Parashat Tetzaveh begins with the command to kindle the menorah in the Mishkan. God instructs Moshe that the candles should be lit “in the Tent of Meeting, outside the curtain which is over the [Ark of the Testimony]” (27:21).
Keli Yakar raises the question of why God emphasizes here that the menorah is situated “mi-chutz la-parokhet” – beyond the curtain that separated between the two chambers of the Mishkan. Already earlier (26:33-35), the Torah specified the arrangement of the Mishkan, instructing that the curtain would partition between the kodesh ha-kodashim – where the ark was situated – and the kodesh, which contained the menorah and the shulchan (table). Why, then, is special emphasis made here on the fact the candles were lit “outside the curtain”?
Keli Yakar suggests that these verses at the beginning of Parashat Tetzaveh, which speak of the kindling of a ner tamid (“eternal lamp” – 27:20), refer specifically to the ner ma’aravi – the “western lamo.” As the Ramban cites from the Sifrei and Torat Kohanim, Chazal understood that one of the lamps of the menorah, called the “western lamp,” miraculously burned at all times, without being extinguished, demonstrating the Shekhina’s presence among the nation. Therefore, Keli Yakar explains, God here emphasizes that the candles are to be lit outside the parokhet, beyond the inner sanctum of the Mishkan, underscoring the fact that a miraculous phenomenon would occur even there. The presence of the Shekhina would be manifest not only in the kodesh ha-kodashim, which housed the heavenly stone tablets, but even outside the kodesh ha-kodashim, by way of the miracle of the ner tamid.
Keli Yakar then offers a second explanation, suggesting that this point is emphasized to draw attention to the fact that the menorah’s light did not illuminate the kodesh ha-kodashim. To dispel the heretical misconception that God requires light, the Torah here stresses that a thick curtain separated the kodesh ha-kodashim – which represented God’s “private chamber” – and the area of the Mishkan where the menorah stood, such that the light of the menorah did not penetrate the inner chamber. This proves that the candles were not lit for the sake of providing God with illumination.
The menorah is often seen as a symbol of our ability to “illuminate” our surroundings, to influence and inspire. The light of the menorah, produced from the purest olive oil, is commonly associated with the light of Torah and spirituality which we are to “shine” as brightly as we can, adding as much “light” to the world as possible. Keli Yakar’s insight into the significance of the parokhet in this context perhaps reminds us to recognize the limits of our capacity to “illuminate,” that there are certain “barriers” beyond which we should not aspire to “shine.” As important as it is to “illuminate” as much as we can, we must also know where our “illumination” will never be felt, that there are certain areas where we cannot exert influence. We are all blessed with “light,” with skills and talents, which enable us to “shine” and positively impact upon the world, but each person’s capacity to “illuminate” is limited. We must recognize the “parokhet,” the limits on our potential sphere and influence, and focus our attention on shining as brightly as we can within that sphere, rather than trying to wield influence beyond the “parokhet,” in places where our light is unable to shine.