By Rabbi Lia Bass
Parshah Tetzaveh begins with God saying to Moses, “As for you, command the children of Israel to bring you pure oil of beaten olives, to light the lamp continually” (Exodus 27:20).
The 13th-century French biblical commentator Hizkuni (R. Hezekiah ben Manoah) was intrigued by this request. Does God need a light?
Hizkuni thinks that God asked the people to bring pure olive oil for Moses, so he could see where he was going. God obviously doesn’t need a light to see. Therefore, the Eternal Light was an act of chesed, a gift generated by the deep divine love and respect for our spiritual covenant. Like our ancestors, we need light to see, we need the Eternal Light.
The Ba’al Shem Tov, who founded Chasidism in the 18th century, taught: “The world is full of spiritual splendor, full of sublime and wonderful secrets. But one simply puts a hand in front of the eyes to experience blindness. Just as a small coin placed in front of our eyes prevents us from seeing mountains, the vanities and routines of our lives can block the light of infinity that illuminates our souls” (Likutei Maharan I, 133).
The Ba’al Shem Tov warns us that while light is available, we are often blind to the divine, stuck to routines that create a spiritual darkness, preventing us from seeing, as we say in the Amidah, the daily miracles that are around us.
To paraphrase Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the antidote to this spiritual blindness is to always ask ourselves “what to do with the feeling for the mystery of living, what to do with awe, wonder, or fear” (“God in Search of Man,” pg. 112).
Banishing spiritual darkness happens when we stop and, with wonder, awe and fear, recognize what the divinity has given us in the past and continues to give every day. The Ba’al Shem Tov and Rabbi Heschel reinforce the Torah’s lesson by asserting that we choose how we see: We can continue in darkness, putting the weight of routine as a coin before our eyes, or we can appreciate the beauty of the world illuminated by divine light.
There are opportunities every day to strengthen the experience of the divine light. The 11th century French biblical commentator Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) pointed out that in the Torah the verb “to light” literally means “to elevate.” I interpret Rashi as saying that to live a spiritual life we elevate this light as a guiding principle in our daily lives, prompting our souls to be grateful for miracles such as the beauty of the seasons, the sound of the waves on the beach, the smiles of friends and family and the delights of good food and drink.
We must recognize beauty, joy, pleasure, and have wonder and awe for the source of these experiences. With that, the light that was given to us by God in a moment of chesed becomes an Eternal Light, a true ner tamid.
Rabbi Lia Bass is rabbi of the Jewish Institute for Lifelong Learning and Innovation.