Sunday, February 10, 2019

Tetzaveh (I Will Be Light)

You shall further command the Israelites to bring you pure oil of beaten olives for the light, so that a lamp may be set up to burn regularly. In the tent of meeting, outside the curtain that is before the covenant, Aaron and his sons shall tend it from evening to morning before the Eternal. It shall be a perpetual ordinance to be observed throughout their generations by the Israelites. (Exodus 27:20-21)

I will be light
One tiny moment in time
For life to shine, to shine
Burn away the darkness, you got
One tiny moment in time
For life to shine, to shine
                        (Matisyahu, “I Will Be Light”)

In this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, the Israelites are commanded to bring pure olive oil for the lighting of the ner tamid—the constant flame—which every synagogue still symbolically honors with its own eternal light.

For our Sages, this passage raised an obvious question: Why would God—who began the work of creation by forming light with a single command—need us to illuminate the sacred sanctuary?  As Midrash Exodus Rabbah notes: Surely the Source of all light does not need us to kindle it.

This light is not for God.  It is for us.  The light in the mishkan—and in our own synagogues—is a reminder of our obligation to illuminate the world with learning, with prayer and meditation, and with acts of justice and compassion.   Kindling light is, at heart, the primary obligation of every Jewish community.  As Aharon Ya’akov Greenburg noted in his commentary, Itturei Torah, “Each of us is obligated to light the ner tamid in our own heart.

The much-acclaimed Jewish artist Matisyahu echoes this sentiment in his song, “I Will Be Light.”  His words are a kind of prayer, toward which we all aspire. He begins in the darkness that our tradition associates with Egyptian bondage—but which speaks to the narrow places in which we all, too often, find ourselves:

Sit back, in these days
Remember my ways
Oh, will I ever get out of my cage?
Yes, I am a slave
Searching for some freedom. . .
Who am I?
Where am I?
What is this place?
We're just spinning in space

Then he realizes that we are both infinitely small and extraordinarily significant.  We are powerful, because we are part of something greater than ourselves:

Time will continue without you
So in the end
It's not about you
But what did you do?
Who do you love besides you?
Beside you, many died in the name of vanity
Many die, in their mind's eye, for justice
We die for you
And still do, so I say to you
This is nothing new

With this in mind, he,like Itturei Torah, calls us to be sources of illumination:

I will be light, oh mama
I will be light
I will be light, hey mama
I will be light
One tiny moment in time
For life to shine, to shine
Burn away the darkness, you got
One tiny moment in time
For life to shine, to shine

We are, in many ways, living in dark days.  We can sit around and lament this reality—or we can do our part to change it, to cast our light into the darkness.

Light, says the Holy One, is sown for the righteous. 

Now is our time to shine.

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