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Lighting the Way - Eternally

By: Rav Jonathan Bailey

At the beginning of this week’s parsha, God tells Moshe to command Bnei Yisrael to collect pure olive oil for ‘an eternal light in the mishkan before God’. This seemingly simple two-versed section raises many questions from three different contexts.  

1) The placement of this section within its own context is puzzling, for it comes right after the conclusion of the description of the mishkan’s vessels, and right before the description of the kohain clothing – what connection does the description of a particular vessel’s service have here? Also, although the shulchan and mizbeach ha’nechoshet were both previously mentioned, the services performed with those vessels are not described like the menorah’s is here. Why is the menorah’s service particularly chosen?

2) Later in Va’yikra (25; 1-4) the Torah repeats this same command almost verbatim, except for the final verse which states that this oil will be used ‘for the menorah in the mishkan’.  Why is the ‘real’ reason for this oil left out of our parsha’s description and why feel the need to repeat the entire command again in parshat Emor?

3) Earlier in Terumah, included in the list of what Moshe was to collect from Bnei Yisrael, is oil for lighting! Why repeat this command to collect oil when it was included in the original collection for the mishkan? Also, the wording for the original command in Terumah was:  

a)     speak to Bnei Yisrael’,

b)     ‘take to Me

c)      ‘oil for lighting’,  

and in our section, the words used are:  

a)     command Bnei Yisrael’,

b)     ‘take to you

c)      olive oil pure and crushed for lighting’ – how are these changes significant? 

Answering question #2, we can assume that the description of the collection of the oil in Emor is its ‘rightful’ place: a) because of its placement alongside the description of the bread for the shulchan; and b) because it specifically states that the oil is used for the menorah, a ‘technically’ fitting motivation; therefore, the nearly identical paragraph in our parsha (sans these two defining characteristics) should be understood as specifically not used for a technical guide for the menorah’s employment but something more abstract and therefore symbolic in nature. Answering question #1, we can assume that this more symbolic message is somehow linked either to the conclusion of the description of the mishkan’s vessels or as an introduction to the kohain roles in the mishkan and their ‘uniforms’ for that job. We can more readily accept the latter because within this ‘oil’ paragraph, Aharon and his sons are mentioned, (although not formally introduced as official personnel of the mishkan) lending to a fluid introduction into their formal introduction into the mishkan service and the clothes they will require for this position. But why do we need an introduction to their appointment at all and why is the repeated ‘oil’ command a fitting one?  

For this we need to answer question #3. And to answer #3 we have to see the entire text of our section: 

 ‘And you [Moshe] command Bnei Yisrael and they will take to you olive oil pure and crushed for lighting; to be raised as an eternal flame.’

‘In the ohel moed, outside of the dividing curtain that is on the testimony, Aharon and his sons will arrange it from morning to night before God; a law for all time and all generations from Bnei Yisrael.’ (24; 20-21) 

As pointed out earlier, the command for oil in this section has three distinct differences from the previous oil collection (in Terumah) (bolded): 1) it is a command (and not a request for donations); 2) it is to be brought to Moshe (and not directly to ‘Me’ [God]; 3) it is a processed oil that they must bring (as opposed to merely ‘oil for lighting’). Added to this last aspect, this section characterizes this oil to be used: a) as an eternal flame, b) before God, c) eternally brought by Bnei Yisrael. Interestingly, Bnei Yisrael are responsible for forever ‘raising this eternal flame’ and providing the oil for it, while Aharon and his sons are commanded merely to ‘arrange’ it.  

All these aspects together create a theme of imposed, eternal responsibility for this ‘eternal flame before God’ solely on the shoulders of Bnei Yisrael: they must bring it (‘command’), they must process it (‘pure and crushed’), they must ‘raise’ it as the eternal flame’ and they must do this forever, for all generations. In this section, Bnei Yisrael are the enforced active facilitators of the existence of this eternal flame and Moshe (only as the collector) and Aharon and his sons (only as the arrangers) are presented as passive players in this process; a theme not emphasized in the original description of the oil’s collection in Terumah 

And this is why this two-versed section was necessary in its position. After the description of the actual structure and vessels of mishkan and before the active players in this mishkan’s service are enumerated and consecrated, God states that although there will be specific people carrying out the technical services within the mishkan, Bnei Yisrael must understand that it is their mishkan, their vehicle with which to relate to God and invite Him into their presence. Their responsibility does not end with their donations formed into the building and vessels they will see before them; they are required, eternally, to be the truly active ones within this project – no one else, neither Moshe (in the desert) or the kohanim to come (in the Beit Hamikdash) will assume this responsibility. The entire nation must accept this responsibility concerning the mishkan/mikdash which they dedicated themselves to creating, and therefore, must dedicate themselves to preserving. 

And how is the ‘eternal light’ the paradigmatic example of Bnei Yisrael’s eternal mishkan/mikdash obligation? As R. Hirsch points out, the detailed description of this flame’s position (‘in the ohel moed outside of the dividing curtain that is on the testimony’) defines its symbolic significance: it is to stand ‘in the ohel moed’: the place of meeting between God and the nation yet ‘outside the dividing curtain that is on the testimony’: Bnei Yisrael must be enlightened from outside God’s Torah, to glean from it and not look to play a creative role within it, reforming it, in order to facilitate the truest of meetings with Him. This section demands from Bnei Yisrael to eternally use this structure, founded upon their desire for God’s presence in their lives, to sustain and strengthen this relationship forever; they must continue to learn from and be guided by the Torah and to appreciate how this process will establish the relationship they yearned for as expressed through their original free-willed donations.  

(Interesting to note, that when Moshe reviews all they will need for the mishkan at the beginning of Va’Yaqel, he mentions ‘the oil for lighting’ (35; 8) and, in the context of the menorah seven verses later, he mentions ‘the oil for lighting’ again (ibid 14), i.e. after God has conveyed the message (to us) through the text, Moshe neatly distinguishes between the oils to aptly convey the same message to Bnei Yisrael). 




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