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Torah Sparks

February 13, 2011 – 8 Adar I 5771

Annual: Ex. 27:20 – 30:10 (Etz Hayim, p. 503; Hertz p. 339)
Triennial: Ex. 27:20 – 28:30 (Etz Hayim p. 503; Hertz p. 339)
Haftarah: Ezekiel 43:10 – 27 (Etz Hayim, p. 520; Hertz p. 350)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
Baldwin, New York

Torah Portion Summary

Much of Parashat Tetzaveh is devoted to a description of the golden menorah that was placed in the sacred precincts and of the procedure for kindling its lights. It is a precursor to the ner tamid, the eternal light that is displayed and kept illumined over the arks in our own sanctuaries.

The priests, including Aaron, the first of their line, are outfitted with sacral vestments and equipped with a gem-encrusted breastplate and the oracular urim and tummim. It should be noted that the vestments form the basis for tachrichin – the traditional Jewish burial shrouds that we still use, and that signify the priestly stature and obligations of every Jew. The terminology used for the vestments also has been adopted for the appurtenances of the Torah Scroll: me'il, choshen, etc. The bells often attached to Torah crowns and the fringes on Torah mantles also find their origin and inspiration in the priestly vestments described in our chapter. The significance of the vestments (as, too, the significance of the vestigial representations of those vestments in Jewish religious life today) may be summarized by the inscription on the gold "tzitz" worn on the priest's headdress: "Holy to the Lord."

The priests' consecration and ordination is described in graphic and dramatic detail. An elaborate sacrificial offering is to mark the occasion, and the new priests undergo a ritual washing. The priests are anointed with oil, perhaps suggesting that they function, in part, in a manner analogous to the menorah described at the beginning of the parasha, as sources of beauty and inspiration, light and illumination. Sacrificial blood is dashed on the altar and placed on the priests' ears, thumbs, big toes, and vestments. The priests eat the flesh of the sacrificial ram, as well as the bread that accompanies the offering. The ordination rites are protracted, conducted over the course of seven days. An expiatory bull is sacrificed each day, and the altar undergoes a daily purification.

The daily sacrificial regimen is prescribed and God offers a consequent assurance that He will dwell among the Israelites. The parashah concludes with instructions about burning incense on the altar.

The message of Parashat Tetzaveh's ritual prescriptions and priestly vocations may be summarized effectively with the aphorism invoked by Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, a Roman Catholic theologian of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries: "Give light, and darkness will disappear of itself."

Theme #1: "Olive you, truly"

"You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly." (Exodus 27:20)

Derash: Study

"The Talmud went out of its way to stress that the light of the menorah was for the benefit of the priests and not God. That is why scripture states that the olive oil is intended for Moses and not for God ('to bring you clear oil' in 27:20, as compared with 25:2, 'You shall accept gifts for Me.') The pronoun in the second person singular makes explicit that God has no need for human light… In short, the true purpose of the menorah, according to the Talmud, was to offer testimony to all humanity that God's presence resided among the people of Israel." (Rabbi Ismar Schorsch)

"If you want to reprove a person – to 'beat him,' as it were, to make him feel crushed and contrite, you must do it not to humiliate him, but 'for the light' – in order to light his path and to show him the right way." (Rabbi Yechiel of Alexandria)

"If the light of the Torah is to burn continually, you must kindle it in such a manner that it should remain aglow forever, an eternal flame to brighten even the dark night of spiritual decline." (Quoted in Maayanah shel Torah)

"Light gives of itself freely, filling all available space. It does not seek anything in return; it asks not whether you are friend or foe. It gives of itself and is not thereby diminished." (Rabbi Michael Strassfeld)

"From within or from behind, a light shines through us upon things, and makes us aware that we are nothing, but the light is all." (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

"The hero is the one who kindles a great light in the world, who sets up blazing torches in the dark streets of life for men to see by. The saint is the man who walks through the dark paths of the world, himself a light." (Felix Adler)

Questions for Discussion:

There are many uses of light in Jewish ritual practice. What are they and what do they share? Taking Rabbi Strassfeld's observation as a starting point, what is the significance and symbolism inherent in the ritual use of light? What are your most reliable sources of illumination?

How does the use of the eternal light in the synagogue differ – physically, logistically, and symbolically – from its predecessor in the tabernacle? What qualities do the ancient and contemporary expressions of this ritual have in common?

