Parshat Be-ha’alotekha – The hidden light

What a parade! For twelve days, the tribal prices bring their gifts to the dedication of the Mishkan. On each day, the prince of one of the twelve tribes brings:

  1. One silver bowl (weighs 130 shekels).
  2. One silver basin (weighs 70 shekels).
  3. Each filled with the best flour mixed with oil.
  4. One gold ladle (weighs 10 shekels); filled with incense.
  5. For burnt offerings:
    1. One bull
    2. One ram
    3. One lamb
    4. One goat
  6. For well-being offerings (shelamim)
    1. Two oxen
    2. Five rams
    3. Five male goats
    4. Five lambs.

And on each day, one of the twelve tribes of Israel:

  1. Yehuda
  2. Yisachar
  3. Zevulun
  4. Reuven
  5. Shimon
  6. Gad
  7. Ephraim
  8. Menasheh
  9. Binyamin
  10. Dan
  11. Asher
  12. Naftali

Yes that is twelve tribes, but one tribe is still missing. Which tribe is it? Any guesses? Anyone notice some tribe missing from the list?

Levi! (which includes the Kohanim)

They take no part in the dedication of the Altar, the heart of the very structure that they are to devote their lives of service to setting up, running, maintaining, and breaking down for portage. They have no role in its dedication. The very next passage is from the opening verses of this week’s Torah portion, Be’ha’alotekha.

The Eternal spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and say to him, ‘When you mount the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the lamp stand.’”

After all that fanfare, lasting for twelve days, something that we already know about (for we have heard about the Kohanim being in charge of the menorah, as well as the showbread table, and the incense altar, among their various other duties.) Why now do we have this two-verse long reminder about something that seems to teach us nothing?

The dramatic fall off of the drama was not lost on the Rabbis. They noticed this abrupt change in the narrative, and are also puzzled. Rashi opens his comments to this chapter with this question:

Why does the passage about the lamp stand follow the chapter about the offerings of the chieftains? When Aaron saw what they had done for the dedication, he was upset because neither he nor his tribe had any part in it.

The Rabbis imagine that for twelve days, Aaron and his sons, and their fellow levites are waiting for their turn to make an offering in the dedication of the Altar. Each day, one of the twelve tribes brings their offering of love (with the exact same amount of stuff), and showers the Altar and God with love. Imagine the anticipation of the Levites, who day by day are not called upon to bring their gifts. On that thirteenth and final morning, imagine the disappointment that the Levites must have felt when there was no more ceremony, no more dedication, no more public displays of human-divine affection. The Rabbis imagine how terribly upset Aaron and his sons and the levites must have been.

But then comes along God to remind them that, while they may not have had a hand in the dedication of the Altar, they do get to light seven lamps each and every day.

The Holy One said to Aaron: “I swear, your share in the dedication is greater than their, for you are the one who lights and tends the lamps.”

If you are thinking to yourself, “Wow, that does not seem like a great consolation prize to me,” you are in good company. Ramban (aka Nachmanides) has the same problem with Rashi’s answer to this change in the Torah’s narrative.

What I do not understand is why God would consider lighting the lamps to be a greater consolation to Aaron than the incense he would offer morning and night, for which he is praised in the blessing of Levi, not to mention the High Priest’s meal offering, as well as the ritual of the Day of Atonement. His entire tribe are the attendants of our God! Besides, why should Aaron have been upset? His offering was greater than that of the chieftains, because he had brought so many offerings throughout the eight days of the kohanim’s ordination ceremony.

What is it about the lamps in the menorah that are so special? Ramban notes that in the first passage about the menorah and its lamps, there actually is no menorah:

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 Ark of] 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.

Ramban notices that the menorah is absent from this passage; instead the verse only mentions the lamps or lights themselves (neirot in Hebrew). So what is to be “due from the Israelites for all time, throughout the ages”? It can only be the light, and not the menorah, the lamp stand itself.

So what is it about this light that is superior to the gifts of the princes?

For an answer to that, let’s turn to the Netivot Shalom, the 20th century hasidic master, who brings up Rashi’s same question is his comments to the parshah.

The Netivot Shalom quotes a fuller version of the Midrash that Rashi and Ramban hint at:

All of the princes made offerings, but Aaron did not make an offering with the princes, and he said, “Woe is me, perhaps because of me the Holy Bountiful One will not receive the tribe of Levy!”

The Holy Bountiful One said to Moses: Go say to him, to Aharon: do not be afraid! You were fixed for something greater than this/shelcha gedolah shelahem.” The regular offerings when the Temple stood were the practice at that time, but the lamps will always be lit.

Of course, this can easily be challenged: No they won’t! When the Temple was destroyed, so was the menorah, and therefore the lamps do not get lit. End of discussion.

Of course, there is a rebuttal this rebuttal. According to a midrash in the Tanchuma, an ancient collection of midrashim on Exodus, the Rabbis teach that when the Temple was destroyed, the menorah was secreted away, and the menorah is now eternal and lasts forever.

What is the meaning of this? In what sense does the menorah and its light exist? How does this eternal menorah give light?

When did we first encounter light in the Torah? On day one, there was light.

God said, Let there be light. And there was light. And God saw that the light was good.

What was the nature of this light? Of course by now you may have noticed that sun, moon and stars were all created on the fourth day of Creation, so this light cannot be coming from them.

In the midrash, God sees that one day there will be wicked people who will not deserve this divine light, so God secrets this light away, and keeps it hidden, and it is then called or haganuz, the hidden light. The midrash continues that this light is only perceptible to those two study, labor and toil in the Torah, to those who forgo sleep, eating and drinking. For those people this hidden light is revealed.

