Iyunim - Weekly insights on the Parasha with commentaries by Nehama Leibovitz, za"l

Keep the Lamp Burning

The Torah has hitherto concentrated exclusively on the commandments relating to the construction and lay-out of the Tabernacle, the manufacture of its chief articles of furniture: Ark, Table, Menorah and Altar. Our Sidra, in contrast, opens with a commandment relating to the daily functioning of the Tabernacle as a place of worship:

Thou thyself command the children of Israel to bring thee Pure oil of pounded olives for lighting to cause the lamp to burn continually. (27, 20)

Three aspects of the text have puzzled and preoccupied our commentators: the wording, the context and the message. The command phrase deviates in a number of ways from the pattern used in parallel contexts in the Torah. The previous Sidra too - Terumah - opens with a command to raise contributions from the children of Israel towards the building of the Tabernacle and its service. Let us compare the wording:

Speak to the children of Israel to bring... (25, 2) Thou thyself command the children of Israel to bring... (27, 20)

Our sages pointed out the semantic implications of the fact that some precepts were introduced by a "command" rather than "speakquot; word:

A command implies now and for all times. (Sifrei: Naso, beginning)

Two further connotations are added to quot;commandquot;:

R. Judah b. Batira: "Command" invariably implies extra enthusiasm as it is stated (Deut. 3, 28): "Command"; Joshua, strengthen and fortify him". R. Shimon b. Yohai stated: "Command" invariably occurs in the context of monetary loss, as it is stated (Lae. 24, 2): "Command the children of Israel to bring thee pure oil...".

Commentators to the Sifrei including Ramban (on Lev. 6, 2) have pointed out that R. Judah b. Batira and R. Shimon b. Yohai complement rather than take issue with one another.

Malbim who dwells at length on the different connotations of apparently synonymous words carefully distinguished between 'emor' and 'zav', quot;sayquot; and quot;commandquot; respectively (see Lev. 6, 8). He concludes that this distinction holds good in the narrative portions of the Torah. But where specific laws are introduced as commands it does not matter whether the expression of command is followed by the Hebrew imperative 'emor' or 'dabber' + [to the children of Israel]. In both cases, these two verbs will share the connotations of quot;commandquot; (zav) and imply (1) enthusiasm, (2) now, and (3) for all time. Malbim points out that the phrase quot;throughout your generationsquot; is added in the context of the lighting of the lamps because the reader might well have thought that this ordinance only applied to that particular generation.

The literalists have taken the same view, as for example Rashbam:

Above we find: "Speak to the children of Israel to bring Me an offering" implying only on that one occasion for the Tabernacle. But here this command is for all time, to provide oil for lighting, year in , year out. That is why the text employs the phraseology: "Thou thyself command" since every expression of "command" implies "for all time". Similarly all other expressions of command found in the Torah imply now and for all time.

What Moses was called upon to do, at the beginning of our Sidra is thus substantially different from all other things he was asked to perform in the context of the Tabernacle. Midrash Ha-gadol indeed illustrates how, unlike all the other commandments associated with the Tabernacle which became obsolete with the destruction of the Tabernacle, this particular one remained intact during the period of exile;

"Thou thyself Command". Why the expression of "command" rather than "say" or "speak"?-- to imply: enthusiasm, now and for all time...Though the Temple was destroyed and the lamps became obsolete we have the synagogues and houses of study, our "miniature temples" in which we perpetuate the kindling of the lights.

But we have not yet exhausted our study of all linguistic anomalies of our text. The very combination of: "Thou-thyself shalt command" is puzzling. It is unusual in Biblical Hebrew for the pronominal to precede the verb unless some special emphasis is intended.

This unusual Hebrew word sequence occurs three times in the sidra;

Thou-thyself command the children of Israel to bring thee (27, 20)
Thou-thyself bring Aaron thy brother near thee (28, 1)
Thou-thyself speak to all the wise hearted (28, 3)

Rambam dwells on the anomalous wording only in our context where he observes that it was meant to emphasise that Moses was to personally command them to bring the oil. But he offers no explanation why this precept was singled out for such personal command by Moses.

