The Eternal Light of Torah

Tetzavveh By :  Matthew Berkowitz Director of Israel Programs Posted On Feb 5, 2014 / 5774

At the beginning of Parashat Tetzavveh, Moses is commanded to instruct the Israelites:

“bring clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly. Aaron and his sons will set them up in the Tent of Meeting, outside the curtain which is over the Ark, to burn from evening to morning before the Lord. It will be a statute for the Israelites throughout all time, throughout the ages” (Exod. 27:20–21).

The verse explicitly refers to setting up the ner tamid, the eternal light. How may we understand the significance of this commandment, especially in a post-Temple era? What symbolism does the ner tamid hold for the people of Israel?

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch comments that the charge is directed at Moses, who is the transmitter of Torah. It is the learning of Torah

that is represented by this care of the lights. The sages in the Talmud remark that the expression, tetzaveh, “you will command” is used where there is special emphasis to be laid on the seriousness and importance of a duty which is incumbent immediately and also for all time, and above all, where it is a question of sacrificing material wealth for spiritual ends, the profit of which does not seem to be immediately apparent . . . The oil of the nation is to be offered for the light of Torah; the menorah represents the tree of the national spirit, not solely that of the priests. It is highly characteristic that it is only the daily provision of the means for obtaining light, and the conditioning of the lamps and wicks to produce a clear light that is the realm of the priests. The actual lighting might, if necessity arose, be performed by a layman. (Commentary on the Torah: Exodus, 510)

Hirsch’s metaphor is illuminating. Reading the opening of our parashah allegorically, Hirsch compares the symbol of light and the menorah to that of Torah. In doing so, he makes this commandment relevant to all generations of Israelites and Jews—not simply the ones who lived at the time of the Temples. More than that, the import of the expression tetzavveh and its rabbinic commentary is striking. Learning Torah often does require the sacrifice of material wealth, and its meaning may not be readily apparent; its value, however, is revealed over time. Finally, Hirsch accentuates the democratization of the ner tamid—that is to say, all may kindle this flame. And so is this the case with the study of Torah. Learning Torah is not bound to the intellectual or spiritual elite, but is a gift given to the entire nation. Truly, it is our learning Torah that is the eternal light shining upon Israel. May this erudition continually illuminate us and all of humanity.

The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.