Sermon on Parashat Tzaveh Exodus.
I remember when I was traveling abroad as a teenager of 14 years old with my parents. We visited the Rijks museum in Amsterdam, Holland. It was my second trip to Europe and I was fascinated with the world of European culture. I didn't know anything about the great art works of Western civilization when my parents dragged me into the museum. As I was wondering around gazing at the multitude of paintings, I came upon one painting that struck me as a fascinating painting. I was captivated by it. I must have stared at it for quite awhile. It was Rembrandt's’ famous painting The Night Watch. The one aspect which drew me into the painting as none had before was Rembrandt's’ use of light. I was fascinated by the way the light in the painting was subtle but in fact dominated the entire work. In fact that technique of using light in the painting made it one of the most famous classic paintings of Western Art history. That was the first time I learned that a central aspect in the art of painting was about how to use light. Decades later I took from that experience a long standing appreciation for the challenge of using light not only in painting but in creative writing as well.
No wonder I felt a kinship with the Torah portion this week which in part focuses on the theme of light when the Israelites are constructing their first sanctuary which they called the Mishkan or Tabernacle. The portion speaks about the power of the Eternal light that burns all the time whether the Tabernacle is in use or not. It represents the eternal presence of God in the religious and ritual life of communal worship and in the spirit of the people creating this new faith tradition.
What does that light mean to us today? How can the Ner Tamid speak to us as a religious community as we too derive spiritual growth from the rich symbols inside this sanctuary? As it is with appreciating a painting like the Night Watch much of our benefit comes from our willingness to use our imagination. In the case of the Torah our imagination was supposed to be focused not only the object as art but as a symbol of religious enlightenment.
In chapter 28 of Exodus, God says to Moses, “You 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 Pact to burn from evening to morning before the Eternal. It shall be a due from the Israelites for all time, throughout the ages”(28:20).
The history of this light begins with it’s purpose as lighting up the inner sanctum of the Temple in Jerusalem which was called the Holy of Holies. This perpetual light was originally referred to as Ner maaravi or western light since the Holy of Holies was west of it. After the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 C.E. the menorah was taken to Rome as war booty. It was then that synagogues began the custom of installing a Ner Tamid a perpetual light. This light was also opposite the ark which was on the western wall but was eventually moved to be above the ark. This is of course the design we see today in a synagogues. Its purpose is well known as the representation of the God’s presence in this sanctuary.
To get an even more vivid picture of that menorah one can go to Rome today and see the ancient and famous Arch of Titus along the via Roma with the south panels depicting the Temple menorah and other ornaments from the Temple which are carved into the panels. This famous arch was the model of the Arch de Triumph in the 19th century constructed by Napoleon Bonaparte.
Rather than a symbol of Roman conquest the Jewish community commemorated it as the presence of God everywhere most particularly in the synagogue. From that time our sages used the imagery of light to provide our people hope in dark and more perilous times. In some midrashim they interpreted this light to be not for God but for us. As Rabbi Samuel bar Nahmani in the Talmud said, “For God said, “The light is for you and not for me. I do not need the light.” Other sages compared the eternal light as a reminder for Torah study.
In one midrash based upon a verse in Proverbs “For the commandment is a lamp” the sages said, “Just as the light of a lamp remains undimmed, though myriads of wicks and flames may be lit from it, so he who gives for a worthy cause does not make a hole in his own pocket. How do we know this? For a commandment is a lamp and Torah a light. (Exodus Rabbah) The point is that the kindling of the lamp is a symbol for the performance of a good deed. The lamp connects all of us to the idea that when we do good deeds we share it with others. The light one of us shares of our own good fortune does not diminish our own good fortune.
In ancient times it was the priest who symbolically represented the lamp for the entire Jewish people when he officiated in the Temple service in Jerusalem. Now we can all be the lamp that shares the light of the Eternal to the rest of the world.
If we focus our attention upon our Ner Tamid we can see that the light itself is small and modest. Yet that does not mean it is not a powerful symbol of who we are and the mitzvoth God wants us to fulfill. Like the light in Rembrandt’s the Night watch it too is modest but also powerful in his painting.
Judaism is all about sharing our blessings and good works with our fellow neighbor. Our faith teaches us to open our eyes and see our purpose in the world not just for our benefit but for the well being of all. Moreover we are all connected even though we live as individuals since the calling of our prophets was to join into a greater community of well being through study of sacred texts, communal prayer, and good deeds. This is what our religion stresses.
As the 14th century poet Yedaiah ben Abraham Bedersi wrote in his poem Behinat Olam: The Torah and human beings combined comprise the Lamp of God on earth. The Torah is the flame issuing from the flash of Him that dwells in the heavens. Human kind,(comprising body and soul), is the torch that draws light from it. His back is the twinning wick and his soul-the pure olive oil. Through their intertwining and fusion (torch and flame) the whole house becomes filled with light.”
We need to stop and focus on this powerful symbol of the Ner tamid to derive full benefit of its meaning for us as we prepare for prayer and as we reflect upon the religious experience in communal worship. Rembrandt’s the Night Watch used the contrasts of light and darkness . Even though it is a military painting it is the little girl in the painting which is the focus of the light. We too contrast the light and darkness in our lives. It is up to us find light out of darkness which is exactly what the Ner Tamid does for us. Are we all not high priests today who if we are open to the rich symbolism of the Eternal Light can kindle it for each of us using it to open our spirits to the potential for making a difference in our spirits inside this sanctuary and which will carry with us into the world we live in.