By: Rabbi Shelly Donnell & Esther Edelsburg
Congregation Kol Haneshama, Jerusalem
The parasha continues the description of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and its contents, plus the priestly vestments and the ordination of Aaron and his sons for the service in the sanctuary, “Have Aaron your brother brought to you from among the Israelites, along with his sons Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, so they may serve Me as priests. Make sacred garments for your brother Aaron to give him dignity and honor” (Ex. 28:1-2). Even before this, notably even before the ordination of Aaron and his sons, the parasha opens with a command to all of the people, “You shall command the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for the light so that the lamps may be kept burning. In the tent of meeting, outside the curtain that shields the ark of the covenant law, Aaron and his sons are to keep the lamps burning before ADONAI from evening till morning. This is to be a lasting ordinance among the Israelites for the generations to come” (Ex. 27:20-21). These verses give rise to several questions, the first of which is: why does the text say “command” and not “speak to” or “say to” (which are more common expressions in the Torah)? According to the midrash (Sifre, Naso), “The imperative suggests at the moment of the action itself and into the future.” This was also the interpretation of the Rashbam (Rabbi Samuel ben Meir, Troyes, France 1085-1158 C.E.) who compared our verse here with the opening verse of the previous parasha, Terumah, “Speak to the Israelites and take for Me an offering…” This was for that time only and for the immediate purpose of building the Mishkan. However, here we have the imperative directed to every generation, to bring oil for the lighting year in and year out, and so the text states, “You shall command…” Accordingly, every use of the imperative form of “command” implies that it is for generations to come.
The next question that arises is whether the commandment to light an eternal lamp is only intended to illuminate the Mishkan, or to add to its “honor and glory,” or, does the light have an entirely different connotation?
Nechama Leibowitz (Jerusalem, 1905-1997) in her commentary to the parasha argues that the mitzvah to light the eternal lamp (and specifically with pure, beaten oil) has many meanings. The light that shown from the eternal lamp before the curtain, outside the Tent of Meeting, was not intended for God’s benefit, because God was not the “receiver” of the light nor, in fact, did God “need” it for God is the Giver of Light to the world. In the midrash (Shemot Rabbah 31:6) light is the symbol of knowledge and Torah, “See how the words of Torah enlighten a person when he is occupied with them, and anyone who is not so occupied and does not know better falls into sin. It is like someone who is standing in deep darkness and proceeds to walk, only to bump into a rock and fall over it, then walk into a gutter and falls into it…all because he had no lamp. Just so with someone who is ignorant of Torah – when they bump into sin, they fall right into it. And what is the lamp? Simply, it is a mitzvah. For anyone who performs a mitzvah is accorded as if having kindled a lamp before the Holy Blessed One, and has restored his soul. As it is stated in scripture (Prov. 20:27), “The lamp of ADONAI is the life-breath of the human being.”
The last question is the placement of this commandment before the ordination of the priests and their charge to serve in the Mishkan (in Leviticus 24:4 our verse is repeated, however it appears in the middle of the description of the service in the Mishkan in its more logical position). According to Nechama Leibowitz, the Mishkan is like a mirror image of the Creation itself. All the images are linked together – the primordial light of Creation is linked to the light of the eternal lamp, the light is the symbol of Torah, the mitzvah – a lamp.
The light as a symbol of Torah, teaches us that the commandment here is to fill the Mishkan with the light of Torah – and this task is not the priests’ alone rather, it is one that is incumbent upon the entire people, at the moment of building the Mishkan and throughout the generations.
- Is the Torah for us a light that illuminates our lives? How does direct the way for us?
- What about the eternal lamp in the synagogue – does it have any special significance for us?
- How do you interpret the verse from Proverbs, “The lamp of ADONAI is the life-breath of the human being” or “The human soul is the lamp of ADONAI”?