A comparison of parallel passages reveals a further anomaly in the wording:

An altar of earth thou shalt make unto Me (20, 24) (Rashi: from the very beginning its construction should be in My name).
Bring Me an offering (25, 2) Rashi: In My name).
Make Me a sanctuary (25, 8) (Rashi: Make in My name a holy house).

In contrast, the precept of kindling the lamp reads:

...bring unto thee pure olive oil (27, 2, also Leviticus 24, 2)

Our commentators tried to elucidate the primary meaning of "to thee" in various ways:

The phrase "unto thee" implies that they should bring it before him, for him to see whether it was pure and properly pounded. (Ramban)

Since Moses entered the sanctuary at all times, it is stated: "bring for thee", for your benefit to give you light when you enter, though, admittedly it is a precept binding on all generations. (Abarvanel)

Abarvanel, however, himself realised the objection to his explanation, to which he draws attention in his final observation. The precept was not in fact designed exclusively for Moses, but for all time.

Meshekh Hokhmah elaborates on the idea propounded by Abarvanel giving it greater depth:

Though our sages have observed (Vayikra Rabbah 1, 13) that Divine communion only took place with Moses in the daytime as indicated by the phrase (Ex. 6, 28): "On the day God spoke to Moses", nevertheless whilst the lamps were lit it was like the day even at night, and then He spoke to him. The text must be understood in the sense of "Take for thee" for thy benefit. A person's mind is only clear when it is light and we associate light with joy. Moses required the conditions appropriate for achieving Divine communion and these involved a mood of wellbeing and joy. But (unlike Moses) "it was an everlasting statute throughout your generations for the children of Israel" (Ex. 27, 21). For future generations it was "a statute" without reason, a decree of the Almighty.

The Midrash which Meshech Hokhma alludes to discusses the criteria distinguishing Hebrew prophecy from the Divine inspiration granted to the gentiles. The crystal clear "day-time" or Menorah -illuminated luminosity of the former is contrasted with the uncertain murkiness of the latter, which takes place in the obscure mistiness of the night. In this way Biblical prophecy is differentiated from mystic-religious ecstatic states. The clarity and luminosity of Revelation is thus alluded to in the Hebrew prepositional phrase: eilekha "for thee".

But there are other Midrashic commentators who do not stress the positive connotations of eilekha in the sense of "for your benefit". Rather they stress what it rejects-its negative implications. This reading illustrates their theological approach to all the acts of worship in the sanctuary, the sacrifices and sacred dues of all kinds:

"Take unto thee". Said R. Samuel Bar Nahmani: For "thee" and not for Me. I do not require any light. (Menahot 86b)

The Midrash elaborates on this idea. We cite here some examples of its approach:

Both R. Avina and Rabbi Berechiah gave two illustrations. R. Avina said: The sun is one of My ministers and when it shines, no creature can withstand its glare. Do I then need your light? Said R. Aha: "It pleases the Lord, for his righteousness' sake, to magnify the Torah and make it honourable" (Isaiah 42, 21). I came only to endow you (with many precepts, to give man the opportunity of gaining merit by observing them).R. Avina gave another illustration: The lightening is one of the products of ethereal fire, darting its flashes from one end of the world to the other.
Do I then need your light? Said R. Aha...(as above).
R. Berechiah said: the eyeball provides vision for man through its black part (the pupil) and not the white. Said the Holy one Blessed be He: I have created light even in the midst of darkness. Do I need your light? Said R. Aha...(as above). R. Berechiah gave another illustration: "and the earth was waste and void and darkness was upon the face of the deep" (Genesis 1, 2). What follows? "and God said, Let there be light". Said the Holy One Blessed be He: I have even created light in the midst of darkness. Do I then need your light? Said R. Aha...(as above).

Our sages thus illustrated the idea of God as the bountiful giver rather than receiver in various ways. The great chain of being ranging from magnificence and scale of the solar system to the delicate diminutiveness of such tiny mechanisms as the human eye insistently reminds us of His transcendence and the marvels of His creative powers. Man's own puny stature is shown in its true perspective.

