This Week's Torah Portion: Metaphors of Light and Flame

Dëvar Torah – Parashath Tëtzavve (Exodus XXVII, 20 — XXX, 10)

So begins our parasha:

Vë’atta tëtzavve eth bënei Yisra’él vëyiqchu élecha shemen zayith zach kathith lama’or lëha‘aloth nér tamod, B ‘Ohel Mo‘ed michutz laparocheth asher ‘al ha‘ëduth ya‘aroch otho Aharon uvanav mé‘erev ‘ad boqer lifnei Ha-Shem chuqqath ‘olam lëdorotham mé’éth bënei Yisra’él.

And you will command the bënei Yisra’él and they will take to you pure olive oil pressed for the light to raise an eternal flame. In the Tent of Assembly outside the curtain which is on the Testimony, Aharon and his sons will arrange it from evening until morning before Ha-Shem, an eternal law for their generations from the bënei Yisra’él (XXVII, 20-21).


This brief paragraph is arguably out of place; its logical location is after the description of the great seven-branched mënora in last week’s parasha (XXV, 31-40). Furthermore, what are we to make of the instruction that the bënei Yisra’él bring the olive oil to Moshe? The Ramban explains “that they should bring the oil before [Moshe] and he will determine if it is pure and properly pressed,” but surely somebody else could be trusted with such a routine inspection. Also, this would be all right for the generation of the Wilderness, but the verse tells us that this is a chuqqath ‘olam lëdorotham. What would be when Moshe was no longer with them?

The Talmud (Mënachoth 76b) makes an even more peculiar point about the phrase “vëyiqchu élecha shemen zayith zach,” élecha vëlo’ li, lo’ lë’orah Ani tzarich. “[T]o you and not to Me, I do not need its light.” What is the hava amina, the underlying supposition? Who imagines that the Creator of the Universe needs a physical source of light?

It is the dislocation of this paragraph from its logical place that causes it to cry out for interpretation, and suggests as well that its most important reading might not necessarily be the literal one. A different Talmudic passage which turns on the same phrase may offer us some insight:

One who sees olive oil in a dream may expect the illumination of Torah, as it is said, “and they will take for you pure olive oil.” (Bërachoth 57a).


The connection between our phrase and this dream interpretation seems rather tenuous, but the Torah Tëmima comes to our aid: the dërasha, he tells us, is made mishum dë ‘iqqar mëqom hama’or kan haya bimqom haLuchoth shehém yësodei haTorah. “[B]ecause the main location of the luminary here was at the location of the Tablets, which are the foundations of the Torah,” as is made clear in v. 21 (the Tablets are “the Testimony”).

Torah is often compared to light: Ki nér mitzva vëThorah or (“For a mitzva is a flame and Torah, light,” Proverbs VI, 23), and so we see that the pure, eternal flames to be raised from this purest of oils is a metaphor for Torah.

The Ha‘améq Davar carries the metaphor even further: the aron haqodesh which housed the Luchoth represented the written Torah and the qabbala, the oral elucidations which Moshe had received at Sinai. The mënora with its seven branches and elaborate decorations of buttons and flowers represents all of the techniques of talmud, the application of the power of analysis and logical reasoning to the “raw material” of the basic qabbala — the yësodei haTorah, to use the Torah Tëmima’s phrase.

In support of this thesis, the Ha‘améq Davar cites a midrash which tells us that Rabbi Tarfon, whenever he would hear a particularly well-constructed argument, would exclaim “Kaftor vaferach!” (“Button and flower!”), referring to this aspect of the mënora.


With this in mind, we can come to grips with the cryptic passage from Mënachoth cited above.

As has been noted many times in many different contexts, we and the world in which we live were designed according to the Torah, for the purpose of observing Torah. Im lo’ bërithi yomam valayla, proclaimed Ha-Shem through His prophet, chuqqoth shamayim va’aretz lo’ samti. (“If My covenant is not by day and by night, the laws of heaven and Earth I did not set,” Jeremiah XXXIII, 25).

But as the Talmud (Bava Mëtzo‘a 59a) famously notes in a different connection, lo’ bashayim hi’. The Torah is not in heaven, it has been given into our hands to study, to administer, to observe. Ha-Shem is not in need of the light of Torah; we are.

But the problem is that logic and analysis can be misapplied. There is such a thing as gilluy panim baTorah shelo’ kahalacha,“revealing” facets in the Torah which are not, in fact, there. This is a worrisome possibility; how are we to know if our logical deductions and novellae are truly valid points? How do we know that the “oil” is pure and properly produced?

The answer is that it has to be presented to Moshe, our Teacher.

