This week’s Torah portion is Behaalotcha and it starts with some housekeeping instructions. “The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and say to him, ‘When you mount the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the lampstand.’ Aaron did so…” These instructions are a little vague, but fairly straightforward. The lamps would have a reservoir for the oil with a spout where the wick would burn and the wicks would be oriented to give light to the front. There is some disagreement among the commentators about what the direction “at the front” means (toward the table — Rashbam — or toward the central lamp — Rashi) but we know that the lamps were to be placed in an orderly manner and not higgledy-piggledy. But it’s in the commentary that goes beyond the pshat, the simple surface meaning, that things start getting interesting.
From Melechet Machshevet we learn: “Maharia Ashkenazi states that the side lamps of the menorah represent the different sciences, whereas the middle lamp represents the wisdom of the Torah. This may be a hint to us that if a person studies any of the sciences he should try to have its light shed toward the central lamp, the wisdom of the Torah. If you direct all the lamps, all your study of the sciences, toward the Torah, all the sciences will shed their light properly.” I love this concept that our study of other more secular subjects can help to illuminate our understanding of Torah.
From the Hatam Sofer we learn: “Our Sages said that the middle lamp is the most praiseworthy. This teaches us that each person should adopt the middle course: he should not veer to the left by being excessively bad, nor to the right, by being excessively pious. Yet we are told, ‘Aaron was separated, that he should sanctify the most holy things,’ and did that separation mark a deviation from the middle path? We are therefore told, ‘and Aaron did so,’ to teach us that even after God had set him aside to take care of the most holy things, he did not change and continued to adopt the middle path.” How astonishing that even piety should have its limits!
I would like to make one observation of my own. The single central lamp was insufficient and all seven were needed. An old aphorism states that it is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness. Better yet is when many candles are lit shedding their light together. We live in dark and frightening times right now and it can feel like the small good that we can contribute is ineffective against the vast deep darkness that we face. But if you add your light to my light to his light to her light to their light, pretty soon we will be able to drive back the darkness together. One small light at a time.
No act of goodness, no act of kindness, no act of grace is ever for naught. They all combine to illumine the world.
Rabbi Ben Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano and the vice president of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.