What interests me in this midrash is that this light is not a physical light, but rather it is another kind of light. This is the light of the non-physical variety. I also note that God judges this light and calls it Good, which is a nonphysical attribute, which I think hints at what the Rabbis were trying to teach us about this light.

I recently read a letter by the late Lubavitcher Rebbe who was answering a letter to a young person who claimed to be an atheist. Rabbi Schneerson wrote:

I do not accept your assertion that you do not believe. For if you truly had no concept of a Supernal Being Who created the world with purpose, then what is all this outrage of yours against the injustice of life? The substance of the universe is not moral, and neither are the plants and animals. Why should it surprise you that whoever is bigger and more powerful swallows his fellows alive?

It is only due to an inner conviction in our hearts, shared by every human being, that there is a Judge, that there is right and there is wrong. And so, when we see wrong, we demand an explanation. Why is this not the way that it is supposed to be?

That itself is belief in God.

If you were to grind up the entire universe into a fine powder, and spend eternity sifting through the grains of matter, you will not find Love, you will not find Justice, you will not find Forgiveness. Through these qualities are real, very real, they don’t have physical substance.

For me, this is what that light of the first day is all about. This is the light of Goodness, Love, Compassion, Forgiveness, Justice. That light was Good. And “The Good”, HaTov, is but one of God’s many names. (You will see it during the Amidah in the blessing “Modim.”)

The Netivot Shalom teaches:

The divine light is the source of the spiritual life-force (hiyut ruchanit), and along this line the Rabbis said, z’’l (Nedarim 64b), a blind person is considered like a corpse, with any missing limb they are not considered a corpse, only a blind person who does not see they are considered like a corpse even if their bodies are whole with all their limbs.

And thus it is with spirituality, that even one who is whole with complete physicality, if they are spiritually blind, and does not see the divine light, they are like a corpse. Therefore, the first matter that the Holy Bountiful One created was the divine light…, for without this holy light, creation does not have the right to exist, nor does the Jewish people. [Note: When the Netivot Shalom talked about the Jewish people or Israel, there are some who think that he is referring to all of humanity; but some think he is being particularist. I prefer to give him the benefit of the doubt.]

Picking up from Rabbi Schneerson’s point: If one were to live their lives blind to all of these spiritual qualities, and only saw the physical world in front of them without any love, compassion, forgiveness, moral sense of right and wrong, they would be like the walking dead. Who could live like that? I cannot even conceive of a perception of the world limited to the material.

This is why Aaron’s gift is greater than that of the Princes.

The Netivot Shalom continues:

The light of the menorah is a continuation of the hidden light, the divine light that the Holy Bountiful One created on the first day, which is the foundation of existence [of the Jewish people]. The light of the menorah illuminated all of the people Israel with the hidden light to light up their souls, and to insert light into the Jewish mind. This helps a Jew to do good, and the essence of all service of God is in essence when a Jews feels the divine light, and also turns away from evil, as the Rabbis said (Sotah 3a) A human does not make a transgression, but rather a errant spirit enters him.

All of the power of the evil inclination is when it confuses the mind [of a Jew], but when a [Jew] one has clarity, and he feels the mental illumination, then it exists in him…that at the moment when the light illumines [a Jew], all the power of the appetites are like nothing and naught, for they see that they are all vanity of vanities.

When we only look at the world in a material way, there is inherent danger that we will see the world as a place that only exists to serve our own physical needs, including seeing other people as mere agents there to fulfill our appetites and desires. This is why the Netivot Shalom mentioned that people who labor in Torah forgo sleep, eating and drinking. I understand what he wrote to mean that these activities are not the forces that primarily drive us in the world. Yes, we must meet our physical needs, but only so that we can focus on spiritual matters, which is pursuing the Good, which means doing Good in the world. Our physical drives becomes “vanities,” not worthy of goals in and of themselves, but means to achieve higher ends.

The Midrash Tanchuma adds: If all the vessels could be taken from Israel, and the Temple was destroyed, the light of the menorah is still impossible to take from Israel, because without the divine light Israel [humanity] cannot exist, and therefore the menorah was hidden away, and remains eternally existent, because the light of the menorah perpetually sheds light on Israel [humanity], for those who labor in Torah, who tire to perceive the light, for them the light is revealed. And this is the matter of your exists forever, for the light of the menorah is impossible to take from Israel, and the lamps forever shed light, for whenever a Jews is awakened and feels light, this is the light of the eternal menorah.

What does it mean to labor in Torah, to toil in Torah? I understand this to mean Torah in the largest sense of the word possible, which I learn from our daily liturgy. What it means to toil and labor in Torah comes from the blessing before the Shema, Ahavah Rabbah (Great Love):

“Help our hearts and minds to understand, to become wise, to hear, to learn, to teach, to keep, to do, and to fulfill all the words of your Talmud Torah with love.”

Aaron’s was greater because all of the gifts of the princes of the tribes were physical, material gifts, that had weight and dimensionality: Gold, silver, incense, flour, oil, flesh and bone.

Aaron’s gift was greater than theirs because it was giving the gift of the divine light to Israel day in and day out. This was the only gift given during the dedication of the altar that still matters today. It is the light of Torah that we continually bring into the world. Each of us contain a small spark of the hiyut ruchanit (spiritual life-force), which means that we don’t just see the physical and the material. It is this perception on the non-physical that drives us as a people, that drives us to pursue justice, to fix the world, to make ourselves better, to study Torah, to live Torah and to walk the Torah path in the world, and that spreads the divine light wherever we go.