by Rabbi Binny Freedman – Rosh Yeshiva, Yeshivat Orayta
Sometimes, the experiences that impact us the most are the ones we almost miss.
After finishing my regular army service, I was back in Yeshiva (An institute of higher learning), having recently begun my studies for the Israeli Rabbinate. I was on my way up the stairs to the Beit Midrash (study hall) when I noticed a student whose face I did not recognize coming out of one of the telephone booths in the hall. He appeared to be upset, and looked as though he had been crying. I asked him if he was OK, and he nodded in the affirmative, and as I didn’t want to intrude on his privacy, and the yeshiva was about to pray the afternoon service, I continued up the stairs to my seat.
I didn’t know who this apparently new student was, but I couldn’t get him off my mind. After asking around, I found out he was a new student who had just arrived from England and it seemed he was a bit homesick. I didn’t see him in the Beit Midrash, and resolved to find him later during dinner to make sure he was OK. I assumed he must have just called home, which would explain his state of mind when he walked out of the phone booth.
After Mincha (the afternoon service), Rav Amital, (shli”ta) the head of the Yeshiva, was due to give a lecture to the entire student body, and as we had been preparing for the lecture all morning I didn’t want to miss it, but I still couldn’t get that student off my mind. At the conclusion of the service, everyone found their seats and there was an air of anticipation as everyone sat waiting for Rav Amital to begin his lecture.
I had seen Rav Amital during the afternoon service, but now he was nowhere to be seen. However, as there had been no announcement of any change in the schedule, everyone remained in their seats waiting for him to come back into the hall to begin his lecture.
It is hard to explain what the feeling of the student body of a yeshiva is towards their Rosh Yeshiva, (the head of the yeshiva), but the feeling we all felt for Rav Amital was something akin to awe. A holocaust survivor who had also fought in the War of Independence, Rav Amital was a Torah scholar of immense proportions, and his students were my most revered teachers, so the thought of missing his lecture was anathema to me. But I still couldn’t get this student off my mind, and after a few more minutes of waiting, I realized I probably wouldn’t be able to concentrate on the lecture, so I decided to take a risk and see if the boy was still downstairs or outside in the large courtyard. (The entrance to Yeshivat Har Etzion is a beautiful courtyard with an incredible view of the Judean Hills, and it was not uncommon to see a student or two sitting under the trees deep in thought…).
When I stepped out into the courtyard I indeed found the student, but he wasn’t alone, and his no longer brimmed with tears. Rav Amital was talking to him and the two of them were laughing. Much later, when I finally got to know the boy, and was able to ask him what they had been talking about without the risk of embarrassing him, it transpired that he had indeed been incredibly homesick, and was considering leaving the Yeshiva.
The thought of sitting through yet another lecture was too much for him, and he decided to go for a walk and do some thinking. Rav Amital, who had apparently gone to the yeshiva office for a moment, was returning to deliver his lecture and noticed the student with the same long face. And with an entire yeshiva of hundreds of students waiting upstairs, he stopped to chat with the boy and cheer him up.
Imagine, one of the greatest Torah scholars of this generation, who later became a Knesset member and a minister in the government of Israel, was willing to keep four hundred students waiting, just to put a smile on the face of a new student he didn’t even know.
Up until that day, Rav Amital had been my Rosh Yeshiva, but in that moment, he became my Rebbe.
This week’s portion, Tetzaveh, opens with a particular mitzvah which seems at first glance to be rather out of place:
Hashem tells Moshe:
“Ve’Atah Te’tzaveh Et B’nei Yisrael, Ve’Yikchu’ Eilecha’ Shemen Zayit Zach- Katit La’Ma’or – Le’Ha’alot Ner Tamid.”
“And you shall command the children of Israel, and they shall take to you pure olive oil which was crushed for the light, to raise up a continuous [daily] flame” (Exodus 27:20)
Having just concluded a rather lengthy delineation of the specifics of building the Mishkan (Tabernacle) including a listing of all the vessels and their specifications, we now seem to begin the process of understanding exactly what are we meant to do with all the vessels we are building for the Mishkan (Tabernacle).
Thus, we begin this week with the mitzvah of the daily lighting of the menorah, along with the method for producing the oil for that menorah.
There are, however, a number of challenging questions regarding this mitzvah and the manner in which we receive it.
It is interesting to note that although the mitzvah discussed herein is the lighting of the menorah, the Torah here is really demanding the preparation of the wicks. The format in which the Torah presents us with this mitzvah is not a commandment to light the menorah, but rather an obligation to bring oil, in order that the wicks might one day be lit in the Mishkan.