The second question that preoccupied our classic commentators from the Midrash onwards was: What is the significance of the precept "to cause a lamp to burn continually"? We have already noted in the previous chapter that most of our commentators are not satisfied by the aesthetic-psychological approach epitomized by Rambam. They wanted to know what actual "message" is conveyed to us by the Menorah and its components. The text itself, as we have seen, does not allow us to regard it as a purely technical precept associated with the building and assembling of the Tabernacle. What then is the inner spiritual meaning of this everlasting light that is to burn "from evening to morning before the Lord?" Let us first compare two Midrashim which regard the lamp as a symbol of the guidance and education of the individual:

See how words of Torah give light to man when he is occupied with them. But whoever is not so occupied and is ignorant, he stumbles. It may be compared to one who is standing in the dark. He feels his way, comes up against a stone and stumbles thereon, comes up against a gutter, falls therein, his face striking the ground. Why? Because he went without a lamp. So it is with an ignorant man no words of Torah. He comes up a against a transgression and stumbles thereon. Regarding him the Holy Spirit cries: "He shall die of lack of instruction ". (Prov. 5, 23). Why does he die? Because he is ignorant of Torah and goes and sins, as it is stated (ibid. 4, 19): "The way of the wicked is in thick darkness and they know not on what they stumble". Whereas those who are occupied with Torah give light everywhere! This may be compared to one who is standing in the dark. He saw a stone and did not stumble, he saw a gutter and did not fall. Why? Because he had a lamp with him, as it is said (Ps. 119, 105): "Thy words are a lamp to my feet", and "Though thou runnest , thou shalt not stumble" (Prov. 4, 12). (Shemot Rabbah 36, 3)

What is the meaning of the text: "For the commandment is a lamp"? But whoever performs a commandment has kindled, as it were, a lamp before the Holy One Blessed be He and revives his soul, as it is stated (Prov. 20, 27): "The soul of man is the lamp of the Lord".

The first Midrash regards the lamp - which symbolises words of Torah - as showing man his way through life, saving him from obstacles or from falling. This approach is eminently pragmatic. Study of Torah makes one wise and thus prevents one falling into error. Woe betide the ignorant man, the layman who has not studied! How will he save himself from errors and, in particular, from their evil consequences? In contrast, the second Midrash does not regard the lamp as a symbol of the Torah studied but of the commandment performed. In spite of this, it is this Midrash which eschews the pragmatic approach, refusing to evaluate the commandment in terms of its practical benefits or its reward in terms of deliverance from obstacles and from falling. It refers instead to the spiritually refining process set in motion by the performance of a commandment. The soul of man is uplifted and "revived" thereby. But the kindling of the lamp is otherwise evaluated in the following Midrash:

What is the meaning of the text; "For the commandment is a lamp"? - Man's heart frequently prompts him to perform a good deed ("commandment"), but the evil inclination inside him says: "Why should you perform a good deed at the expense of your pocket? Before you give to others, give to your children (i.e. charity begins at home). But the good inclination says to him: Give for a worthy cause ("commandment"). See what is written! For the commandment (mitzvah: good deed, worthy cause) is a lamp". Just as the light of a lamp remains undimmed, though myriads of wicks and flames may be lit from it, so he who gives for a worthy cause does not make a hole in his own pocket. Wherefore it is written: "For a commandment is a lamp and Torah a light". (Shemot Rabbah, ibid.)

Here too the Midrash speaks of the individual and here too the kindling of the lamp is a symbol for the performance of a good deed. But the Midrash does not evaluate the lamp in terms of the spiritual, material, practical or moral benefit it brings the one who lights it. The Midrash sees rather the blessing that lamp brings to others, to those who kindle their lamp from it. In this manner, the light of a lamp differs from all other material benefits in the world which if man shares with his fellow, his portion decreases and his fellow's increases. The light of the lamp, on the other hand, supplies light to others without diminishing its own light in any way. The light of the lamp can thus serve as a symbol for wisdom and spiritual treasures. For this reason our sages compared Moses' bestowing of his spirit on the seventy elders, on the one hand to a lamp [Rashi, Num. 11, 17], but the transfer of leadership from Moses to Joshua, on the other, to the emptying of the contents of one vessel into another. What was added to the second denuded to the first. But here we are not talking of study or the imparting of knowledge but of the performance of a good deed. If a good deed has been performed-though it might have involved a loss of time and money-the doer has not really lost (the loss is merely superficial involving things whose diminution cannot be termed loss if we evaluate them in terms of Torah and good deeds). His neighbours and friends whether they benefit directly from the good deed or merely bask in its light-all of them light their lamp from his, effecting a general increase in light.