Israel is not a widower. We have great scholars in every generation who are fitting for that generation, and new works are properly published with hakamoth, letters of approbation. Recognized rabbinic authorities certify, as it were, that the ideas and conclusions arrived at in these works are legitimate, kosher, in line with the fundamental principles and the work of the many generations of scholars who have gone before us.


It is because Israel needs to have some assurance of the “fuel’s” reliability to rise a clean, bright nér tamid that the “oil” of their contributions to the body of Torah literature must be inspected first.

This week we also read parashath Zachor (Deuteronomy XXV, 17-19), thereby (if we listen with the proper intentions) fulfilling the mitzva of remembering ‘Amaléq. The reason for reading this passage now, in such close proximity to the holiday of Purim (which occurs on Sunday), is of course the proximate historical vent which underlies Purim: Israel’s salvation from the genocidal scheme of Haman ha’Agagi, lineal descendant of Agag, the last ‘Amaléqi king (of whom we read in this week’s haftara, I Samuel XV).

Rabbi Yisha‘ya haLévi Horowitz, the great 17th century rabbi of Prague, in his monumental classic Shënei Luchoth haBërith, in a comment on parashath VaYéshev, brings down that there is an intimate connection between the parashoth of the Torah and the seasons in which they are read. If so, since our parasha occurs in combination with parashath Zachor and in proximity to Purim, it is legitimate to seek that connection.

There is a famous midrash whch is cited by Rashi at the beginning of Genesis. The Torah, we are told, begins with the word bëréshith bishvil haTorah, sheniqréth “réshith darko” uvishvil Yisra’él sheniqrë’u “réshith tëvu’atho” (“because of the Torah, which is called ‘the fundament of His way [Proverbs VIII, 22] and because of Israel, who are called ‘the fundament of His crop’ [Jeremiah II, 3]”). We thus see that the term réshith is used for both the Torah and Israel. The same term is also used of ‘Amaléq: Réshith goyim Amaléq (“the fundament of nations is ‘Amaléq,” Numbers XXIV, 20).


The 20th century Rabbi Eliyahu Ki Tov, in his encyclopaedic Séfer haToda‘a, tells us in the name of the Rabbis that réshith refers to tëruma. He goes on to explain “that the essence of everything and the principle which is in it is its réshith and its tëruma.”

 Therefore, we can understand that the essence and principle of Torah is that it be studied, not as an intellectual exercise, but in order to internalize it and observe it. The tëruma which arises from this (as we learned in last week’s parasha, the root meaning of tëruma is to be raised up or exalted), its yield, so to speak, is the mamlecheth kohanim vëgoy qadosh — the “kingdom of kohanim and holy nation” (Exodus XIX, 6). This is Israel, when we are living up to our potential and fulfilling our purpose in the world.

Thus, Israel’s essence is Torah, the shemen zayith zach which, in order to be properly assimilated, must be kathith lama’or, “pressed” in order to obtain light. The tëruma, then, is the bright, clean nér tamid of a life of mitzvoth and service to Ha-Shem, individually and collectively.

‘Amaléq’s essence, on the other hand, embodies those qualities which separate the nations of the world from Israel, forcing Israel to dwell apart from them and bringing them into opposition to Israel’s mission of service to Ha-Shem.

In the words of Onqëlos’ paraphrase, ‘Amaléq is the réysh qëravaya dëYisra’él (“chief of the battles of Israel.” The Ba‘al jaTurim ad loc. notes that the gimtriya, or numerical value, of réshith goyim is equivalent to that of shenilcham bëYisra’él, “who fought with Israel.”)


But ‘Amaléq’s fate (in the same verse from Numbers) is vë’acharitho ‘adei ovéd (“and his end is destruction”). Israel has the mitzva: Timche eth zecher Amaléq mitachath hashamayim lo’ thishkach (“Erase the memory of ‘Amaléq from under the Heavens; do not forget” Dueteronomy XXV, 19).

How are we to “erase” ‘Amaléq’s “memory” while simultaneously “not forgetting”? The Ramban clarifies: remember the deeds (i.e.. the tëruma) of ‘Amaléq, that you will ever be able to justify having wiped them out. Rashi tell us that the purpose of this exercise is “that the name of ‘Amaléq not be remembered” by the rest of the world. The réshith of ‘Amaléq, the qualities among the nations which make them reject Torah or try to “adapt” it with additions and deletions, is to be abolished in the world, so that they, too, will be brought closer to their Source.

The tool with which faithful Israel will accomplish this goal is the eternally exemplary life of Torah observance, the brightly visible nér tamid which rises from the shemen zayith zach. That is the connection between our parasha and the season.


That orah refers to the light of Torah may perhaps be inferred from the feminine pronominal ending (literally “her light”) since Torah is a feminine noun, whereas shemen (“oil”), the logical antecedent, is masculine.



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