The Lamp and the Oil

Beha'alotekha By :  Matthew Berkowitz Director of Israel Programs Posted On Jun 5, 2004 / 5764

Partnership is one of the core concepts of Torah. One individual cannot sustain the entire world. One family cannot build a people. And one nation cannot single handedly effect redemption. Or in the discourse of philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel, God needs Israel just as much as Israel needs God. This message is communicated quite eloquently in an illustrative midrash: “Rav Aha said, ‘Israel is likened to an olive tree: ‘A leafy olive tree fair with goodly fruits’ (Jeremiah 11:16). And God is likened to a lamp: ‘The lamp of the Lord is the spirit of man’ (Proverbs 20:27). What use is made of olive oil? It is put into a lamp and then the two together give light as though they were one.’ ” (Peskita deRav Kahana 21:4) Separate and apart, the oil and the lamp rest in darkness; together they impart the light of joy and celebration. This same notion of interdependence and partnership is given vivid expression in Parashat B’ha·alot’kha.

The Israelite journey in the desert was not dependent on the fickle decisionmaking of a leader nor on the stamina of the people. Once the Tabernacle was completed, a cloud representing God’s Presence descended on it. For “whenever the cloud lifted from the Tent, the Israelites would set out accordingly; and at the spot where the cloud settled, there the Israelites would encamp” (Numbers 9:17). The cloud, as it were, served as a biblical GPS – guiding the Israelites through their travels in the desert. Commenting on a subsequent verse (Numbers 9:19), medieval Spanish commentator Ramban (1194-1270) writes, “even though they may have been exhausted or even if they were displeased with the place and wanted to proceed further, they disregarded their own wishes and guided their movements by the cloud.” That is to say, the personal and collective ego of the nation was restrained by the Presence of God – slowly guiding the Israelites in a deliberate, planful journey toward “a land flowing with milk and honey.” Neither could they listen solely to the rhythm of their bodies nor the desire of their hearts. Their journey was about humility and relationship. Their moves were in step with God; and God’s design served to reinforce a sense of interdependence. Though active participants in the journey, their path was blazed in coordination with God’s desire.

This Israelite trek through the desert, guided by God’s Presence, is a vivid metaphor for our own spiritual journey today – as individual Jews and as part of a whole nation. Rather than being bound by our selfish desires, we must transcend – understanding that we are bound by a sacred tradition. We must take the time to go aside – to be attentive to God’s kol d’mmah dakah – God’s still small voice. It is our gentle moving forward – guided by learning and a commitment to halakha (Jewish law) – in which we experience the journey toward the Promised Land. In this way, we will continue to be the olive oil that fuels the Divine lamp. Together, we can illuminate the Jewish community and the world.

The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.