Tetzaveh 5784

Reading the stories in the second part of the Book of Exodus that discuss the construction of the tabernacle and the details of the clothing of the priests who served there, we feel the excitement of all the previous narratives fading away.  Gone is the excitement of the stories of creation, of our earliest ancestors who received the covenant to be a great nation in the promised land, of the redemption of our people from Egypt through the power of God’s mighty hand dispensing plagues and parting the sea, of the standing at Sinai as one people to hear the word of God.  Instead, the instructions for building the tabernacle and all its accoutrements would inspire architects and interior designers; those in this week’s portion detailing Aaron and the priests’ vestments every fashion designer.  What’s in it for the rest of us, especially given that most of these teachings no longer apply as there is no Temple, modelled after the tabernacle, no priests functionally serving any longer?

From all these teachings toward the end of the book of Exodus, one primary mitzvah still applies, found at the beginning of this week’s parasha: “You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, to cause a lamp to burn continually. This shall be an eternal law for the children of Israel throughout the generations.”  (Exodus 27:20-21).  There may be no tabernacle or Temple, no serving priests, yet the commandment still holds: to cause a lamp to burn continually. To this day, the “Ner Tamid”, or eternal light, hangs above the Ark in the synagogue or house of study. 

When we think of light, we recall the very opening verses of Torah: “When God began to create heaven and earth …God said, ‘let there be light’; and there was light.  God saw that the light was good…” (Genesis 1:1-4).  Light is the beginning of all, and light symbolises God’s presence and all that is good.  Similarly, the Ner Tamid, hanging in front of the Ark that houses our Torah scrolls, reminds us of God’s presence and life’s potential goodness.  From these scrolls should emanate that which is good and light; should we see dark teachings in Torah, we know we should reimagine them, in accordance with the teachings from Proverbs concerning the Torah: “its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.”  (Proverbs 3:17).

The commentary found in Etz Chayim on the Ner Tamid explains, “Why has light been such a favourite 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 the love and the goodness of our fellow human beings.”  More so, we can help others feel God’s presence when we act with love and goodness.

More than being reminded of the presence of God through the symbol of light of the Ner Tamid, we are called to ensure that the presence of light, love and goodness emanates from us.  The literal translation of the first verse of this parasha is that we are to take to ourselves the pure oil to cause the light to be raised up in that eternal light. As the midrash in Talmud Bavli Menuchot 86b: “’Take unto thee’: Said R. Samuel bar Nachmani: For ‘thee’ and not for Me. I do not require any light.”  God is the eternal light.  While the Ner Tamid reminds us of the infinite light of God, it is incumbent upon us made in the divine image to internalise that light and shine it upon our world.

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