Whose insight provides a more accurate or more compelling rationale of the ner tamid, Emerson or Adler?

Rabbi Yechiel finds moral and spiritual significance in the "beating" or "crushing" of the olives. Olives also are famously bitter. What meaning is to be found in deriving spiritual guidance and light from a bitter source?

Chancellor Schorsch emphasizes that the light of the Tabernacle's menorah is for human beings – for us, not for God. Of what other aspects of Jewish practice can the same be said? Why is it especially important to clarify this point in the current context?

Theme #2: "Mobile Home"

"I will abide among the Israelites, and I will be their God." (Exodus 29:45)

Derash: Study

"The text speaks of God dwelling not 'in it,' that is in the sanctuary, but 'among them,' that is, among the people of Israel. The sanctuary is not meant to be understood literally as God's abode, as are other such institutions in the pagan world. Rather, it functions to make perceptible and tangible the conception of God's immanence, that is, of the indwelling of the Divine Presence in the camp of Israel, to which the people may orient their hearts and minds." (Nahum Sarna, JPS Commentary)

"God reminds Israel that it is only through His glory, His free decision as deity to make His presence 'abide' – a nomad's term of temporary residence – in this place, that the altar becomes consecrated. Without this divine initiative, all the choreography of the cult is unavailing." (Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses)

"Make a sanctuary in the inner recesses of your heart, preparing yourself to be a dwelling place for God's presence." (Malbim)

"The desire for God's presence, the Torah teaches us, is not only legitimate, but echoes God's own 'wish' for humans He can love. This aspiration requires concreteness: in specific deeds, a real homeland and actual historical people. But the yearning for presence is also explosive, dangerous. Building sanctuaries in the throes of spiritual fervor can be morally obtuseand insensitive, even when exciting and apparently meaningful. God commands us to build a sanctuary – and understands that we need one, for otherwise we build golden calves. But there is a proviso: 'If you insist,' says the midrash, 'then I insist that you make it as I command you' – lest it become, through untempered enthusiasm or bottomless dread, idolatrous.'" (Michael Rosenak)

"Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself." (C.S. Lewis)

Questions for Discussion:

C.S. Lewis seems to expand quite beautifully on the insight offered by the Malbim. What guidance might we derive from Parashat Tetzaveh on making of ourselves a dwelling place for God? What are the limitations of this metaphor?

Professor Rosenak seems to teach that building a sanctuary – a synagogue – is actually a moral (or spiritual) compromise, as when God first granted humanity permission to consume meat or when our biblical forbears were allowed to name a mortal king. What are the dangers inherent in building and maintaining a "House of God"?

Professor Sarna insists that the tabernacle and its creature comforts (a home, furnishings, warm bread, the pleasant music of bells) already were understood as purely symbolic or iconic by our Israelite forbears. This was advanced religious thinking for the time. Does a symbol lose potency once it is recognized as being a symbol? Is there not a danger that an outmoded symbol might lead a less-thangifted spiritual thinker to regress to a earlier, less refined and less sophisticated understanding of God or religious life? How do we counter such a possibility? What physical, ritual, or linguistic symbols have become transparently symbolic to us today? How do we manage to re-invest them with meaning and spiritual power?

How do we understand Professor Alter's comment about the need for "divine initiative" in making the shrine and its cult efficacious as applicable to our own religious lives and congregational efforts? In what experiences do we sense that initiative at work? What steps can be taken to make God's reciprocal role in our religious lives more likely or to make ourselves more deserving of such a blessing?

Historic Note

Parashat Tetzaveh, with its description of the eternal light and the activities within the tabernacle, is read on February 12, 2011. On February 12, 1915, the cornerstone was laid for the Lincoln Memorial, which would carry the inscription: "In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever." Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809.

Halachah L'Maaseh

The kindling of Chanukah lights, in the synagogue, at home, and – in recent years with increasing popularity – in public spaces may be fulfilled in a number of ways. If oil is used, olive oil (like the oil burned in the tabernacle and later in the Temple) is preferred (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 673:1). According to Rabbi Isaac Klein, if candles are used, wax candles are preferred. Rabbi Klein summarizes the "weight of rabbinic opinion" as discouraging the use of electric lights to fulfill this mitzvah, adding: "it should be noted that the use of candles or oil has great esthetic appeal and more sentimental meaning."

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