Kindling the Light of Torah

Emor By :  Matthew Berkowitz Director of Israel Programs Posted On May 12, 2001 / 5761 | Torah Commentary

This past week the JTS community gathered together to celebrate the completion of the Kripke Tower. This magnificent tower blesses JTS with more classroom space, a state–of–the–art music studio and language lab, and a video conferencing center which will serve the needs of students, faculty and staff. Even the entryway conveys a message of mutuality, as light from outside filters through the glass breezeway, while light from the interior courtyard reflects back out to the street. One final detail of architectural insight will crown the Kripke Tower when it is officially dedicated in just under two weeks. As JTS enhances its capacity to spread its message of Torah and mitzvot throughout the Jewish world, an everlasting light (ner tamid) will be lit at the top of the tower guarding over JTS.

For this reason, the reading of Parashat Emor this week proves particularly fitting. Towards the end of the parashah, we read of the kindling of the menorah in the desert Tabernacle (mishkan): “The Lord spoke to Moses saying: Command the Israelite people to bring you a clean (zakh) oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly. Aaron shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting outside the curtain of testimony to burn from evening to morning before the Lord regularly; it is a law for all time throughout the ages. He shall set up the lamps on the pure lampstand before the Lord to burn regularly (tamid). (Leviticus 24:1–4)”

A number of elements stand out in the Torah’s description of this ritual in the desert mishkan and later in the Jerusalem Temples. First and foremost, the Israelites were ordered to bring not just any oil but the cleanest of olive oil. The refinement and purity of the oil used to kindle the lights is of utmost importance. Second, the light had to be kindled on a regular basis. Contrary to popular belief, which understands a ner tamid to be the eternal flame – a light which burns forever, tamid should actually be understood as a light which burns regularly. The light is rekindled once a day and needs constant vigilance and care. Thirdly, the menorah was lit outside the ark which contained the sacred tablets. The light represented the words on the tablets within. And yet the menorah was not sequestered inside the curtains with the ark. Rather, the light radiated outward toward the people. Finally, we read that the precept of the perpetual light, the ner tamid, is a law given for all generations.

While the peshat (literal meaning) of the Torah speaks of the ritual of the menorah, I’d like to apply this image to our lives of learning today, with the help of a midrash: “We have been taught that Rabbi Menahem son of Rabbi Yose expounded the verse ‘The commandment is a lamp and the Torah is light’ (Proverbs 6:23) as follows: Scripture associates a commandment with a lamp and the Torah with light. A commandment is compared to a lamp in order to tell you that as a lamp gives light for a short time, so the performance of a commandment gives protection only for a short time. But the Torah is compared to light itself, in order to tell you that as light always illumines the world, so the study of Torah always brings enlightenment to the world” (B. Sotah 21a).

Learning Torah is a lifelong endeavor and intricate process which parallels the lighting of the menorah. First, learning involves refinement in which we work to bring the best of ourselves to the text. Second, learning must be tended to on a daily basis; far from being automatic, we must discipline ourselves to learn. Third, our learning must radiate outward in both word and deed. And it must be sustained from generation to generation.

In his final book, A Passion for Truth, Abraham Joshua Heschel contrasts the approaches of the two Hassidic masters who most influenced his thought. The Baal Shem Tov (1690–1760), the founder of Hassidut, distilled in Judaism’s essence joy, compassion and love for God. Rabbi Menachem Mendl of Kotzk (1787–1859) pursued truth at the expense of all else. These two masters offer different understandings of the metaphors of fire and light.

“The Baal Shem thought of the Jew’s relationship to God as a romance, and it disturbed him to see how many rituals had become routine rather than rapturous acts, exercises in repetition rather than gestures of surprise – a hand without a heart. Faith was fire, not sediment. Did not a pillar of fire serve as a guide when the people Israel roamed in the wilderness? And fire was the beginning of light . . . One of his contributions was to awaken a zest for spiritual living, expressed in hitlahavut, which literally means ‘being aflame’; the experience of moments during which the soul is ablaze with an insatiate craving for God, when the memory of all other interests and the fear of misery and persecution are forgotten. In such instances a man seeks to give himself to God and delights in his being a gift of God” (A Passion for Truth, 47–48).

On the other hand,

“the Kotzker scorned Hasidim who experienced moments of ecstatic fire and then returned to their former selves, sober and gray. He perennially demanded firmness, consistency. The greatness of the patriarch Abraham did not consist in his readiness to sacrifice his son at the call of the Lord. Anyone would have been aroused to ecstasy and done God’s bidding. But Abraham’s exaltation had not subsided even on the third day after God’s command. He had had time to reflect by then. It is not enough to do a good deed. One must be involved in it wholeheartedly. Each action should be performed with life and soul, with every limb, with all one’s vitality.” (A Passion for Truth, 49).

The lamp about to be kindled atop the Kripke Tower is a precious symbol, reminding us of the biblical menorah of this week’s parashah. But more than that, let it remind us of the precious treasure ofTalmud Torah that is the essence of JTS ; an undertaking to which we bring the best of ourselves, a love that must continually be stoked and nourished, a light that radiates outward, as the light of the menorah, and a light that burns from generation to generation. Let JTS as a modern mishkan be a model for each of us in our own religious lives – learning with hitlahavut (fiery enthusiasm) and then turning outward to enlighten and illuminate the world in which we live.

With Wishes for a Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Matt Berkowitz