The Kindling of the Menorah

  • Rav Zvi Shimon

 

INTRODUCTION TO PARASHAT HASHAVUA

 

 

PARASHAT TETZAVEH

 

The Kindling of the Menora

By Rav Zvi Shimon

 

 

            Last week's parasha, parashat Teruma, dealt with the commandments to build the Mishkan - the Tabernacle, and its vessels. This week's parasha, parashat Tetzaveh, focuses essentially on the making of the special attire worn by the kohanim in the during the Temple service. However, interestingly, the parasha actually begins with the commandment of kindling of the menora in the Mishkan:

 

"And you shall command the children of Israel to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for the light, to cause the lamp to burn always. Aaron and his sons shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting, outside the curtain which is before the Testimony, [to burn] from evening to morning before the Lord. It shall be a due from the Israelites for all time, throughout the ages" (27:20,21).

 

            The Abrabanel (Don Isaac Abrabanel, Spain, 1437-1508) and many of the other commentators query as to the placement of this commandment of the kindling of the menora:

 

"Why does the commandment to kindle the menora appear here? This commandment should have come only after the completion of the construction of the Mishkan and the consecration of the kohanim?"

 

            The Mishkan has not yet been built, the kohanim who are responsible for the kindling of the menora have not yet been consecrated and the menora itself has yet to be constructed. What is the logic in commanding if it is still impossible to perform the commandment? Furthermore, why doesn't the command to kindle the menora appear at the beginning of the book of Leviticus which deals with the different functions of the kohanim including the offering of the sacrifices?

 

            The Ibn Ezra (Rabbi Avraham ben Ezra, Spain, 1092-1167), in his long commentary to the book of Exodus (the Ibn Ezra wrote two commentaries on the book of Exodus, one long and one short), relates to the order of the latter half of the book of Exodus. He explains that the Torah first introduces the commandments relating to the Mishkan and its various components, and then continues with the commandments relating to the kohanim and their tasks in the Mishkan. The first priestly responsibility mentioned is the kindling of the menora. Following this, the Torah details the different attire of the kohanim. According to the Ibn Ezra, the kindling of the menora belongs to the second section, relating to the kohanim and their attire, and not to the preceding commandments relating to the construction of the Mishkan.

 

            This explanation, however, is problematic. Even if we are to accept that the commandment to kindle the menora belongs to the sections which deals with the kohanim and their attire, the Ibn Ezra does not explain why the commandment to kindle the lamp appears before the commandments relating to the making of the special clothing of the kohanim. The clothing of the kohanim is surely a prerequisite to the performance of their tasks in the Mishkan!

 

            The Chizkuni (Rabbi Chizkiya ben Manoach, France, mid-thirteenth century) has a different understanding of the commandment of kindling the menora.

 

"After [the Torah] completes its description of the commandments relating to the Mishkan, it specifies the method by which light will be supplied for the Mishkan."

 

            Implicit in the Chizkuni's explanation is the notion that the kindling of the menora belongs to the previous parasha, to the commandments relating to the Mishkan and not, as posited by the Ibn Ezra, to the section relating to the kohanim. However, the Chizkuni does not elaborate on this point. Why does kindling the menora belong to the section dealing with the construction of the Mishkan? It would seem to be a form of 'avoda,' a function, and not part of the actual construction of the Mishkan. How does the kindling of the menora differ from the offering of sacrifices which appears in the book of Leviticus, only after the construction of the Mishkan?

 

            To answer this question we must analyze the nature and purpose of the kindling of the menora in the Mishkan. Our sages offer the following explanation:

 

"Bring YOU" (27:20) - "Rabbi Samuel son of Nachmani said, to you and not to Me, for I am not in need of light... but for you [Moses] and for your brother [Aaron] for when you enter [the Mishkan], ...likewise the table was on the north side [of the Mishkan] and the menora in the south Rabbi Zerika said in the name of Rabbi Elazar, I am not in need of food nor light, but Aaron and his sons will eat from the table. (Midrash Hagadol, 14th century Yemenite collection of homiletical interpretations of our sages compiled by Rabbi David Haedni)

 

            This interpretation focuses on the clause "instruct the Israelites to bring YOU clear oil" (27:20). The light of the menora, like the table in the Mishkan, is not for God's usage. God obviously has no need for our light, nor for our food. God is the source of the light, the source of all that exists. The purpose of the kindling of the menora is to provide light for Moses and the kohanim when they enter the Mishkan. The menora basically functions as a light bulb which illuminates a room. This is also the position adopted by the Ibn Ezra (see long commentary 27:20 "La-ma'or") and the Chizkuni:

 

"to bring you" (27:20) - "FOR YOU [Moses], so that you can see where you enter and where you exit." (Chizkuni 27:20)

 

            The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, Egypt, 1138-1204) (see Guide to the Perplexed, part 3, chapter 45), and the Sefer Ha-chinukh (Lists and elaborates the 613 commandments, anonymous author, Spain, 13th century) offer a different explanation for the commandment to kindle the menora in the Mishkan:

 

"At the root of the precept lies the fact that the Eternal Lord commanded us that a lamp should burn in the Sanctuary, to magnify the glory and splendor of the Temple in the eyes of those who behold it.  For such is the way of people, to attain distinction in their houses with burning lights.  And the entire reason for the magnification [of splendor] in it is that a man's heart should become infused, when he sees it, with reverent awe and humility" (Sefer Ha-chinukh commandment 98).

 

            The light of the menora is, simply speaking, a special effect to impress onlookers and to arouse their awe and appreciation of the sanctity of the Mishkan.

 

            By contrast, our sages invest the light of the Mishkan with far greater significance than a simple light illuminating the Mishkan, whether for the kohanim working within or for the onlookers from without. The light of the menora is not ordinary physical light; it has metaphysical import. The light of the Mishkan symbolizes the 'shekhina,' the Divine presence:

 

"which is before the Testimony" (27:21) - "It [the light   of the menora] is a testimony to mankind that the 'shekhina' (the Divine presence) rests in Israel" (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Menachot, 86b).

 

            This midrash focuses on the clause which designates the location of the menora, "in the Tent of Meeting, outside the curtain which is before the Testimony." The 'Testimony' refers to the two Tablets brought down by Moses from Mount Sinai on which were etched the ten commandments (see 31:18). However, the midrash interprets the word 'testimony' as referring to the light of the menora. The light is proof that God "dwells" in the Mishkan.

 

            A different midrash of our sages, cited in the Midrash Rabba, (a compilation of homiletical interpretations of our sages) suggests that the light of the menora symbolizes the wisdom of the Torah. Compare the following two midrashim. What is the difference in their understanding of the Torah?

 

"Just see how the words of the Torah give forth light to a man when he studies them; but he who does not occupy himself with the Torah and does not know it, stumbles.  It can be compared to one who stands in a dark place; as soon as he starts walking, he stumbles against a stone; he then strikes a gutter, falls into it, and knocks his face on the ground - and all because he has no lamp in his hand.  It is the same with the ordinary individual who has no Torah in him; he strikes against sin, stumbles, and dies, while the Holy Spirit exclaims: 'He shall die for lack of instruction' (Prov. 5:23); and 'instruction' means the Torah.  He dies, because he knows not the Torah and goes and sins, as it says, 'The Way of the wicked is as darkness; they know not at what they stumble' (ib. 19).  But those who study the Torah give forth light wherever they may be.  It is like on standing in the dark with a lamp in his hand; when he sees a stone, he does not stumble, neither does he fall over a gutter because he has a lamp in his hand, as it says, 'Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path' (Ps. 119:105), and also, 'And if thou runnest, thou shalt not stumble' (Prov. 4:12)."

 

"'The spirit of man is the lamp of the Lord' (ib. 20:27).  God said: 'Let My lamp be in thy hand and thy lamp in My hand.'  What is the lamp of God? The Torah, as it says, 'For the commandment is a lamp, and the teaching is light' (ib. 6:23). Why is the commandment 'a lamp'?  Because if one performs a commandment it is as if he had kindled a light before God and as if he had revived his own soul, - also called a light, for it says, 'The spirit of man is the lamp of the Lord (ib. 20:27).'  (Shemot Rabba 36:3)"

 

            The heart of the Mishkan is the ark which holds the two tablets of stone given to Moses on Mount Sinai (see 25:16). The Mishkan is thus not only the house of God, it also houses the Torah. The light of the menora symbolizes the light of the Torah. According to the first midrash cited, the purpose of the Torah is to serve as a light to the people, instructing them in the ways they should behave, and helping them evade the many pitfalls which reality presents. Those without knowledge of Torah are likened to one walking in the dark with no light, unaware of, and unequipped to deal with the obstacles he meets. Those who do not know Torah are not equipped to deal with the moral challenges which they will meet, and are thus likely to falter and sin. The Torah is depicted here as a tool which guides man, and helps him escape from sin and moral disintegration.

