If You See Nothing, You Know Nothing

“When you light the lamps, the seven lamps shall cast their light toward the face of the menorah.”

The sages recount that all the tribal leaders of Israel brought their sacrifices to the Tabernacle. The Torah mentions each leader and his offerings separately.

Watching was Aaron the High Priest. He wasn’t asked to join the tribal leaders. He didn’t bring a sacrifice for the Levites. He was distressed.

“By My word,” G-d told Aaron, “your portion is greater than their portion. For you will light and prepare the candles.”

Moshe Ben Nachman, known by his Hebrew acronym Ramban, doesn’t quite get it. First, why is Aaron upset? After the tribal chiefs have gone home, he will return to perform all of the tasks in the Tabernacle. Moreover, what’s so special about lighting the menorah, or candelabra, rather than, say, burning the incense or bringing the offerings?

The Ramban’s conclusion is that the assignment given to Aaron and his sons will be permanent whatever happens to the Jewish people and the Land of Israel. The priests will accompany the people wherever they go.

A candle differs from perhaps anything else used by man. An automobile can travel fast or slow or, when it runs out of gasoline, not at all. Food is vital but quickly spoils. Also, one can have too little food to be satiated or too much and end up feeling sick.

The candle, however, does one thing: It provides light. There is no such thing as partial light. When the candle is lit, the darkness is driven away. With that light, man can see everything. He can understand his environment. He can navigate through the night, avoiding pitfalls and scaring off wild animals. He has both illumination and safety. Without light, he has nothing.

There is one more difference between a candle and everything else. The utility of objects does not depend on time: A cow can be milked, books can be read; computers can be operated, airplanes can fly without thought to the hour.

A candle, no matter how large the flame, is useless in daylight. It is only when there is complete darkness that a lit candle makes the greatest impact.

And that was G-d’s gift to Aaron and the priests cited in this week’s Torah portion of Behaalotecha. They would continue to show the way to the Jewish people even in the darkest of times. The Ramban says the reference is to the miracle of Hanukkah some 2,200 years ago. The Greeks, through their Jewish quislings, had desecrated the Temple and banned Torah observance. The priests, through the Maccabees, revolted and eventually returned to the Temple, where they relit the menorah and restored service.

Some 200 years later, the Romans destroyed the Temple and the offerings ceased. But the priests continued to bless the people every day. Every year, the Jews celebrated the lights of Hanukkah, a testament to their hope that G-d will never forget His people and support them no matter how dark the exile.

The job of the priests has always been to provide clarity in a world gone wrong. The light they bring instructs us to follow G-d’s way. Indeed, the Hebrew root for “light” and “teacher” is practically the same. In describing the 18th Century Jerusalem sage Rabbi Yehuda Hacohen Tanugi, his student, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Mizrahi, said, “My holy light, my teacher.”

The menorah differs from everything else in the Temple. The menorah could not be assembled. It had to be carved out from a solid block of gold, which the 16th Century Italian commentator Ovadiah Ben Yaakov Sforno says symbolizes the unity of the Jewish people. Unlike the Americans and perhaps every other nation, the Jews are not a melting pot.

The menorah and the priests responsible for it mark a clarity of vision for the entire Jewish people. It reminds us of what is important in this temporal world. It is not about riches, career, cheap thrills. It is about our connection to G-d and His Torah.

King David’s appeal to G-d makes this clear. In Psalms 84, David tells his people, “See G-d and look at the face of your anointed one.” The reference is to the Messiah and the Temple. The king is willing to give up everything to be close to G-d. There is no other purpose in the life of a Jew.

More than most, Rabbi David Altschuler understood David’s longing. The 18th Century rabbi, known for his commentary on Scriptures, called Metzudat David, or David’s Citadel, paid dearly for his beliefs. The Polish Jewish community of Jaworow was endangered by the gentiles. They said the Jews were harboring criminals and threatened to kill everybody unless the outlaws were surrendered.

Rabbi Altschuler said he was the criminal the gentiles wanted. The 82-year-old admitted to having committed all the alleged — and fictional — crimes. He was taken and slaughtered, but the Jewish community survived. The rabbi’s son, Yehiel, completed his father’s commentary on Scriptures.

“I lust to see His building,” the Metzudat David quotes the king as saying. “It is better for me to sit in Your courtyard for one day rather than sit 1,000 years among the nations, even in serenity.”

About the Author
Steve Rodan has been a journalist for some 40 years and worked for major media outlets in Israel, Europe and the United States. For 18 years, he directed Middle East Newsline, an online daily news service that focused on defense, security and energy. Along with Elly Sinclair, he has just released his first book: In Jewish Blood: The Zionist Alliance With Germany, 1933-1963 and available on Amazon.
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