Why is this commandment raised in such a roundabout fashion? Why not just state the purpose of this endeavor, which is to light the menorah daily in the sanctuary?
Incredibly, Maimonides (Sefer HaMitzvoth; Aseh (positive commandment) 25) actually defines this mitzvah as: “La’aroch Nerot ba’Mikdash.” “To set up wicks (candles) in the Temple.” (And in his Hilchot Temidin 3:10-12, he clearly views setting up the candles and lighting them as essentially the same mitzvah).
Normally there is a separation between the mitzvah itself, and the preparation for the mitzvah. If one is obligated to eat matzah on Passover, the baking process is not part of the biblical obligation; it is simply the vehicle through which we make ready to fulfill this mitzvah. So why is this mitzvah, (the lighting of the menorah) different? Indeed, the Torah here does not even mention the menorah itself?
There is another interesting detail regarding this mitzvah. The lit flames were meant to be a “Ner Tamid”, an ever-present flame. (27:20)
The word Tamid seems to imply ‘always’; the flame should never be extinguished. Yet, in the very next verse (27:21) we are told that Aaron and his sons (the Kohanim) should kindle these lights “Me’Erev Ad Boker”, “From evening until morning.”
If the candles need to be re-lit every night, what is the meaning of a Ner Tamid? And why must this particular mitzvah be Tamid, or constant?
Additionally, the oil is specified as being “La’Maor” (literally: “for light”) instead of Le’hair (to illuminate); why?
Beyond all this, one wonders why this particular mitzvah is given here, when it would have been much more logical to introduce the mitzvah of lighting the menorah last week alongside the specifications and mitzvah to have a menorah in the Mishkan in the first place. (25:31-40) (Or in Leviticus (Parshat Emor: 24:1), where the mitzvah is focused on the menorah….)
Obviously, there is more to this mitzvah than meets the eye.
Incidentally, this week’s portion ends with the mitzvah to build an altar (a Mizbe’ach) for the incense, (the Ketoret; see 30:1-7) and again, the Ramban points out that this mitzvah could have, and indeed should have been given in last week’s portion with the commandments to build all the vessels of the temple (including the altar of copper, see 27:1-19).
And once again, the mitzvah of the Ketoret (incense) is not given as a command to offer incense, but rather seems to begin with the building of the altar for the incense. And the ketoret as well is described as being Tamid. (30:8)
There is clearly an important connection between the offering of the Ketoret and the lighting of the Menorah, both because one begins our portion and the other concludes it, as well as because the offering of the incense is described as being offered:
“When he (Aaron) cleans the wicks of the candles, every morning, and again when the candles are prepared in the afternoon.” (30:7-8)
What, then, is the connection between the candles (and oil) at the beginning of the portion, and the incense, which is offered in the morning and the afternoon, at the end of the portion?
Another puzzling aspect of this particular mitzvah is the manner in which we receive it. G-d tells Moshe: “Ve’Atah Te’tzaveh….” “And you shall command….”
Since when does Moshe command? And why is there even a need to command? In last week’s portion (Terumah) Moshe is simply told to speak with the Jewish people, and they will volunteer on their own. Why here do we need a command? And if already someone is ‘commanding’, one would at least have expected the commander to be G-d! Why is Moshe the commander here?
For that matter, why do we bring the oil to Moshe? Why not to G-d? (Especially as it is Aaron who does the lighting, so why not bring the oil to him?)
Indeed, it may well be that a deeper understanding of this mitzvah, as well as an approach to resolving all of these questions, depends on understanding the roles of Moshe and Aaron in this particular Mitzvah.
In regards to Moshe, there is something very unique, as well as highly unusual, in this week’s portion. In all of the Torah, this is the only portion (since his birth in the portion of Exodus) where Moshe’s name does not appear.
The Midrash suggests that in the sin of the Golden calf (32:33), Moshe says to G-d: “Me’cheini Na’ Mi’Sifrechah”, “Erase me from your book”. In other words, if I cannot achieve forgiveness for the Jewish people, then I don’t want to be in the Torah. And, despite the fact that Hashem does indeed forgive us, nonetheless part of Moshe’s declaration came to pass, and thus, in this week’s portion, Moshe’s name is, indeed, not mentioned.
This leaves us wondering why that has to occur in this week’s portion, and what Moshe was really suggesting in the first place.
Even more intriguing is the fact that the Pri Tzaddik explains that Moshe’s soul was actually the re-incarnation of Noach, and that the word “Mecheini” (“erase me”) are the same letters as the phrase “Mei Noach” “the floodwaters of Noach” , which is how the book of Chronicles refers to the flood, implying that on some level the tragedy of the flood was Noach’s responsibility. Unlike Abraham’s attempt to save Sedom, Noach seems to have made no effort to save the world and avert the destruction of the flood.
