Helping parents, teachers, and students of many faiths pursue Biblical wisdom.

Title: Lighting Up The World

Major Focus: Light

Minor Focus: Menorah

Abstract: The Torah and sacred writings are filled with metaphors on the concept of light. A woman's perspective on Parasha Tetzaveh is presented. A number of very beautiful metaphors on light are given last.

Format: Sermon

Joseph, rule as Viceroy

D'var Torah for Parshat Tetzaveh
by Marsha Hurwitz

"You shall instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly. Aaron and his sons shall set them up in the Sanctuary, outside the curtain which is over the Ark of the Covenant, to burn continually ("tamid") from evening to morning before God. It shall be a due from the Israelites for all time, throughout the ages."

Exodus 27:20-21

The Parshat for this week is Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20 to 30:10). According to the traditional chronology, the narrative of the exodus from Egypt spans 129 years, from the death of Joseph (2320) to the erection of the Tabernacle in the second year after the exodus from Egypt (2449). The Book of Genesis describes the lives of our ancestors, the patriarchs, the matriarchs, and their families. Exodus records Israel's enslavement in Egypt, the beginnings of the people as a nation, the institution of the Passover, the Covenant at Mount Sinai, and the organization of public worship that was to make Israel into "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." Nearly all the foundations on which Jewish life is built -- the Ten Commandments, the historic festivals, the leading principles of civil law -- are contained in the Book of Exodus.

After God found that humanity, given moral and intellectual freedom, had committed falsehoods, murder, and other crimes, God felt a need to choose a specific people and give them a code of Divine laws, to instruct and inspire them as a people, for all generations thereafter. Israel was that people. In Tetzaveh, God is preparing the people of Israel to serve in a very sacred context. The Parsha begins with the instructions for the kindling of the lamp in the Sanctuary. Aaron and his family are introduced as priests. The priestly garments, and especially those of the High Priest, are described in great detail, including the breastplate, ephod, robe, tunic, headdress, and sash.

Following the prescription of the priestly garments, the Parsha explains the ceremonies for their use in the sacred office. There is a detailed instruction for the sacrifice of a bull, a ram, and the sprinkling of blood against the Altar. Special offerings called wave, heave, and sin offerings are also described. In reading these ancient rules, it is well to keep in mind the purpose and meaning of sacrifice to Biblical people, as well as their strong feeling that blood was the very seat and essence of life.

In order to understand the significance and purpose of the Sanctuary, we must understand the historical context. After the Children of Israel had witnessed the Revelation of God on Mount Sinai, and while they were encamped in that holy place, they were always conscious of God's nearness. Once the tangible Presence of God left them, however, they built the Golden Calf. The feeling of sanctity and God's omnipotence, power, and moral teachings were forgotten when there was no tangible symbol of God's Presence among them. After the Golden Calf episode, the Sanctuary was commanded by God, to represent the Holy Presence. Israel, dwelling in tribal order at every place of encampment, was able to see from every side, the Sanctuary standing in the midst of their camp. God said, "Let them make Me a Sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst."

Not without reason, the plan for the construction of the Sanctuary and the priestly garments came after the Covenant of Sinai. Influenced by Eastern religions, it was demanded that the deity of god be enthroned in its own house. To Franz Rosenzweig, the building of the Sanctuary was, in fact, the high point for Israel. Israel in slavery made buildings for the Pharoahs. Now they were privileged to build their own Sanctuary for God and the nation. Parshat Tetzaveh starts by saying, "You must command the Israelites to bring you clear illuminating oil, made from hand-crushed olives, to keep the lamp burning constantly."

The order for lighting the lamp immediately followed the order for the building of the Sanctuary. The lamp even preceded the instructions for the priestly garments. The great Menorah stood outside the cloth partition that divided the Sanctuary and the Holy of Holies, where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. God commanded the Israelites to make the Menorah because from its light would emanate the light of the future world. God said, "Darkness will cover the earth, and gloom will encompass the nations, but I will shine on you and the Divine Glory will be visible upon you."

God commanded that the Menorah stand outside the Holy of Holies, to demonstrate that God does not need our light. God is the Source of all light in the world. The Torah specifies that only Aaron and his descendants, the priests, were to be involved with the Menorah, setting it up and lighting it. The Menorah was to burn from evening until morning. This means that enough pure olive oil was to be placed in each of the seven lamps so they would burn all night, both weekdays and Sabbaths.

The western-most lamp, which was closest to the Holy of Holies, had to burn continuously, day and night. The western lamp was meant to be the "eternal lamp," the Ner Tamid. The Torah states that this was to be an eternal law for the Israelites. When the Great Temple was built in Jerusalem, the commandment to light the Menorah was still in force. Even now that the Temple no longer stands, we are obligated to set a Ner Tamid above the Ark in our synagogues.

In the days of the Sanctuary, the lighting of the Menorah took precedence over all other duties. In trying to understand why the Menorah took precedence over all other duties, the Rabbis equated light with mental clarity and Torah enlightenment. This was the essential mission of the priest, to educate the people. However, the education of the people was not left just to the priests, it was also the responsibility of the entire community. The Menorah represented the spirit of the whole nation. So it is for us. Whether it is a Sisterhood Sabbath, or a Bat Torah program, we all need to both learn and to educate. We can all be both teachers and students of the Torah.

Our Torah is filled with metaphors on the concept of light. Light, having a luminescent quality, is used many times to explain experiences in our own lives. We are taught that the words of the Torah give forth light to a person who studies them. A person who does not occupy themselves with Torah does not know light and stumbles. A person who stands in a dark place stumbles when they try to walk. They fall against a stone. They fall into the gutter. They knock their face on the ground because they have no lamp in their hand.

"Why is the commandment a lamp? Because if one does a commandment, it is as if one kindled a light before God, as if one revived one's own soul."


"Your word is lamp onto my feet, a light for my path."

Psalms 119:105

"The light of a candle is serviceable only when it precedes a person. It is useless if it trails behind. A light for one is a light for a hundred."

Shabbat 122a

"The lamp of God is the Torah, for the commandment is a lamp and the Teaching is a light."

Proverbs 6:23

"O God, Thou art very great;

Thou art clothed with glory and majesty.

Thou coverest Thyself with light as with a garment,

Thou stretchest out the heavens like a curtain.

Thou makest the clouds Thy chariot,

Thou walkest on the wings of the wind and

Thou makest the wind Thy messenger."