The Flame of Freedom
Based on an article in Parasha U’Pishra by Rabbi Moshe Grylak
Adapted by Braha Bender
Parashas Tetzaveh begins with verses describing how to light a menorah that had not yet been constructed and where to place it in a mishkan (Tabernacle) that had not yet been built:
“...Take for you pure olive oil, pressed, for illumination, to kindle a lamp continually. In the ohel moed (Tent of Meeting), outside the paroches (Partition) that is near the edus (Testimonial-tablets), Aaron and his sons shall arrange it from evening until morning...” (Exodus 27:20-21)
The paroches divided between the kodesh hakodashim (Holy of Holies) and the rest of the mishkan. Housing the luchos, the tablets of Torah given at Sinai, the kodesh hakodashim was the small room where God’s Presence was most openly revealed in the entire world. This most sacred of places was only permitted to enter once a year on Yom Kippur, when the kohen gadol (high priest) would step beyond the paroches. Beyond the paroches was something so exclusive, so rarefied, that nothing commonplace or routine could be associated with it.
In contrast, the menorah had to be lit day in and day out, over and over again. Just like everything else in the mishkan, it was obvious that such a vessel would have to be outside the paroches.
The Torah is never redundant, and every letter of every word has great meaning. Given this truth, why does the verse mention that the illuminated menorah had to be placed outside the paroches? What new idea does Torah teach us by mentioning this seemingly obvious instruction?
The sages jump in to explain, “The menorah was placed outside the paroches to inform you that the Holy One does not need it’s light.”
The fact that incorporeal God doesn’t need physical light, or anything physical at all, also seems obvious. Yet, taken to its final conclusion, the ramifications of this idea are startling. The positioning of the menorah in the mishkan reminded us of a life-philosophy that distinguished us from religions the world over.
The ancient world, where the generation that built the Mishkan found themselves, spilled over with cults, philosophies, religions, superstitions, and spiritual practices all turning on the axiom that gods had to be worshipped for self-preservation. Were the gods not worshipped, rain would not fall, crops would not grow, and tragedies like war and illness imminently threatened.
The Jewish religion never had anything to do with such paranoia. To the contrary, Torah promised that God’s love was unconditional and that every event, whether pleasurable or painful, took place for man’s own good. Jews have never served God in order to stave off disaster. (Staving off disaster was a pleasant and compelling by-product of doing the right thing, but that is another topic completely.)
Rather, Jews served God because it was wonderful. Wonderful on every level: personally, socially, universally. It was always a privilege and a joy to have a relationship with and to play on the same team as the Almighty, so we received His instructions and did our best to carry them out with love and with pride. The Jewish world-view simply had nothing in common with the ancient cult mentality.
It is a tragedy to live under the shadow of such oppressive beliefs as an angry, selfish god. But the greater tragedy is the limitations such a perspective puts on human ethical standards. If god is driven by selfish desires, then how much more so is mortal man. And if man’s behaviour is determined by selfish desires, then how can he be expected to behave morally? “But, judge, I had to sexually assault her – I just couldn’t control my natural urges!,” claim the depraved monsters who buy into this philosophy today.
Torah asserts that God has no limitations. He is entirely free, and the Godly soul within every human being holds a precious spark of that freedom. Metaphors for God’s freedom in the midrash describe Him as the source of light, the ruler and provider of the universe, from the mightiness of the sun to the intricate power of the human eye.
The spark of Godly freedom in man is a source of light as well. Explain the sages that the Jewish People are like olive oil: “Oil does not mix. So, too, Israel does not mix with the other nations” (Shemos Rabba, 36). Not for lack of trying! The Jewish People have tried to assimilate and become anonymous for ages, but have never managed to succeed. A small, unobtrusive nation, the Jews have nonetheless stayed prominent whether they wanted to or not. History has verified this comment of the sages in spades.
Yet the distinction of the Jews has benefitted all of humanity. Jewish contributions throughout history have been extraordinarily impactful and wide-ranging. Since humble beginnings at Sinai, the Jewish People have changed the western world, and all human culture, beyond recognition. Our mission to be “a light unto the nations” has succeeded, and continues to slowly but surely succeed, thanks to the fact that we are different.
A small candle can chase away a great deal of darkness. The menorah, lit outside the paroches, was kindled with pure olive oil, symbolizing the light spread to the entire world by the uniqueness of the Jewish People. The Torah, too, is called light, “for if you are involved in it, it illuminates every place.”
The flames of the menorah danced brightly upward, whispering the joy of self-refinement and spiritual elevation waiting to be tasted in every mitzvah, for, as the Midrash says, “Anyone who does a mitzvah it is as though he lights a candle before the Holy One and revives his own soul.” Your candle shows you a peek of brilliant clarity and fills you with the sense of dignity and contentment that comes with doing a good deed.
Torah outlines a lifestyle of consistent ethical excellence because we are free to actualize those standards. Just as God is limited by no physical needs, there is a part of us that is limited by nothing. We can actualize that part of ourselves through mitzvos. By doing so, we bring a light into the world, a light that can change everything...