Parashat Tetzaveh continues the previous Torah portion, Teruma, and adds instructions for the construction of the Mishkan (tabernacle) – the temporary temple that accompanied the Israelites on their journey through the desert. The instructions in this parasha focus on the priestly garments of Aaron, the priest, and his sons and their preparation for work in the Mishkan that was to be built. As part of these preparations, God instructed Moses to prepare olive oil for lighting the menorah in the Mishkan, the lighting of which Aaron and his sons would be entrusted with.
This issue of lighting the candles in the Mishkan, and afterward in the Temple, aroused great attention among the sages of the Midrash. They delve into the reasons and purposes of lighting candles and subsequently the issue of light and lighting in general. So, for example, we have the following sentence:
“R. Meir declared that the Holy One, blessed be He, said: ‘The lamps that Aaron lights are more precious to Me than the luminaries that I placed in heaven’” (Midrash Tanhuma for Parashat Tetzaveh).
“R. Meir declared that the Holy One, blessed be He, said: ‘The lamps that Aaron lights are more precious to Me than the luminaries that I placed in heaven’”Midrash Tanhuma for Parashat Tetzaveh
The Midrash compares the natural lighting of the sun by day and the moon by night with the lighting in which Aaron illuminates the Mishkan and concludes that human lighting is more precious to God than the heavenly bodies that illuminate without human intervention.
And to other types of lighting:
R. Simeon, the son of Lakish, declared: “Saul was worthy of kingship because his grandfather lit lamps in dark alleys for the sake of the public…because he lit lamps in dark alleys for the public good, he was also called Ner (light).” The Holy One, blessed be He, declared: “In this world you require a light, but in the future, Nations shall walk at thy light, and kings at the brightness of thy horizon” (Isa: 60:3).
Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish deals with the lighting that a person lights up for other people in dark places and relates about the grandfather of King Saul who was called Ner after his good deeds, who would light up dark alleys so that those passing through them would not be harmed as they walked. As a reward for this, his grandson Saul became the first king of the Jewish nation.
Later, the rabbi goes from a literal use of the term “candle” to a metaphorical use: “The people of Israel will enlighten all of humanity on its path. Here we are not talking about actual lighting but about metaphorical light. The spiritual and moral light of Jewish tradition will affect all of humanity and save it from falls and damage found in spiritual and moral darkness.”
The metaphorical meaning of candles and the question of evil
IF WE examine the connection between the two passages in the Midrash, we will understand a thing or two about the divine expectation of man and the “question of evil” that has pervaded the world since time immemorial. Why is there evil in the world? Of course, there is suffering that we cannot understand, like natural disasters. But much of evil is not about nature but about man. Why is there evil in man? Why does man sometimes cause suffering for others? Why wasn’t man created as good as we would expect?
The words of the Midrash, “The Holy One said, ‘The lamps that Aaron lights are more precious to Me than the luminaries that I placed in heaven’” direct us to the answer: God expects man to make himself better, to illuminate for others the dark alleys of life, to spread light to all of humanity. This is the role of the Jewish nation that has not yet been fully realized – to be the lantern of humanity.
This principle also leads us to Parashat Zachor, which we will add this Shabbat to the weekly Torah portion. The Torah instructs us to wipe out the memory of Amalek, an ancient tribe that was steeped in evil. Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik explained that although the Amalekite people no longer exist, the idea of Amalek is expressed in the sustenance of evil, since the path of Amalek still exists – tyrants and terrorists still impose their wrath on humanity.
The mitzvah of erasing Amalek imposes on us a task for which we are required to read once a year “Remember what Amalek did to you”– combating evil. Spreading good involves combating evil. In doing so, we join in the realization of the destiny of the Jewish nation to spread light and expel darkness.■
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and the Holy Sites.