Tetzaveh: the flames that ascend on their own

אַתָּה תְּצַוֶּה אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ אֵלֶיךָ שֶׁמֶן זַיִת זָךְ כָּתִית–לַמָּאוֹר:  לְהַעֲלֹת נֵר תָּמִיד

And you shall command the children of Israel, that they bring to you pure olive oil beaten for the light, to cause a lamp to burn continually. (Ex 27:20)

For those of us who enjoy parsing bible, this very first verse of the sidra gives us a rich seam of learning. God is instructing Moses on what will happen inside the Mishkan, the portable tabernacle used for worship in the wilderness years. The sidra gives us elaborately detailed instructions for the clothing of the priests, and about the ceremony of ordination in which they will be dedicated to the service of God. The purpose of the clothes and the rituals are made clear – it is to make the priests holy.

The holiness of biblical times was not the abstract quality we think of it today, it was for them an important state of being for those who were to approach God. Holiness could be acquired through ritual and clothing, washing and the abstention from some actions, people and places. Holiness was a quality which was necessary for those who wished to serve God in the rituals of worship, as it would somehow protect them from what was understood to be a potentially dangerous and certainly unknowable presence of God.

So we have verse after verse of what they wore and when and how they wore it, what they washed and what they daubed in blood; what they ate and when and in what condition, what they slaughtered and what they sprinkled, what they burned and what they waved.

Reading it one can easily fall into a modern-minded trap of wondering how on earth they could believe that this ritual of sacrifice and incense brought people closer to God – but I think the clue is in the very first line I quoted – this is not for God, it was never for God, this is for the people.

אַתָּה תְּצַוֶּה אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ אֵלֶיךָ שֶׁמֶן זַיִת זָךְ כָּתִית–לַמָּאוֹר:  לְהַעֲלֹת נֵר תָּמִיד

And you shall command the children of Israel, that they bring to you pure olive oil beaten for the light, to cause a lamp to burn continually. (Ex 27:20)

Rabbinic commentators noticed two surprising words in this verse.

The first being that the oil that is being brought to light the lamps in the Mishkan – and to symbolise the eternal relationship between God and people – is brought not for (or to) God but Alecha – for you. The midrash is clear (Lev Rabbah 31:8) when it tells us that God already has the sun as a servant, there is already fire in the world so God does not need the light that we have burning in the Mishkan. God does not need it, we do. Bringing the olive oil into the Mishkan is an action only for our benefit; it is a way to come closer to God, a way to create relationship with the Eternal. The Midrash tells us that God gives us the mitzvot as a way to let us have as many opportunities as possible to come closer to relationship with God, even in the smallest and insignificant actions of our lives – such as providing olive oil for a lamp.

There is a second curiosity in this verse. The verb used to describe kindling the light is not the normal one for lighting a flame – lehadlik – but instead the bible talks of le’ha’alot Ner Tamid – to cause to ascend a light continually.

In the Talmud are two ideas about this verb and what we can learn from it. Rabbi Samuel bar Isaac in the Jerusalem Talmud (Sukkah 29b) deduced that the unusual word לְהַעֲלֹת, le’ha’alot, literally “to cause to ascend,” meant that the wick had to allow the flame to ascend by itself. And thus the Rabbis concluded that no material other than flax — as in the fine linen of the High Priest’s clothing — would allow the flame to ascend by itself. Similarly, in the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 21a) Rami bar Hama deduced from the use of word לְהַעֲלֹת, le’ha’alot, that the flame had to ascend by itself, and not through other means (such as adjustment by the priests).

Taking these comments and in particular the idea that the flame should ascend on its own, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the famous nineteenth century founder of the school of “Torah im Derech Eretz” orthodoxy which negotiates the  relationship between traditionally observant Judaism and the modern world, wrote that “the description of the act of kindling a lamp by the term ‘ascending’ is peculiar to the service of the lamp in the sanctuary. It alludes to the action of the priest in applying the flame to the wick which is ready to be kindled until the flame ascends of its own”. The task of the teacher of Judaism is to make themselves superfluous to their pupils. It is not their function to keep the people – the ones who receive instruction from the teacher – continually dependent on them”

The statement is a beautiful distillation of what Jewish education – formal and informal – should be aiming for. That we want our children (and of course our adults) to be themselves ‘flames which ascend on their own’. The goal of Jewish community is that individually and collectively we gain the knowledge and the confidence and the inspiration to live active and thoughtful Jewish lives, that each of us is able to stand up and be a light in the world, living with Jewish values and ethics, striking out for righteousness.

There is an idiom in the English language – to pass the torch – and this is, to some extent what all of us in the Jewish world hope to be doing within our communities. However this sidra reminds us that we are not passing the torch on in order to relinquish our responsibilities, but rather that we nurture the flame of learning and identity of the next generation with our own learning and experience.

The image of Aaron each and every day nurturing a flame in order to have it stand upright and unaided, giving light through the darkness is an image that appeals to me and speaks to me of how we have kept our traditions and our teachings alive through the generations.

candles

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