 

            The second midrash, by contrast, doesn't see the Torah in pragmatic terms, as a signpost guiding man through the moral hazards of existence. Rather, it views the Torah from an existential perspective. The Torah and the commandments help man discover his true self and fulfill his latent potential. It is through the keeping of the commandments that man reaches his most elevated stature. Through Torah, man bonds with God and with his fellow man, and thus reaches a greater fulfillment of his human potential.

 

            To summarize, the explanation that the purpose of the light of the menora was to illuminate the Mishkan for Moses and the Kohanim agrees with the general understanding of the Ibn Ezra (ibid.), who asserts that the commandment to light the menora belongs to the section dealing with the Kohanim, namely parashat Tetzaveh. The menora's function is to allow Moses and the kohanim to perform their tasks in the Mishkan. The three other explanations of the function of the light of the menora, either to impress onlookers from outside (Rambam and Sefer Ha-chinukh) or a symbol of the Divine presence, or of the wisdom of the Torah (Midrash Rabba) agree fundamentally with the understanding of the Chizkuni (ibid.), that the commandment of the kindling of the menora pertains to the section of the Mishkan, namely parashat Teruma. The lighting of the menora is not categorized as an example of one of the tasks of the kohanim, but is rather an integral part of the Mishkan itself.

 

            Let us now return to our original question as to the peculiar location of the commandment of the kindling of the menora. According to the first two reasons given for the lighting of the menora, the light takes on secondary importance. It serves certain functions but is not a central component of the Mishkan. However, the last two explanations given view the light of the menora as the heart and essence of the Mishkan. If the light represents the Divine presence or the wisdom of the Torah, then it is not only part of the Mishkan, but is actually its ultimate goal. The purpose of the Mishkan is to serve as the spiritual center of the people. It is the house of God which people visit in order to encounter the Divine. If the light represents the Divine presence then its absence leaves the Mishkan devoid of any substance. Likewise, the Mishkan is also the center of Torah, the hub from which the teachings of God spread forth. Without the light of Torah, the Mishkan fails to fulfill its aim of spreading the knowledge of the will of God. As such, the kindling of the Menora must be viewed as the ultimate completion of the construction of the Mishkan. It is not a task, a function of the Mishkan; it is its very essence. With this understanding it is clear why "the service of the lights" appears where it does. It closes the section dealing with the laws of building the Mishkan highlighting the Mishkan's ultimate function as the house of God and the center of Torah.

 

II  The Permanent Light

 

            The Rashbam (Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, France, 1080-1160), citing our sages, points to the unusual language of the commandment of kindling the menora:

 

"And you shall COMMAND" - above (25:2) the Torah uses the phraseology: "SPEAK to the children of Israel that they bring me an offering" since it is a momentary commandment for the purpose of the [construction of the] Mishkan, but here [the kindling of the menora] where the commandment to provide oil for the menora is everlasting [for all generations] the Torah uses a different phraseology, "And you shall COMMAND," the word 'command' implying an eternal obligation.

 

            There are two emphases in the commandment to kindle the menora:

 

1)         the permanence of the commandment

2)         the role of the people of Israel in its performance

 

            Scripture states that "It shall be a due from the Israelites for all time, throughout the ages" (27:21).  It is an eternal obligation upon the people of Israel to provide oil for the kindling of the menora. The Torah repeats the role of the people of Israel in this commandment, once in verse 20 and again at the end of verse 21, in order to stress that the responsibility for providing the raw material for the lighting of the menora rests with the people of Israel.

 

            If the lighting of the menora is an eternal obligation, how is it to be performed now, that to our dismay, the Temple no longer exists? Is the destiny of the commandment to light the menora similar to all other commandments related to the Temple? Is it to be put in abeyance until the Temple will be rebuilt? A fabulous midrash brought in the Midrash Ha-gadol relates to this very question:

 

"'for all time' (27:21) - Even though as a result of our sins we no longer have a Temple, we nevertheless have synagogues and 'batei midrash' (places of Torah study)."

 

            The mitzva of kindling the menora endures in our prayers in the synagogue and our study of Torah in the Beit Midrash. It is in our prayers that we acknowledge the presence of the Divine and through our study of Torah that we continue spreading the light and wisdom of the Torah. Our obligation to illuminate the world with the awareness of the God and the teaching of His will continues in the two key and pivotal institutions of the Jewish community. The functions of the Mishkan as a house of God, of the Divine presence, where man meets God, and as a center of Torah, are continued by the synagogue and the Beit Midrash. It is through our devotion to these institutions and their functions as centers of prayer and study we fulfill our eternal obligation of kindling the menora.