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Parshat Tetzave

Posted by rabbiart on April 21, 2008

If the parshiot had topical rather than incidental names, then this parshah would be called “Ner Tamid” for the light which is to be perpetually lit in front of the altar. “Now command the Israelites that they take pure beaten olive oil for a light, to lift a constant lamp in the meeting tent in front of the curtain before the testimony, so that Aaron and his sons will light it from evening to morning before G-d. It is a permanent law for the generations of the Israelites.”

Note that this commandment, although to be carried out by Aaron and his descendants, is given directly to the Israelites. This is underscored by the unusual ending “me’et b’nei Yisrael” (from the Israelites). The light referred to is a seven branched candelabra (burning oil on wicks and not candles).

The “Eternal Light” as it is often called, was not intended to be perpetually on. It was lit each evening in the late afternoon, and burned through until the morning. Because it is specifically commanded, the rabbis understood that the light should even be lit, and tended to, on Shabbat. According to Rashi “tamid’ means “regularly scheduled” or “from night to night”. However, Nachmanides quotes Rashi and disagrees with his interpretation of “Tamid”. He instead argues that the lights were in fact constantly lit.

Does it matter whether the Ner Tamid is lit constantly, or re-lit every day? Maybe not, and since we no longer have priests and levites manually kindling fires in the Temple for sacrifices as well as light, the question might be moot. But it is still our job to take care and create a place to meet with HaShem, so that HaShem may dwell amongst us, and be our G-d.

Within this parshah there are seven mitzvot, all having to do with the interior of the sanctuary.

#98 to kindle the menorah in the sanctuary
#99 that the kohanim should wear special garments
#100 that the breastplate should not come loose from the ephod on the kohen gadol
#101 not to tear the me’il (robe) of the kohanim
#102 to eat the flesh of the hattat (sin-offering) and the asham (guilt offering)
#103 to burn incense twice a day on the altar
#104 not to burn or offer up anything on the altar except the twice daily incense

Except for the first of these mitzvot, it is hard to find any vestige of the remaining six mitzvot derived from this parshah. We no longer offer sacrifices or incense on the altar, and we no longer have kohanim wearing special garments and performing sacrificial services in the Temple or the Tent of Meeting. On the other hand, the mitzvah of the Sanctuary Lights is given as a permanent law – hukat olam ldorotam – a permanent law for your generations.

וְאַתָּה תְּצַוֶּה אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ אֵלֶיךָ שֶׁמֶן זַיִת זָךְ כָּתִית–לַמָּאוֹר: לְהַעֲלֹת נֵר, תָּמִיד. בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד מִחוּץ לַפָּרֹכֶת אֲשֶׁר עַל-הָעֵדֻת, יַעֲרֹךְ אֹתוֹ אַהֲרֹן וּבָנָיו מֵעֶרֶב עַד-בֹּקֶר–לִפְנֵי יְהוָה: חֻקַּת עוֹלָם לְדֹרֹתָם, מֵאֵת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.

There are sixteen places in the Torah where the phrase hukat olam is used in connection with a mitzvah. The first two are the Pesach sacrifice, and the observance of the Pesach holiday. The third is our passage. The fourth and last in Shemot is also from this parshah; the commandment concerning the priestly costumes. The fifth is a prohibition against eating the blood of ritual sacrifices, and the sixth is the set-aside portions for Aaron and his descendants. The seventh is given after the death of Aaron’s two sons, and prohibits drinking wine in the Ohel Mo’ed (Tent of Meeting). The eighth occurrence details the holiday of Yom Kippur. The next is a prohibition against offering sacrifices to satyrs. The tenth through thirteenth come closely together, repeating Yom Kippur and providing for the pilgrimage festivals; Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot. The fourteenth repeats the institution of the Ner Tamid. The fifteenth mention prescribes that there should be one law for the citizen and the sojourner. (Appearing to deal specifically with ritual offerings by fire). The last permanent law specifies that only the Levites shall do the service in the Ohel Mo’ed.

So we see right away that a number of Torah provisions that are described as permanent for all generations are no longer possible to observe, while some are easily accessible. Celebrating our holidays is certainly available to us in our day, but what are we to make of – and do with – priestly costumes and the duties of the Levites? What are we supposed to learn from this week’s parshah? Not an easy question to answer, but like any Jew, I choose to answer these questions by posing even more questions. As someone once said in answer to the question of “Why do Jews ask so many questions?” Why not?

We might bring these questions to our study of the Torah portion.

  • Is there, or should there be, a role for Cohanim and Levi’im (priests and levites) in a contemporary Jewish community?
  • If there is a role, what might it be?
  • If we have effectively “lost” roles for Cohanim and Levi’im, what have we lost from our tradition and our community, if anything?
  • Other than the obvious (and possibly applicable) answer of Rabbis and Cantors, is there a contemporary analog of Cohanim and Levi’im?
  • Might the Torah be having something to say about our current dilemmas around immigration when it says (in a ritual context) that there should be one law for both the citizen and the sojourner?
  • What do we “do” with the passages that describe priestly vestments? Is there a teaching here that we can use in our contemporary Jewish lives? Or something to learn about how we organize our Jewish communities?

Whatever the answers to these questions, or other questions we might bring, the Torah itself tells us what the purpose of these passages are when we get to Shemot Chapter 29:45-46. As Casey Stengel is reputed to have said in some other context “You could look it up. In fact, here’s an online reference to Chapter 29 so you can go and read what the Torah says is the purpose of the Ohel Mo’ed and everything within.

Shabbat Shalom

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