The lighting of the menorah opens our parasha:
“Command the Children of Israel and they shall take to you pure olive oil, beaten for the light, to cause the lamp to burn tamid, constantly.” (Shemot 27:20)
The placement of these verses is curious, as the more appropriate place would have been in last week’s parasha, together with the making of the menorah. The verse also stresses not just the lighting of the menorah, but the donating of the oil for that sake. In this way, it echoes last week’s parasha that opens with a command to donate various items to the making of the Tabernacle.
These opening verses may be addressing a deep challenge in the sacrificial service. For while everyone donated to the Mishkan, only the kohanim were able to actually perform the service on a daily basis. This special role of the kohanim is, in fact, the emphasis of our parasha. It is why they require special clothes, it is why they will undergo a sanctification and initiation ceremony – so that they, and no one else – will be dedicated to the service in the Temple. What, then, of the people’s involvement?
The answer, the Torah is saying, is that those opportunities do exist. Don’t overlook them or minimize their importance, we are being told. Even before we start talking about the kohanim, here is a way that everyone can participate on an ongoing basis. Donate the oil for the menorah. The donations in Terumah were a one-time deal, and anyway, it is usually the rich that make those types of donations. But going forward, you can donate the oil for the menorah on any given day. You can also be a part of the daily Temple service.
This idea is reflected in our Shabbat davening, where we have a special blessing, a mishebeirach, for hanosnim ner la’maor, those that pay the electric bill, that donate to the day-to-day upkeep and running of the synagogue. It is a blessing for those who are oskim b’tzarchei tzibbur be’emunah, who volunteer their time to stuff envelopes, to set up the tables for se’udah Shlishit, to organize the bikkur cholim committees and to do the shemira for those who have recently died. It is a blessing for those who for those whose quiet work keeps the lights on, day after day.
Read this way, the giving of the oil is a way for people otherwise excluded to be able to contribute, a way that is often undervalued. It is an important message to us to ensure that everyone can contribute and participate in some way and to make sure that these opportunities are always available. And to make sure that these contributions and these people are given the recognition that they truly deserve.
Hazal, however, took it further. For although the verses demand that the menorah be lit by Aharon and his sons, the Gemara tells us that the “lighting of the menorah is not a priestly service” (Yoma 24b) and Rambam, following this to its logical conclusion rules that “lighting the menorah can be done by non-kohanim.” (Laws of Entering the Sanctuary 9:7). So this, unlike the rest of the service of the Temple, is, at least in theory, more accessible to every individual.
This, then, would explain why this service appears before the making of the priestly garments, whereas the daily sacrifices and the burning of the incense appear afterwards. Those latter two require kohanim, kohanim who are wearing the right garments, who have undergone the sanctification ceremony. That’s a lot of barriers. The lighting of the menorah, in contrast, can be done by anyone, man or woman, dressed in any way and in whatever circumstance.
What is signified by the lighting of the menorah? Light immediately suggests illumination in the metaphoric sense: knowledge, wisdom and understanding. The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 36:3) puts it plainly: light helps you see where you are going. The lighting of the Menorah, for the midrash, represents the learning of Torah. Torah illuminates for us how to live our lives, how to avoid stumbling and sinning, how to serve God as best as we can.
The Midrash goes further. Light can also symbolize a mitzvah, and as such,
“Whoever performs a mitzvah is as if he has lit a light before God and given life to his soul.”
Doing mitzvot in a connected way fills us with meaning, animates us, gives us religious sustenance.
Torah connects us to God and to the wisdom of our tradition, gives us direction, makes our life of mitzvot one of depth and meaning. It can, it must, be accessible to all. The mishna in Avot tells us that the crown of the priesthood is only for Aharon’s descendants, but the crown of the Torah is sitting and waiting for anyone to take. But is this really true? The menorah, in theory, could be lit by anyone, but in practice, only the kohanim ever did it. The Torah, in theory, can be learned by anyone, but in practice, many have been excluded. Until very recently, women were the most obvious of those excluded from serious Torah study, but today, exclusions persist in more subtle, and sometimes invisible, ways.
Those with learning and developmental disabilities are excluded from the vast majority of Jewish schools and synagogues. Sometimes they are actively rejected, told that they do not “fit in” or will impact the image of the school in a negative way. Other times, the rejection is more by omission than commission. There are not sufficient structures and professionally trained staff to make the school or the shul a feasible option.
Left to their own devices, parents try to homeschool these children in Torah, but what resources are available to them? For many people, the texts of Torah learning are themselves the biggest obstacles. They are dense, difficult, often unpunctuated, and written in a foreign language. Where are the Torah graphic novels? Where are the books of halakha, mishna and Gemara that communicate the depth of our tradition with illustrations and stories, that can be absorbed by those with little or no Hebrew reading skills? Such resources would bring light to all: special education is good education.
For the physically disabled the story is not much better. While we are generally good at building ramps, how often is it that we have the resources available so that the blind or the deaf can learn Torah equally with those blessed with hearing and sight? How many synagogues have braille siddurim? How many lectures make signing or closed captioning available? The Talmud tells us that although a blind person does not directly benefit from light, she still makes the blessing, “Who has created the luminaries”, because she benefits indirectly – a person with sight can see and help guide her. But have we done this? How much do those of us with sight share the benefits of our light? How much do we make sure that the light of the menorah is available to all?
We are doing somewhat better in these issues than we had in the past. Many schools are becoming more invested in ensuring that every child receives a Jewish education, and are working at developing special education programs, although there still is a far way to go. I was pleasantly surprised to discover at a JOFA conference a few years ago that signing was available, and that during my lecture, multiple signers were signing at breakneck speed (I tend to talk fast).
But even the best intentioned among us need to be reminded of this constantly. A few years ago, when the yeshiva ran its biannual week-long program on the rabbi and people with disabilities, we video-recorded the sessions but failed to make closed-captioning available, nor did we have any signers present during the week itself. I sometimes feel that I speak a good game, but have not fully internalized the sensitivity and vigilance that is required, that will make providing such access natural and second nature.
In the opening verse of the parasha, the word tamid, constantly, stands out. It is a word that occurs twice more in our parasha, by two other Temple services: the offering of the daily communal sacrifices and the burning of the incense. The message is clear: serving God requires daily dedication and consistency. We cannot build a holy community, a place for God to dwell among us, without daily dedication. When we first learn new halakhot, the details and the attention they demand can overwhelm us, but then they become second nature, they become a self-perpetuating tamid. So, too, our daily dedication must include not just the performance of the mitzvot, but also the lighting of the menorah, making the Torah available to all. The details will overwhelm us at first, but if we attend to them tamid, they will become a tamid that becomes natural. And we will have made for ourselves a community wherein God can truly dwell.