This Week's Torah Portion: Why an Eternal Flame? (Part 20)

Dëvar Torah – Parashath Tëtavveh (Exodus XXVII, 20-XXX, 10)

So begins our parasha:

And you will command the bënei Yisra’él, and they will take to you pure olive oil, pressed for the luminary, to raise up a constant lamp. In the Tent of Assembly, outside the curtain which is over the Testimony, Aharon and his sons will tend it from evening until morning before Ha-Shem, an eternal law for their generations from the bënei Yisra’él.

The great 15th Century sage Don Yitzchaq Abarbanel long ago noted that this commandment is oddly placed. Before the description of the bigdei këhunna (the clothes worn by the kohanim) which occupies most of our parasha, before we read anything of Aharon’s descendants beyond his immediate sons being appointed kohanim (which was not fixed until the incident involving his grandson, Pinëchas [“Phineas”] as reported in Number XXV, 7-6), we find this commandment — “an eternal law for their generations.”

This prompts the thought that there is deeper significance to this passage than the mere technical description of the tending of the Nér Tamid, the eternal lamp.

Many verses in holy Scripture compare Torah to light. For examples: “For a commandment is a lamp and Torah, light” (Proverbs VI, 23); “Your words are a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalms CXIX, 105). The 20th Century Rabbi Baruch ha-Lévi Epstein (Torah Tëmima, Tëtzavveh 23), following the line of reasoning implicit in this metaphor, notes from the position of the mënora, the seven-branched oil lamp, next to the Tablets (the “Testimony” in the above passage) “that the essential place of the luminary here was at the place of the Tablets, which are the foundations of the Torah.” He thus explains the Talmudic observation: “He who sees olive oil in a dream may expect the enlightenment of Torah” (Bërachoth 57a).

So the metaphor is extended. Olive oil, the fuel necessary for the lamp to produce light, is the hachana, the preparation and study necessary to achieve Torah scholarship. “Olive oil returns the learning of seventy years … learning which had already been forgotten seventy years ago” (Horayoth 13b, Rashi ad loc.).

Verses can also be cited which extend the metaphor in the other direction: “Ha-Shem’s commandment is clear, enlightening the eyes”; (Psalms XIX, 9). “For with You is the source of life; by Your light we see light” (ibid., XXXVI, 10). Just as our physical eyes need light to see, so do our spiritual “eyes” see by the light of Torah.

One may go further. There is an old question, a stand-by of the philosophers: Does a tree falling in the forest make noise if no one is there to hear it? The sound waves (or, to avoid mixing metaphors, the light waves) are wasted if there is not an instrumentality, an eye, to see by them and an entity to appreciate what is seen. Therefore, said King Solomon, “Ha-Shem’s lamp is the soul of man” (Proverbs XX, 27). The human soul is the instrument intended to resonate to “Torah-waves,” just as one’s ears resonate to sound waves and one’s eyes to light waves.

What is more, the souls of Israel are intended to be not merely receivers but amplifiers. When fully charged with Torah, their function is to “re-broadcast” that Torah, thereby becoming the “light of the world”: “And nations will walk by your light” (Isaiah LX, 3; cf. Mëtzudath David ad loc.).

If we return to our passage, we can see how the metaphor works itself out.

It is of course possible to make a lamp and raise a flame with all sorts of oils. The pure olive oil, though, free of any dregs or sludge, raises a very clean, bright flame. So, too, the effort put into the study of Torah, the years of work and preparation which go into the shaping of the Torah scholar, must be pure, clean of the sludge of the general culture.

The mishna in Avoth V, 26 provides us with the watchword of the great Torah scholar: “Turn it over and turn it over, for everything is in it.”

There are many well-known anecdotes of such scholars who were able to give quite remarkably effective advice in unusual fields (including, in the case of Rabbi Avraham Yisha‘yahu Karelitz, known as the Chazon Ish, a well-documented case of actual brain surgery!) based solely on their da‘ath Torah, their “knowledge of Torah.”

Further, the olive oil must be kathith. The Talmud (mënachoth 76b) defines this term as meaning “crushed, ground.” The olives must be crushed in order for the oil to be pressed out of them. The passage from Horayoth 13b cited supra tells us that while olive oil restores Torah knowledge, olives themselves promote forgetfulness. Torah scholarship requires yëgi‘a: “effort,” “skull-sweat.”

The “olives” of the Pentateuch and Talmud must have their “oil” pressed from them though dedicated effort; there is no substitute for this, if one wishes to make a true acquisition of Torah knowledge.

And all of this is lama’or, “for the luminary,” in order lëha‘aloth nér tamid, “to raise up an eternal lamp,” that the lamp should be constant and reliable, not flickering and smoky. The goals and aims of one’s Torah study must be pure, for their own sake, to be truly effective. Pure olive oil poured into a dirty container becomes polluted itself. Similarly, a lamp fueled with pure oil but with an unsuitable wick does not draw fuel properly and produces a hesitant, unreliable flame. The student of Torah who is a “clean” receptacle, ready to imbibe the words of his teachers and preserve their purity from external influences, who from constant review can draw smoothly from knowledge ready to hand, will eventually himself produce a clean, bright flame of Torah to illuminate and inspire the souls of Israel, and through them, the world.