Deborah Abecassis Warshawsky. An Akiva parent, Debbie has an MA and PhD in the history of Jewish Bible Interpretation from McGill University as well as a Masters in Library and Information Science (MLIS) also from McGill.
Each of my daughters requires a different configuration of light in or around her room when she goes to sleep at night. One likes it dark – all lights must be off and the bedroom door minimally open or completely closed. One likes her bedside table lamp dimmed (although I dim it more and more every time I leave her room, until it’s barely on at all). And one wants the closet light on and its door open to an exact measurement only she can ascertain from under the covers in her bed. And the bedroom door must be completely open. And the light in the bathroom off the hallway must be on.
This week’s Parashat Tetzave follows very specific building instructions for the Mishkan (or Tabernacle) and all its components. It begins with the following verse:
And you shall command the Children of Israel that they shall take for you clear olive oil, crushed for illumination, to light a lamp continually.
This commandment pertains to the daily functioning of the Mishkan and the ritual of having a lamp burn continually. But why is the commandment given now before the Tabernacle is completed and operational?
One could say that, practically, they needed the light in order to continue their work setting up this holy space. Because the Tabernacle could not accommodate the bare bulbs we use on construction sites today, the Israelites needed to understand the quality of oil required for this sacred menorah, so that even before the rites and rituals were performed, the menorah – as functional light source – had to be treated with the proper respect and sanctity.
But the rabbis saw greater significance in the illumination of an eternal lamp. They found that the wording of the commandment differs substantially from the building instructions given to Moses in the previous parashah, distinguishing it simply on a textual level. The context of the commandment – isolated from other daily rituals and general upkeep of the sacred space and before the Mishkan was functioning as intended – further demarcated its implications. And finally, its designation as “an eternal decree for generations” – that even without the Tabernacle, holy spaces continued and continue to have an eternal light – precludes one from understanding the lamp in simply practical terms. What messages are we meant to glean from an everlasting light?
The rabbis in the midrashim expounded that the light represents Torah and learning – that one who studies Torah and follows God’s commandments will be able to see the right path to follow in his /her life in contrast to one who will stumble along in the dark. Other midrashim compared the lighting of the menorah to doing good deeds. Just as one can light other lamps from the menorah without diminishing its own illumination, so too does performing good deeds generate further good deeds, thereby increasing light and goodness in the world – an earlier rendition of “pay it forward.”
Light has so many possible meanings and connotations. When God commands the Israelite people to have an eternal light in His holy space – perhaps it is meant to serve as a reminder for all God has given us, from “let there be light” to the Torah and His commandments.
But light also represents learning and wisdom and ideas. Light means clarity and openness and vision. Light offers warmth and safety and comfort. All of these qualities should be in our holy spaces – and all our living places – eternally. As God commanded, this light and all its many nuances should fill our spaces before they are completed, and may all who enter them be enlightened and illuminated by its glow.
Throughout our lives, we need light in different ways and to different degrees. The varying levels of light in my daughters’ rooms at night proffer the comfort each needs on her own in the dark for right now. As we head into our February break, I think we are all looking forward to more daylight and the end of winter, and those of us heading to warmer climates next week anticipate the sunny weather will energize us for the final stretch.
My three daughters will be sharing a room next week. Light may also be a source of contention.