Here's the d'var Torah I wrote for this week's portion in 2007 for the now-defunct Radical Torah. Enjoy!
You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly. Aaron and his sons shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting, outside the curtain which is over [the Ark of] the Pact, [to burn] from evening to morning before the Lord. It shall be a due from the Israelites for all time, throughout the ages.
So begins parashat Tetzaveh: with instructions concerning the establishment of lamps outside the ark of the covenant.
When I think of oil and lamps, I remember a day late last summer. We'd spent the afternoon at the home of friends, with our kayak strapped to the roof of my car; after a thunderous but brief rainstorm, we drove home, stopping at a nearby reservoir to take the boat out on the water. I remember the unbelievable stillness, and how afternoon fog overlay the glassy-still surface of the water in the aftermath of the rain.
And then I remember trying to drive home, and stopping for a long while as road crews dismantled and dragged away an enormous tree which had fallen. Once we made it home, of course, we discovered that the tree had taken down power lines. So we settled in for an evening without electricity: an evening without our usual sources of light.
Here at this latitude, days last a long time, even as summer is waning. But in time, night fell. We managed to fill a few pitchers with water from our well before the pump guttered and ceased. We ate a dinner of leftovers from the fridge, opening it as rarely as possible so as to preserve what little coolness lingered. This was a mere three or four days before the new moon of Elul, which meant the night sky was a dark bowl around us. We lit every candle and oil-lamp we could find.
That night as I settled in to sleep, I thought of the words of the ana b'choach prayer that asks God to untie our tangles. All night long, crews labored to untie the physical tangles the fallen tree had made of our power lines. Meanwhile, on another level, at that time in the year I was trying to prepare myself for untying the emotional and spiritual tangles that prevent me from making teshuvah.
Though my physical world was dark, my spiritual world was practically phosphorescent, gleaming and glinting. The knowledge that Elul was coming as soon as the new moon appeared sparkled through me, and the Days of Awe were beacons on the horizon. No matter how dark the night got, I knew that God was present, and that all of the light in our world barely begins to reflect the light God constantly emanates.
Our ancestors kindled lamps of pure olive oil in the Tent of Meeting, above the ark of the covenant. Torah tells us these lamps were to burn all night, from evening to morning, illuminating the dark hours with the certainty of God's presence. Today every synagogue sanctuary has a ner tamid, an eternal light, which burns day and night to offer that same kind of reminder.
The physical light is a kind of mnemonic device, a reminder to us that on the deepest and highest levels divinity is always pouring into and animating the world in which we live. Torah too is light, a source of beauty that is never-ending. I like thinking in these terms, and considering the nature of the divine light in all of us. And as for our physical lights: given the delicious interpretations we can place on light and learning, whether we garner our physical light via oil and wick, or via electricity and filament, hardly seems to matter.
Except that it does matter. In the industrialized global North we're burning through fossil fuels at an alarming rate, which obligates us to consider what we consume. The deeper teaching of the ner tamid -- God's eternal presence -- may be true in the world of essence, but in this world of physicality we owe it to each other, and to future generations, to conserve our power in a sustainable way. Greening our synagogues may be a place to begin. (Solar ner tamid, anyone?)
For me, the continuing question is, how can this week's Torah portion energize us to seek light? Can we find here inspiration both to bring the light of learning into our lives -- and to conserve the physical oil we burn by day, so that we may continue to be a light for one another, and for the world?