Religious ritual frequently seems odd. Imagine an outsider watching the celebration of Sukkot with the waving of lulavim and etrogim or the donning of tallit and tefillin on weekday mornings? Still, one does not expect a tradition’s “insiders” to take issue with God Himself, regarding their own rituals as peculiar. Parshat Behaalotkha opens with a description of the lighting of a special candelabra in the sanctuary (and later on in the Holy Temple): “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to Aaron and say to him: When you light up (behaalotkha) the lamps, opposite the front of the lamp stand shall the seven lamps give light.’” (Numbers 8:1)
What exactly was the purpose of lighting the seven-branched candelabra in the Sanctuary? This question was taken up in the following midrash (Tanhuma Behaalotkha 4): “The children of Israel asked God a prescient question: ‘Master of the Universe, you ask us to provide light before You, but aren’t you the Light of the world, and doesn’t light exist along with You?” The significance of this question extends well beyond this particular example. This midrash is questioning the relevance of religious ritual in general. What need does God have for light provided by His creatures or, for that matter, what is the purpose of any of the ritual acts we perform in service God?
In two distinct midrashim, the Tanhuma approaches this question and offers two pertinent models. In one dialogue between God and Israel, God asserts that the commandments are for Israel’s benefit: “Said the Holy One Blessed be He to Moshe, not for My sake did I command flesh and blood regarding the lights, rather, I did it for your benefit… as it says: ‘behaalotkha – [the purpose of the act is “to elevate” you through the lamps ‘” (Tanhuma Behaalotkha 2), namely, the performance of the mitzvot provide a person with merit or reward for doing acts in the service of God. One modern Jewish thinker, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who rejected the idea of serving God for reward, gave this idea a new twist. He asserted that to serve God, in and of itself, what Leibowitz called “lishma – for its own sake”, is what is meritorious.
In another midrash, the Tanhuma (Ibid 4) offers an alternative approach: “The Holy One Blessed be He said [to Israel]: ‘It is not that I need you [to provide Me with light], rather, you should light for Me lights because I have provided light for you. Why [should you do this]? [In order to] make known your specialness – so that everyone will say, ‘Look at how Israel provides light for the One (God) who provides light for everyone.’” (Ibid. 4) A number of interesting ideas flow from this midrash. First, doing mitzvot or Jewish acts mark a Jew as different, as one who serves God in a unique way. In addition, these acts represent a means for expressing gratitude for what God has done for us. Finally, this midrash marks these acts of service to God as acts of reciprocity and partnership with God.
These ideas are indicative of an ongoing search for meaning in what we do as Jews. These sages want us to see in our acts a means for interconnecting with the One who is greater than us, making the things we do which may seem a bit odd into a means for transcendence and communion.