Tetzaveh: A Kindle for the Soul

In this week’s portion, Tetzaveh, G-d continues instructions to Moses concerning construction of the Tabernacle. The portion begins at Exodus 27:20 with this sentence:

וְאַתָּה תְּצַוֶּה אֶת־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִקְחוּ אֵלֶיךָ שֶׁמֶן זַיִת זָךְ כָּתִית לַמָּאוֹר לְהַעֲלֹת נֵר תָּמִיד

The Jewish Publication Society translates this verse as: “You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly.”

It’s a practical translation, but to simply leave it at that risks completely missing what may be the more important meaning of the verse.  Let’s look at a few of the actual words.  

First, we know how to say “kindle” in Hebrew: להדליק L’hadlik.  We say this word every Friday night when referring to G-d’s commandment that we kindle the Shabbat lights.  But l’hadlik is not the word G-d used here.  So might  לַמָּאוֹר לְהַֽעֲלֹת  la’maor l’ha’alot mean something else?  

לַמָּאוֹר la’maor has something to do with “lighting,” “making light” or “for the light.”   Butלְהַֽעֲלֹת  l’ha’alot means “to raise” or “to elevate;” a form of the same root word as “Make aliyah.”   So, in commanding us to לַמָּאוֹר לְהַֽעֲלֹת, G-d may have intended something much more profound than simply kindling or lighting a lamp or candles.  We are supposed to “raise” something.  

Then there’s the word תְּצַוֶּה “you shall command.”  Our sages of the Talmud noted that G-d used this word תְּצַוֶּה to place special emphasis on a commandment, especially when dealing with spiritual rather than material or mundane matters.   So, here’s another clue that our first sentence is not just an “ordinary” commandment to do something pragmatic, like bringing oil for a lamp. 

And what about the oil?  The verse refers to oil “beaten” or, perhaps a better word would be “crushed.”  But this word seems entirely unnecessary; how else could the people make olive oil?  Indeed, in Israel you can still see ancient stone presses, the channels in the rock for the flowing oil, ending in collecting basins.  But according to Rabbi Akiva, there are no superfluous words in Torah.  Every word is necessary.  So, why the word “beaten” (or “crushed”) to refer to the oil?  Perhaps “beaten” or “crushed” has a different, spiritual nuance.    

Finally there are the words נֵר תָּמֽיד.  נֵר “Ner” is a lamp or, modernly, a candle.  But in Proverbs, we are told: נֵר יְהֹוָה נִשְׁמַת אָדָם “The human spirit or soul is G-d’s lamp/candle.”  And Proverbs further tells us:  נֵר מִצְוָה וְתוֹרָה אוֹר  “Commandments are lamps, and the Torah is light.” 

When these alternative, more spiritual meanings are taken together, what initially seems to be a straightforward physical command about oil and lamps gains a much deeper meaning.  G-d was commanding us to elevate our crushed souls. 

In Midrash, the rabbis discuss why G-d issued this commandment.  They imagine that, at Sinai, Moses asked G-d, “Why do you need us to light this light?”  G-d replied – “I have written that darkness was on the face of the deep,” and then I said “Let there be light” and there was light.  “If out of darkness I brought forth light, do I need your light?  I’m only telling you to kindle lamps in order to elevate you – “continually to elevate yourselves.”

Now we can understand the phraseַלַמָּאוֹר לְהַֽעֲלֹת  to mean Make light, in order to elevate.” 

Combining all of these ideas, I suggest a different reading of the first sentence of this week’s Torah portion.  I translate it as:  

You shall further instruct the Israelites that when their souls are beaten down, they are to come, in humility, to Torah, to uplift their spirits.   

How might we apply this understanding?  In our world, we are all “Jews by choice.”  Why choose to be a Jew?  There are many reasons, but this first sentence of our Torah portion, interpreted as described above, is an important example one of the most important and practical reasons to live life as a Jew.  Our ancient sages, and our contemporary scholars, have derived from Torah many effective psychological strategies, and proven practical steps, for coping with daily challenges and sometimes shattering occurrences.  We have these words from Torah, and we have thousands of years of experience applying them to the timeless issues and struggles of life.    

Rabbi Gunther Plaut, z”l notes that after the destruction of the Second Temple, this commandment began to be observed in synagogues, and eventually came to be observed symbolically by the Ner Tamid, “Eternal Light,” over the ark.   Each time we see a Ner Tamid, it can remind us that G-d’s Torah – our Torah -- is our priceless inheritance of proven inspiration and of consolation.  Of making light, and of lifting our souls.    

Shabbat shalom. 

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb