Flames That Ascend on Their Own
The Rabbis, ever careful readers of the Torah text, noticed an oddity in the first verse of our parashah. In describing how olive oil shall be brought to light the menorah — the seven—branched lampstand which stood in the Sanctuary — the Torah says: “You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you [v’yikhu aylekha] clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly.” Shouldn’t the text say “instruct the Israelites to bring Me …” This was, after all, to be the Sanctuary where the Israelites felt the Divine Presence.
No, say the rabbis, the text was pointing out something accurate and significant: “Rabbi Avinu said (that God added): The orb of the sun is only one of My servants, and when it goes forth into the world [its direct light is so intense that] no creature can feed its eyes on it. Do I then require your light? Lightning is a thing generated from the fire above, and its light dazzles the world from end to end. Do I then require your light? … I have come, says God, for no other purpose than to endow you [to whom the Torah was given] with the merit [of observing her precepts]. (Midrash Leviticus Rabbah 31:8)
Bringing olive oil for the menorah was not for God’s edification, according to the Midrash, but for ours. Bringing the oil was a chance for us to come closer to God by fulfilling another of God’s commandments. The Midrash tells us that God tries to give us as many opportunities as possible to come closer to the Divine Presence, even in the “smallest” things that we do.
Rabbi S. R. Hirsch, writing in the 19th century, went further when he examined the second half of the verse which says: “for kindling lamps regularly (l’ha’alot ner tamid — literally “to cause to ascend a lamp continually”). Picking up on a comment in the Talmud (Shabbat 21a) on our verse “that the flame should ascend of its own,” Rabbi Hirsch had the following to say: “The description of the act of kindling a lamp by the term “ascending” is peculiar to the service of the lamp in the Sanctuary. It alludes to the action of the priest in applying the flame to the wick, which is ready to be kindled, “until the flame ascends of its own.” The task of the teacher of Judaism is to make himself [and I would add “herself”] superfluous to his pupils. It is not his function to keep the people — the simple folk who receive instruction from him — continually dependent on him.”
What a beautiful metaphor Rabbi Hirsch brings us. We should aim, all of us, to be “flames which ascend on their own”. We should use all the opportunities that God gives us — from the most seemingly “unimportant” ones to the deepest ones — to learn as much Torah as possible (and I would define Torah in the broadest sense — text and ethics, Talmud and morals) such that we make our teachers superfluous! If all of us were learning and practicing Torah to such a degree, we can be sure that our world would be a far more stimulating, ethical and enriching place than it is at this moment. May we be blessed with the good health, strength and peace necessary to reach this far—reaching goal.
The publication and distribution of “A Taste of Torah” commentary have been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.