So far the individual and his lamp. But what constitutes the light and lamp of Israel as a whole? The ner tamid "everlasting lamp" in the Temple is a religious rite incumbent on the Jewish people as a whole. The priest who is commanded to arrange the lamp is the emissary of all Israel.

Said the Holy One Blessed be He to Moses: Say to the children of Israel: In this world you stood in need of the light of the Temple and other lamps are lit from its light . But in the world-to-come, in virtue of that lamp, I shall bring you the King Messiah who is likened to a lamp, as it is said (Ps. 132, 17): "there will I cause to flourish a horn for David, I will set a lamp for mine anointed". (Tanhuma Tezaveh 8)

The Midrash compares this world with the world-to-come. In both cases the lamp does not serve the needs of the Holy One Blessed be he but those of Israel. In our world of present reality we are captives of our five senses and riveted by our auditory and visual perceptions to concrete symbols, to a Temple, sacred appurtenances, the light of a lamp. But in the days of the Messiah there will be no further need of tangible symbols, a concrete outer garment, if God will help us to kindle in our souls the light of the Torah.

The idea underlying the Midrash is embodied by Jeremiah in speaking of another symbol, in speaking of the Ark and its role today and in time-to-come-"in those days".

And it shall come to pass, when you are multiplied ands increases in the land, in those days, saith the Lord, they shall say no more: The ark of the covenant of the Lord; neither shall it come to mind; neither shall they make mention of it; neither shall they miss it; neither shall it be made any more. At the time they shall call Jerusalem, the throne of the Lord...(Jer. 3, 16-17)

On the sentence: "they shall no more say: the ark..." Rashi comments:

Because their whole ingathering will be holy and I will dwell therein as if it was the ark.

Just as the first three Midrashim quoted evaluated the lamp in terms of the individual, first describing the benefits accruing to him and then the benefits to his fellow from one act of kindling, so the Midrash speaks of the value of the lamp to Israel alone and then concludes with the benefits accruing to the whole world from that same light:

Said the Holy One Blessed be He: In this world you need a lamp, but in time-to-come (Isaiah 60, 3): "and the nations shall walk by the light and kings by the brightness of thy rising". (Tanhuma, ibid.)

Now we come to our third question: the context of the precept.

Abarvanel asks why this command was inserted at this juncture. Surely, he argues, its proper place would have been after the Tabernacle's completion and the placing in position of the menorah and all the vessels. Aaron and his sons had not yet been consecrated for the priesthood. What point then was there, at this juncture, in briefing them on the kindling of the menorah - which forms an integral part of the service?

Evidently those who regard the kindling of the lamp as a purely technical device for lighting up the sanctuary will find no justification for placing this mizvah at this point. Here we are still preoccupied with the sanctuary's construction, rather than the rites and ceremonies associated with the Divine service, which are dealt with in Leviticus. Furthermore, if it is merely a technical point why mention it at all in the Torah? There is no mention of all the other purely technical chores associated with keeping the sanctuary clean and tidy. Lighting surely falls in the same category!

Our commentators account for its mention, at this juncture, by regarding it, not as just one more detail of the service in the sanctuary. They sought a spiritual motivation for its mention here, before the Tabernacle's completion. Light which constitutes the first of Divine creations ("let there be light") to which all living creatures are drawn, the opposite of which serves as a symbol of doom and destruction, forms a familiar motif in the Scriptures. The Torah is compared to light: "For the commandment is a lamp and the Torah a light" (Proverbs 6, 23) and Israel is destined to be the light of the world: "Nations shall walk by thy light" (Isaiah 60, 3). The Almighty too is the light of the individual person ("the Lord is thy light and salvation" Ps. 27, 1) and also the light of Israel: "arise my light, for thy cometh and the glory of the Lord doth shine upon thee", (Isaiah 60, 1). It is therefore not surprising to find that our commentators and ancient preachers regarded the commandment to kindle the menorah as symbolising the study of Torah, the observance of the commandment and Divine worship, as a whole. How apt is the symbolism of the fourteenth century philosopher-poet Yedaiah ben Abraham Bedersi in his didactic poem: Behint 'Olam:

