Parshat Tetzaveh encompasses many details about the service in the Mishkan (Tabernacle), ranging from the minutiae of the Cohanim garments to the requirements for particular korbanot (offerings). At face value, we would presume these specifics to be nothing more than technicalities of given laws, however, there is deep meaning imbued within them all.
The very first pasuk begins in reference to the Mishkan’s menorah: “You shall further command the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, to cause the lamp to burn continually” (Shemot 27:20). Nehama Leibowitz identifies a few critical points from this pasuk, and she assembles numerous commentaries to uncover a powerful understanding from this seemingly simple instruction.
The Ibn Ezra says that from the language of “command,” we learn that this was a commandment applying to all future generations of Jews; all descendants will be required to bring clear oil of beaten olives for lighting this everlasting flame, as it must burn continually. Immediately, the notion of Jewish continuity sticks out, a clear signal of a core value of responsibility flowing onto our children, grandchildren, and so on.
We are still left with an important question we must explore: What exactly are we passing onto future generations? Does this merely seek to include the physical instruction the pasuk describes? Nehama Leibowitz pointed to a compelling midrash for a greater understanding.
Light is the underlying idea of our aforementioned pasuk, as a lamp or flame’s primary purpose would be to radiate light. Shemot Rabbah depicts two different, albeit complementary, paradigms of light that we can apply to our pasuk (36:3) Quoting Mishlei, the midrash first identifies Torah as the lamp of our lives, shining a light that guides us through every decision we must make and every action we will take (6:23). In the second model, Nehama Leibowitz explains, mitzvot are said to illuminate Hashem’s light within us and in turn spiritually refine us; this being the less pragmatic approach of the two.
In considering the two ideas from the midrash, we can harmonize them quite nicely and circle back to our starting pasuk. Torah guides us through the darkness of life; the divine words and wisdom Hashem conveyed to us through the Torah functions as the lamp to distinguish the dangerous from the desirable in the dim setting of the world. The way in which Torah does that can be through the effect it leaves on us.
By spiritually refining ourselves through living mitzvot and illuminating Hashem’s light within us, we are able to walk through life with Hashem by our side, so to speak, knowing we are being guided through it all.
We can now ascribe new meaning to the first pasuk we read. Hashem is not only telling Moshe how Bnei Yisrael should light the menorah, rather He is also relating something fundamental to Judaism.
In each and every generation, we must ignite the burning flames of our lamps. Clarity and guidance accompany a life in line with Hashem’s will, and that is objectively the best life anyone can live. Jewish continuity urges us to live Torah-centric lives to illuminate the world with Hashem’s light, for ourselves and everyone around us, now and forever.