Once enacted, mitzvot have the ability to bring light into our world.
Our congregation recently hosted a group of seventh-grade public school students as part of the Religious Diversity Journeys, a program sponsored by the Interfaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit.
The students asked many questions about our synagogue and Jewish tradition. Whenever I explain the aspects of our sanctuary, I have the opportunity to talk about the ner tamid, the eternal light above our ark. Our sanctuary also has two golden, seven-branched menorahs reminiscent of the menorah that stood in the Tabernacle, as discussed in this week’s Torah reading.
At the outset of this week’s portion, we read that God spoke to Moses saying, “You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting.”
Commenting on this verse, the Talmud says that God is making a point about who needs the light of the menorah. God is telling Moses that the oil is requested “for you,” not “for Me.” God doesn’t need the light; we, the Jewish people do.
That makes sense, of course. The menorah served as a symbol of God’s presence for the children of Israel when it stood in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple in Jerusalem.
The ner tamid we find in our synagogues today also serves as a symbol of God’s presence and as a reminder of the fact that the synagogue of today is an echo of the ancient Temple.
One commentator extrapolates from the Talmud’s point that the mitzvah of the oil applies much more broadly. It isn’t only that God doesn’t need the oil; God doesn’t need any of the mitzvot. Even as we do the mitzvot “for God,” they are for us. Even as we are shedding the light of our actions on the world, we derive the benefit of these actions.
There is a tricky but meaningful cycle here: God gives us the mitzvot; we do them as part of our service to God; doing the mitzvot helps us shed light within and beyond our own lives. So, the mitzvot are a gift twice over — they are meaningful opportunities to act in beautiful ways and, once enacted, they improve our lives and the world around us.
There is a difficulty here. There are moments when it is hard to see how the performance of a mitzvah sheds light. There are moments when it is difficult to gather the motivation to do a challenging mitzvah or to gather our own conviction and concentration to do a mitzvah well. I believe these moments are a natural part of life. Sometimes we can’t see the forest for the trees.
The beauty of the explanation of the oil is that it can help us focus on the broad meaning of a life of mitzvot (the forest) even during moments when a challenging mitzvah (one tree) seems to be standing in our way.
Rabbi Steven Rubenstein is rabbi of Congregation Beth Ahm in West Bloomfield.