of Moses is, in fact, missing from this entire portion in the Book of Exodus? Why are Aaron and the next generation of priests chosen to enact this ritual? One explanation offered by the Gaon of Vilna is that God knew that the day of Moses' death would be on 7 Adar, during the very time that Tetzaveh is read at worship services. Thus the portion may be anticipating the absence of Moses' physical presence while acknowledging his spiritual presence through the symbol of light. So it is today: If we are comforted by the flame of the yahrzeit or memorial candle, how much more so are we uplifted by the light of the ner tamid in our own synagogue!
Another very human dimension of this account is presented in a midrash on Exodus 28:1 (Exodus Rabbah 37:4). Rabbinic commentaries discuss Moses' growing dissatisfaction with relinquishing the priesthood to Aaron and entrusting him and his sons with the sacred duties. (Indeed, discontentment can be a weakness in all of us, depending on the issue with we are not content.) Moses needs to make peace with both the delegation of responsibility to others and his own mortality. Only by doing so will he come to realize that although the light of his own life will be extinguished, the greatest accomplishment in life is insuring that there is a future. In the end, Moses finds inner peace because he recognizes that he has enlightened and empowered others to carry on the torch of his life's work.
This portion challenges each of us to light the ner tamid in our own heart. (Itturei Torah, 20) We must work to be more sensitive to the needs, feelings, and strivings of others while simultaneously doing the same for ourselves. Only then will we come closer to dispelling the darkness and doubt that exist in our world.
Questions for Discussion
- Do you think that Moses was an effective leader? What qualities are required for successful leadership?
- The Tanach equates "light" with mitzvah, "for the commandment [mitzvah] is a lamp." (Proverbs 6:23) Think of mitzvot that you and your family can perform to bring more light to yourself and others.
- With what are you particularly satisfied? Create a list of what you perceive as your personal and family blessings.
Jerome P. David is the senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Cherry Hill, NJ.