T’tzavah – Exodus 27:30 to 30:10
The text moves from the Tabernacle’s structure to the priests who will maintain and officiate within this holy structure. The first command to the priests, as with the creation of the world, “let there be light.” as the lamps of the Tabernacle’s menorah are lit…. And the tradition of “light” continues to the present.
“You (Moses) shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly. Aaron and his sons shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting, outside the curtain which is over the Ark of the Pact, [to burn] from evening to morning before the Eternal. It shall be a due from the Israelites for all time, throughout the ages.” (Ex. 27:20-21)
That is all that is said about the oil for, and lighting of the lamps or the menorah in the area just outside of the space where the Commandments and Torah are placed. While the vestments or clothing of the priest occupies much space in this week’s reading, because the oil and the lamps cited above evolved into the ner tamid of our present sanctuaries, I would like to spend more time examining this commandment.
References to light can be seen throughout the Torah. During the creation of the universe, God’s first action was the call: “Let there be light!” (Gen. 1:3) Now we read that the first action of the priests in the holy Tabernacle is also the creation of light…. God created light for mankind’s world. Now, man is creating light for God home on earth.
The concept of light in Torah and in midrash has often been associated with learning, knowledge, and Torah itself. Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 36:6) states: “See how words of Torah give light to man when he is occupied with them…. It may be compared to one who is standing in the dark. He feels his way, comes up against a stone and stumbles thereon, comes up against a gutter, falls therein, his face striking the ground. Why” Because he went without a lamp. So it is with an ignorant man who knows no words of Torah. He comes up against a transgression and stumbles there on …. The way of the wicked is in thick darkness and they know not on what they stumble. Whereas those who are occupied with Torah give light everywhere.”
Another quote from Shemot Rabbah states: “For a commandment is a lamp and Torah a light.” (Proverbs 6:23)
Elsewhere in Torah we see other references to light…
“Israel is destined to be the light to the world: ‘Nations shall walk by thy light.’” (Isaiah, 60:30)
“The Lord is my light and salvation.” (Ps. 27:1)
“And also the light that shows the way for Israel: ‘Arise my light, for thy light cometh and the glory of the Lord doth shine upon thee.’” (Isaiah 60:1) (Quotes from Nahama Leibowitz, New Studies in Shemot/Exodus, p.520)
So, by placing a light (the seven-branched menorah) in front of the area containing the Ten Commandments and Torah, it is showing that words of the Eternal can provide a light for the Israelites. The commandment from God states that this light should burn from “evening to morning … for all time.”
Since the menorah in the Tabernacle, the tradition of the light continued in the Jerusalem Temple where it was called ner ma’aravi or “Western Light” because it lit the area containing the Ark of the Covenant which was on the Western end of the Temple. This light was kept burning twenty-four hours a day. The seven separate flames in each of the branches of the lamp assured that a flame would always be alive.
After the Temple was destroyed, the custom of the lamp (ner tamid) continued. Sometimes the lamp was on the western wall facing the ark; other times the location was on the eastern wall near the ark. Eventually, it became the custom to hang a single light above the ark. (Harvey Fields, A Torah Commentary for Our Times, v.2, p. 72) Today the source of light in most sanctuaries has changed from oil to an electric bulb. But this too varies…. One Chicago congregation lights the ner tamid with a long-burning candle which is changed weekly by a different member of the confirmation class.… My Temple, Temple Chai in Long Grove, has installed a solar panel to provide power for the light.
Add to this the fact that the lighting of two candles is the first act of Shabbat … our weekly sanctuary in time. These lights bring a special light into our home every Shabbat… helping to make our homes holy places.
And so, the ner tamid in today’s sanctuaries demonstrates how the words of Torah – even a description of how the Tabernacle is to be built and operated can still be alive and relevant today.