Moshe, however, averts the tragedy of the destruction of the Jewish people literally putting his own name on the line rather than ‘allow’ G-d to destroy His people. On a mystical level, if you will, Moshe ‘fixes’ the error that came into the world in the time of Noach and achieves what is known as ‘Tikkun’ or a ‘repair in the world’ for Noach’s soul.
So what doe all this have to do with our portion and the mitzvah of the menorah?
The past Lubavitcher Rebbe (ztz”l), points out in his Likutei Sichot that, in truth, Moshe is mentioned in this week’s portion, though not by name. The entire portion begins with the word “Ve’Atah” “And you” which clearly refers to Moshe. In fact, this reference to Moshe is of a much higher level than his name. Because a name, though certainly connected on a very deep level to who a person really is, nonetheless merely designates who a person is for everyone else. The person him or herself however, does not actually need their own name, because they are in touch with themselves on a much deeper level.
“Ve’Atah” refers to the essence of who Moshe really is, which is beyond his name. Before we are named we have already come into the world, and we certainly exist; “Ve’Atah” then, refers to the essence of whom we really are.
Moshe’s greatest attribute was his ability to recognize that he was really only a vessel for something much greater than himself. The Torah describes Moshe as the greatest Anav, the most humble person that ever lived. More than anything else Moshe was able to get out of his own way.
How often do we get so wrapped up in ourselves, and so caught up in making sure we get what we want, and what we need, that we forget that it isn’t and never was supposed to be about us; we are merely the vessel for something much greater, for the entire world. And this is the “Katit” the crushing (really pressing) of the olive to release the pure oil within…
There is a beautiful prayer we say three times a day at the end of the Shemoneh Esrei prayer:
“Ve’nafshi Ke’Afar Lakol Te’hiyeh” “And let my soul (life) be as earth to everyone.” (Berachot 17a )
Can I be the earth others walk on? Can I get in touch with the very real notion that I am meant to be a vehicle for light? Being a vehicle for G-d, being able to see myself merely as the wick for the flame….
Moshe was so in touch with the reality of what he was a vessel for that he was able to demonstrate that without the Jewish people, there was no longer a point to his existence.
In a time when rulers and monarchs were acting as gods, and assuming that the people existed to serve them, Moshe was teaching the world that it is not the people who serve the leader, but the leader who is meant to be a vessel to serve the people, and indeed the world.
The word “Ve’Atah” then, refers to a person’s soul which is beyond his name. A soul has, and indeed needs no name; if a name describes a person, the soul is really beyond description. Most of all, getting in touch with your soul is about connecting with why you are really here in this world; Moshe understood his purpose; he understood that he was meant to be the instrument for bringing the Torah down to earth, and giving it to the Jewish people. Thus, without the Jewish people, Moshe had no purpose.
And that is what this week’s portion, and particularly this mitzvah is all about. It is about connecting to real purpose, and valuing the vehicle for achieving that purpose.
Just like Moshe, the Menorah was only the vehicle for bringing light into the world. So often we are so dazzled by the Menorahs in this world, we forget they only have value if they are vehicles for light. Which is why the menorah itself is not mentioned this week; so we can focus a little bit on the light. Our mission as a people in the end is simply to bring light into the world.
And indeed, both the light of the menorah as well as the fragrance of the incense on the altar represent objects that are here, but are not completely tangible. You can see light, but you can’t really touch it or hold it, it transcends the physical, and thus it and what it represents can never be destroyed. And you can smell the incense but you can’t quite capture it, must like the essence of who we are, and the light each of us is meant to bring into the world, which we can connect to, but cannot really capture.
And when you light the menorah, and bring the flame into the world, you are achieving the essence of what the Mishkan is all about: to bring G-d’s presence into the world.
Just as the soul, which is beyond the name, needs the body to have an impact here on earth, we need the menorah and the wicks to light up the world.
This is the essence of “Ve’Asu li Mikdash Ve’Shachanti Be’Tocham.”
The purpose of the entire temple was to create a space for G-d in our lives, and this is true for ourselves as well. This is why a human being is termed a “Mikdash Me’at”, a small sanctuary.
And this mitzvah, the challenge of becoming a vehicle, each and every one of us, for bringing light into this world, is “Tamid”, because long after the Temple is destroyed and we lose the Menorah, we will still have the light it was meant to give us. The challenge is to remember the purpose of it all, the light itself, and not lose focus amidst the dazzle of the menorah.
