Parashat Tetzaveh [Exodus 27:20-30:10 ] / February 7, 2014
By: Rabbi Heather Miller
Shabbat Shalom. What a week it was! I mean it began with the easy Superbowl victory of the Seattle Seahawks and the scandal of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers not actually plugging in their guitars. It then turned to news of the untimely death of actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman. This week we have seen another college campus shooting, and images of hatred and homophobia in Sochi and graffiti on liberal synagogues here in Los Angeles and in Israel.
I don’t know about you, but whenever I walk into the sanctuary, I am carrying all of these pieces of my week in with me. And more. You see, not only do I find myself carrying the weight of the world around me, but I also am carrying my own personal history, my own doubts and my fears, my triumphs and opportunities for growth. But that’s not all that we bring with us into the sanctuary. Many of us also, at times, brings guilt of past relationships gone wrong, family drama, deep hurts. These things can weigh on us like this tallit. The tallit, which represents each and every one of the 613 commandments found in the Torah with each of its 613 knots, is meant to be carried around the shoulders like a yoke! That’s right, the rabbis called this the Ole Malchut Shamayim– the Yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven– and, like a yoke that goes around the shoulders of a beast in the field, so too is this tallit like a yoke around the shoulders of anyone carrying it. And, it is weighty– 613 commandments is a lot of weight.
In this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, we are told that the priests of the Temple were commanded to wear certain garments when they performed the service in the Temple as well. There was the Choshen Mishpat– the breastplate of decision. They would wear it around their necks, and surely this necklace, made of silver and semi-precious stones weighed a lot. Each stone was to represent another one of the 12 Israelite tribes. And, since the priests were all from the tribe of Levi, if we think about it, they must have experienced some emotional weight along with the physical weight of this breastplate because it was a reminder of their forebear’s attempt to murder his brother Joseph generations earlier. Talk about a heavy burden– being commanded to bear a yoke carrying the sins of one’s forebears around one’s neck every service! But, in this week’s Torah portion, we also learn of all of the other garments the priests were commanded to wear.
You you can bet the rabbinic commentators identified some other past failing of the Israelites associated with each and every one of those garments as well. For example, the Etz Chayim Torah commentary notes that the headdress represented the sin of arrogance. The ephod coat which was sometimes used for idols, would remind the wearer of the sins of idolatry. The breeches represented the sins of unchastity. The jacket represented the sins of injustice.1
Many of us, in this sanctuary, may feel that we, too, are weighted down just like the priests were once in their sanctuary over 2000 years ago, by feelings of regret, anger, drama, pain, and responsibility. Is this really the ideal way in which to pray to our Creator? Isn’t this Shabbat when we’re told to be joyous and light and happy? How do we suddenly get into that “Shabbat Feeling” with all of this weight on our shoulders?
But, what it seems God has chosen to do, is to give us, amidst all of that, a symbol of hope with which to adorn our holy sanctuaries. A symbol of witness. A symbol of warmth and awe and miracle. That symbol that is found inside of every sanctuary around the world — that is the Ner Tamid or Eternal Light.
You see, along with all of the detailed instruction to construct the tabernacle, the Israelites were also instructed to punctiliously create an Eternal Light to illuminate the sacred space. We have our own of course lit here in the ark. This eternal lamp is a reminder that amidst all of these deep and dark feelings, our Creator is here– bearing witness to all of the weight that we bring on our shoulders into the sanctuary.
Thinking about it, I realized that perhaps God can’t take away all of our negative experiences– to do so would mean that we lived a halcyon life, a life without depth, a life without trials and tribulations — you know, the kind that shape character.
But, perhaps God can remind us that we are not alone.
One time a dear friend and colleague of mine, Rabbi Carrie Frank Vogel noted that for her, the Ner Tamid was like the house with the porch light at Halloween. You knew you could should stay away from houses without a light on, but you were welcome to knock on the doors of the houses who had an illumined porch light because someone was definitely home. For her, the Ner Tamid was a symbol that God is home. Just as we bear witness to the oneness of God when we recite the Shema– with its enlarged ayin and daled spelling ED– or witness, as we proclaim God’s oneness. So, too, does God, symbolized by the light of the Ner Tamid, simultaneously bears witness to our pain, our struggles our doubts and questions.
And, if we struggle with proof that God exists in the first place?
The Midrash in Exodus Rabbah tells us that this Ner Tamid reminds us of the Torah which is there to light our way. It notes that it can be compared to one who stumbles in the dark. The text says: As he feels his way, he comes up against a stone and stumbles thereon, he comes up against a gutter, falls therein, his face striking the ground…but those who are with Torah give light everywhere…though one is standing in the dark, he will a stone and not stumble, he will see a gutter and not fall because he has a lamp with him.2
In these ways, we acknowledge the weight on our shoulders when we walk into Temple, but also can see the Ner Tamid as a reminder of the presence of God or as a reminder that Torah may help illuminate our paths. Plus, looking at the assemblage of the community, I am reminded that I live amidst a community who experiences and feels, and that we are all on this bumpy road together.
May we each remember that whatever we bring into the sanctuary, no matter how weighty, may we gaze upon this solar powered Ner Tamid and realize that we are not alone, and we are also surrounded by a community who cares.
2. Leibowitz, Nechama, New Studies in Shemot, 515.