Bringing light to the world

BY RABBI HYIM SHAFNER

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses is told to command the Jewish people to take pure olive oil for lighting the menorah in the Temple.The menorah was lit each day as one of the first services in the Temple in Jerusalem.

The description of the actual fashioning of the gold menorah was described in last week’s Torah portion among the descriptions of the many Temple vessels. We now have this week’s command to light the menorah every day, followed by a lengthy description of the vestments of the Kohen (high priest).

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Why does the Torah spend a portion relating the Temple’s furniture and vessels and another describing what the Kohen wore, but between them a few lines about the lighting of the menorah connecting the two?

The other many Temple services are not described here, only the lighting of the menorah. Why the stress here, between the section on the Temple’s vessels and on the Kohen’s vestments, regarding how to light the menorah?

Why use any transition at all between the Temple’s vessels and the clothing of the High Priest, two sections which have much in common?

Perhaps the Torah does not want to only describe the Temple’s vessels and the clothes worn to perform its services without touching on the humanness that must inhabit those vestments and utilize those vessels.

The menorah’s lighting is something which can not be done without the person of the Kohen. Fire and oil can both exist autonomously, but bringing the two together in a controlled flame takes a person, the Kohen.

Of course this is true of every Temple service, so why use the menorah’s lighting and not another temple service as a description of the Kohen’s personal and necessary presence?

I would like to suggest that the lighting of the menorah is the Temple service par excellence. Indeed, in Numbers 8:1, after the Temple is built and dedicated the first service performed is the lighting of the menorah before any daily sacrifices. We know also that the Macabees, after rededicating the temple, look first for pure oil for the menorah’s lighting.

Why is the menorah so central? Why is the essential role of the Kohen expressed in terms of the menorah’s lighting? Perhaps the answer lies in the following Midrash on the Song of Songs:

“Behold how beautiful, your eyes are like doves.” Why are the Jewish people compared to a dove? Just as when Noah sent the raven — it flew away but the dove returned to the Ark with an olive branch in its mouth to bring light to the world — “so too, says God, my people shall bring light to the world when they light the menorah before Me with olive oil.”

According to this Midrash the menorah is the symbolic expression of the Jewish mandate to bring light to the world. The goal of our spiritual service is not to, God forbid, satiate God with the death of animals, but to bring light through our many services to a dark world where the Almighty is hidden. And so it is precisely the menorah which sets the tone for our Temple service and our lives as Jews. Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Hyim Shafner, of Congregation Bais Abraham, is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.