Don’t Let The Light Go Out

I am thinking a lot about the qualities of light this week. 

God told Israel: “KEEP A LIGHT ALWAYS BURNING FOR ME.” (Exodus 27:20).

It seems like a straightforward instruction, right?  ‘Always’ – in Hebrew, tamid.  Yet, it could also mean continuously or regularly.  Moreover, what is the nature of the light to be lit?  Is there a particular way or time that we are supposed to do? And why is it needed?

12th Century Torah commentator Rashi reads this literally to suggest this is a light to be kindled regularly each evening, an understanding supported by the grammar and trope of the text.  But that doesn’t hold up for us as well, who are removed from the sacrificial cult of the ancient Temple.  While today we understand this phrase as an ‘eternal light’ – ner tamid – (supported by Nachmanides), the light cannot miraculously stay lit on its own; it must be tended to.

A Midrash: Once there were two friends.  One could see with his eyes.  One was blind, and had to see in other ways.  Walking together, the seeing man walked the blind man home.  When they got to the house, the seeing man asked his blind friend, “Please turn on the lights for me.”  This confused the blind man.  The seeing man’s explanation for his request: “I wanted to relieve you from any obligation to me for having accompanied you home on the road.’ (Numbers Rabbah 15:5).  Meaning, God doesn’t need us to light a light in order to see.  God wants us to do this for us, to understand that we have to do something to be in relationship with God, because we need it.

What is this light for which God asks? In the Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 22b, we learn that light is a symbol of God’s Presence: “During the entire forty years that the Israelites travelled in the wilderness, they travelled only by God’s light! It is a testimony to humankind that the Divine Presence rests in Israel.” Light here is a metaphor for the Divine, for understanding, for ‘enlightenment’. The Zohar [the foundational work of Jewish mysticism] goes further, to teach that Ner [light] is acronym for n’shamah [soul] + ruach [spirit]; that is, soul plus spirit is light itself.  And in the Book of Proverbs (20:27 –note the significance that it is the inverse number of our Torah verse!) we read, “Ner Adonai nishmat adam”: ‘The light of God is the soul of the human being.’ Tending to this light perpetually becomes then a beautiful image for our actions to become the pathways for God’s presence.  We become ‘transmitters of light’ – partners with God in the world. 

So what is needed to keep the light burning?  ‘Pure oil from olives, crushed for the light’ (Exodus 27:20).  The olive, one of the seven species singled out by Torah as an exemplar of the bounty of the Promised Land, i<  The olive, one of the seven species singled out by Torah as an exemplar of the bounty of the Promised Land,  points for God’s that part of ourselves that thrives on struggle, which revels in it. Just like an olive, say our sages, which yields its oil only when pressed, so, too, do we often yield what is best in us only when pressed.  That is, sometimes the things that crush us or knock us down are exactly the things that can lift us up.

It is only in contrast to darkness that light can truly shine.  Life’s daily challenges are the fuel which gives rise to clear, brilliant illumination.  Let these words of Torah inspire us to tend to this perpetual light – tending to our relationship with God – let us not be dragged into the darkness, but rather keep the light of faith, justice and love burning brightly.

[Tetzaveh 2014]


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon
    Feb 14, 2016 @ 18:40:51

    Dear Cantor Caro, what a beautiful reflection. In your name, I would like to share it with my Mussar group of women, who will meditate on the light of a tiny candle as we begin our va’ad tonight. Your style is so scholarly and so gentle. Kol HaKavod.
    With blessings, Rabbi/Cantor Shana Chandler Leon


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