This week our Torah portion (Tetzaveh) will open commanding the Israelites to “light lamps that will burn day into night and night into day,” eternal lights. If I read our sacred mythology as Jung would read a dream, every object is the dreamer—me/us, and so I wonder what it is to be a flame always burning. A lamp generates heat and light—energy. What might my role be as a ready source of power maintained in a perpetual state of warmth and illumination?
The Book of Proverbs teaches: “The human soul is the lamp of the Lord.” Does this means that we have the capacity to light God’s way, or, even more significantly, to light God’s fire, warming God’s heart, arousing God’s creative and sustaining impulse? To be a lamp of the Lord suggests that I am empowered to fashion myself as a medium of divine accomplishment. Perhaps I have what it takes to nurture God in God’s work. Perhaps God welcomes, or even needs, my participation. If my soul is a flame fueling God’s spiritual irrigation of the world, then keeping my wick wet and my fire burning gives me agency in the outcome of it all, and agency give me hope in the face of the very real darkness that exists.
I like to imagine a circuit of energy that connects me to my Creator in a give and take that quickens the flow between us. Our relationship is in that flow. God streams spiritual light into the world on what the Zohar calls a River of Light. God’s light imbues all I encounter with a vitality that has the potential to transform the quality of my life and all life. Our mystical tradition teaches that it is our human work to discover and release the sparks of godliness embedded in Creation so that they fly free, revealed. Affected by God’s light as I encounter it in the world, I can be moved to raise my behavior in the manner that we call “mitzvah,” acting with awareness and appreciation. In turn, God is gratified by all that I notice and honor, and God’s desire is stimulated so that She overflows Her bounty yet again and more light flows from Eden.
I even like to imagine that, as a lamp to the Lord, my dedicated attention to particular mitzvot can shine light on specific needs in our world, inspiring God’s empathy to express itself in ways that stream divine grace into those suffering sectors.
Our Torah portion calls for “pure oil pressed from olives” to fuel the eternal light. Proverbs also teaches that “mitzvot are a lamp and Torah is light.” The Midrash says that we fuel the wicks with which we warm and ignite God, and light Her way, with a purity of action pressed from us like oil is pressed from olives. Pressing ourselves, we put pressure on ourselves to continuously behave in ways that respect all inhabitants of the earth and all that we borrow from God’s Creation. Our mitzvot bring light to the world directly, of course, making it a better place, but through this lens acts of goodness also empower us to affect God, increase God’s light and the way in which it shines upon us.
God’s job is to perpetually renew the act of Creation, ours is to perpetually light God’s fire. Maybe that’s what it means to partner with God creating our world.
There are many directions one can take to answer this question. Yesterday I came across a marvelous teaching of the Netivot Shalom. He frames it in a particular textual peculiarity Genesis 24:1
1. And Abraham was old, advanced in days, and the Lord had blessed Abraham with everything.
The question he raises is why the phrase “advanced in days” is needed. The verse says he was old. Is this not the definition of advanced in days? Basing himself on the traditional understanding that the Torah uses an economy of language, the seemingly needless phrase must teach us something more than just telling us Abraham was old.
He suggests that “advanced in days” is a way of describing how Abraham lived. Each day was lived to the fullest, which for Abraham meant each day was infused with an act of hesed, loving-kindness or compassion. Abraham in Jewish tradition is the exemplar of hesed, the person who opened his tent to wayfarers. The Netivot Shalom says that to live a day without an act of hesed is to uproot the very existence of that day. It is as if that particular day did not happen.
He connects this to a verse in Psalms 89:3 “The world will be built with/through hesed.” (Admittedly this may not be the simple meaning/translation of the verse but it does reflect the Hebrew). He develops this further through the concept articulated in the daily liturgy that God renews creation daily. To renew creation each day means that we must perform each day an act of hesed or loving-kindness/compassion for someone. It is the act of hesed that creates each day anew.
The legacy of Abraham in this teaching is compassion/loving-kindness practiced on a daily basis. This is not to reduce the importance of other commandments or to reduce the complexity of Abraham’s life in any way. Rather it is an expression of the importance of hesed, its creative component, and its accessibility to all. To model Abraham is to be a compassionate human being. To experience God’s hesed is to to practice hesed. The Netivot Shalom also warns us that to act in the opposite manner is to be destructive. Withholding compassion improperly and acting in a negative manner can destroy the day you have lived.
We have all been witness to multiple acts of compassion/hesed that people have performed as a result of Sandy. People of course must remember that many people are still in need and must be hesed personalities each day. But I do wonder in the light of the election how hesed/compassion could be part of the national conversation instead of the millions upon millions essentially wasted on the political campaigns. What if opposing sides on the abortion argument could agree to be pro-life, not as a political agenda, but to work together to provide safe and secure environments for children to be raised independent of one’s belief whether there is a right to abortion. A truly compassionate society does cost money. Imagine if all that campaign money had actually gone to help people and not to bloated self-promotion.
There is an oft quoted description of Torah being a combination of black fire and white fire and, perhaps surprisingly, the white fire is holier than the black fire. The black fire represents the letters of the Torah scroll and the white fire is the parchments upon which it is written. Meaning is derived from not only the letters and the words, but the spaces in between, the gaps between words, the interpretive possibilities the Text leaves open for us, the “seventy faces of the Torah.” While many may correctly debate the boundaries of possible interpretation, the tradition is rich with multiple viewpoints on just about everything.
In a certain twist, the Torah portion for this week, Parashat V’yechi, begins without the white fire, the usual open space between the conclusion of the previous week’s portion and the beginning of the new one. This anomaly also calls for interpretation and the Biblical commentator Rashi suggests that this lack of open space, this closure, alludes to the dimming and closing of the hearts and minds of the Israelites in Egypt as they began to become slaves to Pharaoh and lose their freedom.
The great Hasidic commentator, the Sefat Emet, points out that the actual slavery did not begin until some years later after the passing of all of Jacob’s children. He suggests that with Jacob’s death they suffered a deep spiritual loss, a loss of inner spiritual authenticity, of which they were not even aware. They became closed to their inner spiritual truth and this was the beginning of slavery and exile for the Israelites. They were not even aware of this closing. This inner spiritual loss is the true meaning of exile.
My friend Rabbi Josh Feigelson runs an exciting project for Hillel called “Ask Big Questions.” One of these reflective questions is “Where is home?” It is not really a question of geography, although one’s answer can certainly include certain geographical space. George Steiner, in a beautiful (and somewhat anti-Zionist) essay, Our Homeland, the Text (1985) asserts that home is the “…the ‘textual’ fabric, the interpretative practices in Judaism are ontologically and historically at the heart of Jewish identity.” There is no question that I feel most at home in that textual fabric.
The “big question” the Sefat Emet asks us is “Where is exile?” It is an important question to keep in mind and challenge us as we so often feel at home in so many places and environments that welcome us and engage us. It also compels us to ask that specifically in the places where we feel most comfortable are we remaining true to our inner spiritual truth. Given all that has happened the past couple of weeks in Israel, this teaching can remind us that one can be in exile even at home when our inner core is hidden and our concern for external appearance governs our behavior.