By Rabbi Daniel Utley
The Jewish mystics taught us that at the beginning of creation, light could be seen from one end of the world to the other. They also propose that God hid some of this initial brilliance away, only to be released in the eventual coming of the messiah. Light clearly holds an elevated status in Judaism — symbolizing all that is good, just, righteous and holy in the world. In parashat Tetzaveh, light results from the purest contribution of each and every person in the community.
In parashat Tetzaveh, God commands Moses to instruct the people to make olive oil for a perpetual light, a ner tamid, which Aaron and his sons will set in the Tent of Meeting. We read that Aaron and his line will become priests in service to God and that they will be vested with elaborate robes, breastplates and headwear. Amid the enormous amount of detail expressed in the parasha, two phrases stand out, written differently. God speaks to Moses, saying, “V’atah tetzaveh et b’nai Yisrael v’yik-chu elecha shemen zayit zach, la-ma-or l’ha-alot ner tamid.” “You, yourself will command the children of Israel to bring you pure oil of pounded olives, for lighting, to rise up continually.” (Exodus 27:20)
Israeli scholar Nehama Leibowitz argues that the wording and context are unusual in the opening statement. The directives that God gives to Moses such as those in last week’s parasha, Terumah, use a different verb, l’daber — to speak — to the children of Israel. This week, God uses the verb l’tzavot — to command — as the instruction to Moses. According to the Midrashic commentaries on Leviticus, Sifrei, this extra emphasis means that the command was valid then, and holds true now and for the future. [Nehama Leibowitz, “Studies in Shmot” (Jerusalem: The World Zionist Organization, 1982)] Rabbi Ibn Ezra (a Spanish scholar from the Middle Ages) agrees with this interpretation and adds that l’tzavot is an eternal command to the congregation, an obligation to provide the oil individually and for all time, rather than a choice. [Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra, “Commentary on the Pentateuch,” trans. H. Norman Strickman & Arthur M. Silver (New York, New York: Menorah Publishing Company)]
The ner tamid, eternal light, is one of the few remaining elements linking the biblical Mishkan to our modern places of worship. That it receives this special, emphasized treatment in our parasha communicates to us our present and future obligation to our houses of prayer. Other aspects of the Mishkan were to be taken care of by the priests, but the ner tamid required continual contribution by all participants in the community. Every person was required to do the work to beat the olives and make pure oil.
The significance of this special light is also illustrated in the repetitive language in the second part of the command: “la-ma-or, l’ha-a lot” — for lighting, to bring up. The word l’ha-alot also means “to cause to rise up.” God commands the children of Israel to bring their purest oil not only for use in lighting but also to cause light to rise. This detail teaches us the greater purpose of community participation and gathering. We should cause light to rise by bringing our purest contribution to our communities. What a beautiful idea.
In the Dallas Jewish community, we have the potential to bring together especially fine talents, abilities and creative capacities for good. We’ve accomplished so much in our Jewish community, and still, we can do more to inspire this generation and the next through our collaboration and our contributions. In the brighter days ahead, may the words of our Torah remind us that the involvement of each and every person should be welcome and cherished in our places of gathering and prayer.
Rabbi Daniel Utley is associate rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Dallas and is the vice president of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.