Up to this point in the exodus narrative, the Torah focuses on the commandments concerning the construction, design and furnishings of the Tabernacle. This week’s portion of Tetzaveh focuses on how the Tabernacle functions as a place of worship on a daily basis. Tetzaveh begins with a command that Moses shall instruct the children of Israel to bring him olive oil to keep a lamp continuously lit. This is followed by several detailed instructions for priestly vestments such as a breastplate with ornate stones and jewels.
What interests me right from the start of this parshah is the particular order of the instructions. Just as God began the creation story with a command for light, God begins instructing the functions of the Tabernacle with a command for an eternal light. This eternal light is to burn before the children of Israel forever, from generation to generation. Later, in the Book of Isaiah, God twice describes the Israelites as a “light unto the nations,” raising our status to the prominence of the light.
What is meant by the prominence of light in the Torah? Throughout time, light featured prominently in art, philosophy and motion pictures, such as Star Wars, as a philosophical allusion to goodness, benevolence, hope and healing. Why does a shaft of light connect the beginning of creation, to the eternal flame of our places of worship, to our status as a holy nation? I believe that it demonstrates our obligation to continue the works of creation in a daily effort to spread light.
Today on our campuses, our Hillels continue to serve as a beacon of light to Jewish students as a place of comfort, refuge, resource and community while serving as a light unto the rest of the campus. Over the next few weeks hundreds of Jewish students will leave behind the comforts and trappings of life on a college campus and head down to New Orleans, La., as part of Hillel’s Alternative Break Tzedek initiative. Through hard labor and compassion, these students will bring much-needed light to an area severely darkened by the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina and years of failing social policy.
Shemot Rabbah tells us that “just as the light of a lamp remains undimmed, though myriads of wicks and flames may be lit from it, so he who gives for a worthy cause does not make a hole in his own pocket.” This reminds us that taking time out for social action is not a sacrifice, but an opportunity.
Spreading God’s light need not be limited to huge, annual Hillel initiatives. With the end of the school year approaching on the horizon, the challenges of Passover programming imminent, grants waiting to be written, staff to interview, piles of files to file and e-mails to e-mail, we all sometimes struggle to get out of the dark depths of our work getting in the way of us doing our jobs. A solution: Try shaking things up a bit while also serving as a role model for your students. Reignite the flame within you while enlightening your community through tzedek.
Whether we count our daily impact on Jewish campus life in ones, dozens or hundreds, we can look to the Torah to guide us in what is at the top of God’s to-do list: “Let there be light!” The rest will follow.
Written by Mike Levinstein, Assistant Director, Hillel at Kent State University
Additional commentaries and text studies on Parshat Tetzaveh at MyJewishLearning.com.