The Torah and man combined comprise the Lamp of God on earth. The Torah is the flame issuing from the flash of Him that dwelleth in the heavens. Man, (comprising body and soul) is the torch that draws light from it. His back is the twining wick and his soul-the pure olive oil. Through their intertwining and fusion (torch and flame) the whole house becomes filled with light.

The function and purpose of this precept, the first to be performed in the Temple of the Lord was: "to fill the whole house with light".

Questions for Further Study:

1. Abarvanel asks:

Surely this chapter is repeated in emor (Leviticus 24, 1-4) which is indeed the proper context. Why was it inserted here out of context?

  1. Answer his question.
  2. In connection with your answer, explain the reason for the difference in wording between the two passages: "Thou-thyself command the children of Israel that they bring..." (Tezaveh0 and: "command the children of Israel, that they bring..." (Emor) .

2. Here we cite two approaches to this precept:

The Lord commanded us that a lamp should be alight in the Temple in order to enhance its glory in the eyes of the beholders; for this is the way that people enhance their own homes with illuminations. The idea underlying this is to indicate awe and humility. We have already said that inner character is formed by good actions. This is all based on our fundamental principle that the precepts that have been ordained by God are attuned to the capacities of those called upon to observe them. Admittedly, the mystics have discovered profound mysteries in theses matters, but we shall devote ourselves to their plain aspect. (Sefer Ha-hinukh)

The sanctuary embodied the idea of the all embracing unity of Israel. The Tabernacle and its service were in tended as an abode for the light of the Divine Presence. The commandment went forth therefore to the general body of the people to bring to Moses pure olive oil to purify their souls to be ready for the light. Then through the medium of Moses, who brought the Torah and the Divine light down to earth, he would kindle the lamp which embodied the soul of Israel, to cause an eternal light to ascend. This light came from the Torah which was placed in the Ark of the Covenant from which vicinity he would arrange the lamps before the Lord continually. (Malbim)

  1. Explain in your own words the italicised passages.
  2. What is the difference between the two approaches to the precept?

3. "To cause a lamp to burn (literally, to ascend) continually" (Exodus 27, 20) - that the flame should ascend of its own. (Sifra on Leviticus 24, 2)

This expression of ascending, describing the act of kindling a lamp is only employed in respect of the candelabrum in the Tabernacle. It alludes to the action of the priest in applying the flame to the wick, which is ready to be kindled continually "until the flame ascends of its own". The task of the teacher of Judaism is to make himself superfluous to his pupils. It is not his function to keep the people-the ordinary folk who receive instruction from him-continually dependent on him. (Hirsch)

  1. Explain what the menorah and the act of its kindling symbolised in Hirsch's view. Where can you find support for this symbolism in other parts of the Scripture?
  2. Where in the Torah can you learn that one of the functions of the priest was to teach the Torah?
  3. Whom is Hirsch criticising when he describes the true relationship that should exist between the priest and the ordinary people, his disciples?

4. To cause a lamp to burn continually (tamid).

Every night is called tamid, as the usage in Num. 28, 3: "a continual burnt-offering" ('olat tamid) which implies "daily". The word tamid is also used in connection with the meal-offering (Lev. 6, 13) which merely implies, half in the morning and half in the evening. But the word tamid used in connection with the show bread means from one Sabbath to the next. (Rashi)

Tamid means nightly. But there is a use of tamid more puzzling than this: "And it shall be on his forehead tamid" (28, 28). Whenever he donned the mitre, the holy diadem had always to be there. (Ibn Ezra)

  1. How do the two commentators explain the word tamid?
  2. What does Rashi mean by his qualification: "but the word tamid used in connection with the show bread..." What is the force of his "but" here?
  3. In what way does Ibn Ezra find the tamid of 28, 38 "more puzzling" than the tamid in our verse?




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06 Sep 2005 / 2 Elul 5765 0