However, bringing true light into the world, and being a vehicle for disseminating such light, is hard work. And, as with all things in this world, it has its ups and downs. To assume that a person can maintain this level, and be a constant light is not of this world, and such an elevated goal is doomed to failure.
This “Tamid” has its moments of morning and light, but it also has its points of evening and darkness, when things seem so challenging, and the light seems so far away. Hence “Me’Erev Ad Boker”- even when it seems so dark, one has to remember that morning always comes. Perhaps it is this attitude, this desire to even be a vehicle for light, that is the true fulfillment of “Tamid”, because even in the midst of life’s struggles, as long as a person constantly strives to achieve light, then in truth, the light which is deep inside himself is always there, even if it is not so readily apparent at the moment.
And the light of the menorah is the symbol of the Torah which, coming from Hashem, is the source of all of our light.
Essentially Torah, and all it represents, is not meant to be an experience, or a ‘stage’ of life. It is meant to be the essence of who we are. And if Torah isn’t “Tamid” (constant and ever-present), then what’s the point?
Maybe that’s why that moment with Rav Amital (shli”ta) was so powerful, because a real Rosh Yeshiva is meant to be a living Torah scroll, and not just when he is lecturing the entire Yeshiva, but equally when he is walking through the courtyard.
Lastly, it is worth noting the role of Aaron in this mitzvah. Aaron and his sons, the Kohanim (Priests) had the role of actually kindling the lights on the Menorah in the Temple (the Beit HaMikdash).
Yet, this mitzvah is given to Aaron and his sons before they are actually invested with the mantle of the Priesthood. (See 27:21, and 28:1)
Apparently, the mitzvah of lighting the menorah was given to Aaron irrespective of his position as a Kohen, a priest. In the end, the priesthood was Aaron’s role, but the lighting of the menorah reflected who Aaron really was, and what he was all about.
In fact, it explains why it is Aaron fulfilling this mitzvah, and not Moshe; why indeed, wasn’t it Moshe’s job to light the Menorah, especially as it was Moshe who brought the Torah to the world?
In fact, Moshe was meant to bring the Torah down to earth, but it was Aaron’s mission to spread it to the world. And the reason Aaron was such an appropriate vehicle for doing this was because the attribute that epitomized Aaron was shalom; peace.
In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) Aaron is described as the Ohev Shalom and the Rodef Shalom: the lover and pursuer of peace.
The idea of being a vehicle for bringing G-d in to the world is all about peace.
In fact, the word Shalom itself is one of the names of G-d (hence the tradition that we do not say Shalom in the bathroom…). Through peace, Shalom, we succeed not only in bringing G-d into the world, but also in spreading G-d to the rest of the world.
There is an interesting connection between this mitzvah and the concept of Shalom.
The Talmud (Shabbat 21a) draws an equation between the kindling of lights in the Beit HaMikdash (the Temple), and the candles we light in our homes every Friday afternoon, ushering in Shabbat.
The Talmud explains (23b) that (at least according to Rashi), the essence of the Shabbat candles is that they bring Shalom Bayit; they bring peace into the home. Ultimately, suggests Rashi, there cannot be true peace in a place without light. The explanation given there is that if a person is stumbling in the darkness, he is not at peace. (And indeed, if people are moving around in the darkness, they will inevitably bang into each other and create discord between themselves.)
But perhaps there is a different way of looking at this idea. Ultimately, it is my ability to see and be at one with everyone, (Shalom which is based on the root Shalem, or whole) which is what peace is all about.
Shabbat begins with the lighting of candles, because Shabbat reminds us what this world is really all about, and what it is supposed to be: all about light. And if the Mikdash is a sanctuary in space, whose essence is related to light, Shabbat is a sanctuary in time whose essence is also light. (Thus, unless one specifies otherwise, the lighting of the candles automatically ushers in the Shabbat.)
The challenge for each of us is to find the “Atah” within, the essence of who we are, and the ultimate reason we are here, and bring it into the world.
This particular mitzvah is a Tzivuy, a command. The Midrash HaGadol suggests this is a Tzivuy le’Dorot: a mitzvah for eternity. Long after the destruction of the temple and the loss of the menorah, Jews are still fulfilling the mitzvah of an eternal flame in synagogues and study halls. Because this Mitzvah is the essence of the mission of the Jewish people forever: to be a light and illuminate the world.
May Hashem bless us soon, to become, as a people the vehicle for light we are meant to be, and create together a world of light and shalom, truly whole all of us together.
Rav Binny Freedman