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Rachel Peck

Torah is for all Jews, not just the religious ones

Israel cannot bring its light to the world while fighting an existential war, whether against Hamas or internally (Beha'alotcha)
Protesters outside a hearing at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, on the government's drafting of ultra-Orthodox men, on February 26, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)
Protesters outside a hearing at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, on the government's drafting of ultra-Orthodox men, on February 26, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

The name of this week’s Torah portion, Beha’alotecha, comes from the second verse, directing the Levites:

“…beha’alotecha et-hanerot, el-mul pnei hamenorah yaru shivat hanerot” (“…in your lighting the lamps, toward the front of the menorah let the seven lamps give light.)” (Numbers 8:2)

“Lighting” is a common translation of beha’alotecha. But beha’alotecha does not mean “lighting”; it means “ascending.” And this is the causative form of the verb, so a better translation might be: “In your causing the lamps to ascend…let the seven lamps give light.”

So light is related to ascension, connection to Hashem. But the movement is not just one-way from us to Hashem. In the daily morning liturgy, we ask for Hashem’s light to shine down on us:

“Or hadash al Tzion tair, v’nizkeh khulanu m’herah l’oro” (“Shine a new light on Zion, and may we merit, all of us, speedily, its light.”)

So, what exactly is this light?

The haftarah, or prophetic reading, paired with this week’s Torah portion describes a vision the prophet Zechariah has of the menorah in the Temple, and describes the lamps. When Zechariah asks an angel, “What are these?” the angel answers, “This is the word of the Lord…not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit.” (Zechariah 4:6)

It seems the light of the menorah lamps are infused with Hashem’s spirit, which descends to protect and guide His people, who then send light back to Him in a holy two-way street. What is the purpose of this spirit, which is more powerful than human strength?

“This is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight. I have put My spirit upon him, he shall teach the true way to the nations…

“I created you, and appointed you a covenant people, a light of nations…” (Isaiah 42:1, 6)

The purpose of this spirit-light is to enable the people Israel to be a light unto the nations. This spirit-light not only to ascends vertically to Hashem, but reaches out, horizontally, to other people. It is no accident that the menorah was chosen to be the official emblem of the reconstituted nation of Israel. It represents both connection to G-d and the Jews’ mission to bring light to the world through that connection. And the responsibility to share G-d’s light is understood to belong to all Jews, not just the Levites.

Can this concept have meaning for those who don’t believe in G-d? Yes. The Torah itself, it seems, is a source of this light:

Ki ner mitzvah v’torah ohr…” (“For a lamp is the commandment and Torah is light…”) (Proverbs 6:23)

Last week, I suggested that Torah study was not only incumbent on the religious, but on all Israel. Like the atheist friend with whom I study Torah, one need not be religious to appreciate — to need — this central pillar of the Jewish people throughout time and space.

Torah has shaped who we are, and we cannot be whole without making it a part of our lives. Without this heritage, we are adrift. Without its light in our lives, we cannot bring light to others. That light shines from all who embrace it, religious or atheist. My friend has brought fresh insights and understandings of the Torah we read to those in our group who do believe in G-d. Another two-way connection.

Secular Israelis worry that the Haredim seek to impose their way of life on everyone, and this fear is not unfounded. But Torah is for all Jews, not just the religious ones. And all Jews can both absorb its light and reflect it to others, Jews and non-Jews alike.

If Israel were to give military exemptions to secular Jews who were qualified and motivated to seriously study Torah, similarly limiting such exemptions to only gifted religious students — as I suggested last week — a major source of division plaguing Israelis might be eliminated. Such divisions weaken Israel, and then its enemies attack. When not all groups are expected to contribute to the war effort equally, Israel is further weakened, and the spiral continues.

Those serving are approaching overload. The government recently proposed that deployments for reservists be increased to 90 days. Yet soldiers are already exhausted, physically and mentally. Families are struggling without them. This is not sustainable, nor is it fair.

Israel has seen much darkness since October 7th: massacre, war, and hatred from many all over the world. The country is fighting to survive, and justly so, but ultimately life must be about more than survival. Israel has brought much light to the world in countless ways, but it cannot do so when fighting an existential war, whether against Hamas or each other. Supporting Torah study for the meritorious of all social sectors while expanding the pool of those eligible for military service will strengthen Israel against its enemies. And when those enemies are relegated to the dustbin of history, Israel will be able to return to its primary mission of being a light unto the nations. All nations, including the ones who now reject it.

May we soon see the day when war and darkness cease, and the seven lamps of the menorah give light everywhere. When a new light illumines Zion, and Zion’s light illumines the world.

About the Author
I was born in Washington, DC, and raised in the suburbs, but now reside in the temperate rain forest of the Pacific Northwest. I am a retired editor and proud Zionist. I can also be found at https://kosherkitty.wordpress.com/
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