The Torah busies itself in this week’s parsha to point out the necessity for an eternal light to always burn in God’s tabernacle. The Talmud points out that the light was certainly not for God’s benefit. The Lord is always beyond our physical needs and environment. The commentators to the Torah always searched for a deeper and more understandable meaning to this commandment.
Many ideas have been presented to explain the necessity for this eternal light. One that I wish to mention here in this essay is that the eternal light represented the eternity of Israel and its survival as a people no matter what. Just as the Lord inexplicably demanded that an eternal light be present and lit in the Tabernacle and the Temple, so too is the survival of Israel to be seen as something that is truly inexplicable.
The lights of Hanukkah are the successors to the eternal light of the Tabernacle and the Temple. They too symbolize the unlikely and miraculous, the triumph of the weak and few. This symbolic light is meant to guide us in our understanding of Jewish history and life. The otherwise seemingly unnecessary light represents God’s guarantee of Jewish survival and of the great lesson that a small candle while burning can illuminate a great deal of darkness.
The Lord needs no light but humankind cannot operate in the darkness. The prophet Isaiah chose his words carefully when he charged Israel to be “a light unto the nations.” Our mere existence and accompanying story of survival is enough to be a guide to a very dark world and lead it towards a better future and a brighter day.
When the eternal light of the national existence of the Jewish people was dimmed by the Roman legions, the Jews installed a physical eternal light in their synagogues. But just as the eternal light in the Tabernacle and Temple required human effort and physical material – pure olive oil – so too does our current eternal light require human effort and physical material.
Lighting a dark room requires ingenuity, ability, planning and the correct fixtures. Since Torah is compared to light in Scripture, and it too is an eternal light, it is obvious that the maintenance of Torah and the spread of its light also require human effort, talent and industry. Even the glorious eternal light that hangs in front of the ark in our synagogue has to have its bulbs changed and cleaned periodically.
The Lord, Who needs no light, demands from us that we provide light in the physical and spiritual sense of the word. The High Priest of Israel was charged with the daily cleaning, preparing and lighting of the eternal light in the Temple. The Lord never provided for automatic lighting but rather for a light that would be generated and cared for by human beings in the daily course of their godly duties.
That remains the case today as well. Though our survival as a people is guaranteed, paradoxically, it cannot happen without our efforts and dogged commitment. We must light our lamp ourselves in order for it to burn brightly and eternally.
Rabbi Berel Wein
Rabbi Berel Wein- Jewish historian, author and international lecturer offers a complete selection of CDs, audio tapes, video tapes, DVDs, and books on Jewish history at www.rabbiwein.com