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Thursday, March 1, 2012

Parshat Tetzaveh: Remembering the Light Within

This week's parashah/portion is tetzaveh (Shemot/ Exodus 27:20 – 30:10). In addition, this Shabbat, which falls just before the festival of Purim, is also called Shabbat Zakhor – the Sabbath of Remembrance. It takes its name from the special additional portion traditionally read from the Torah this week. This portion commands us "Zakhor/Remember what Amalek did to you on your way out from Egypt."

Amalek has long been viewed as the archetypal eternal enemy of Israel. According to the narrative in Shemot/ Exodus, the nation of Amalek attacked the Israelites while on their journey through the desert. Eventually, they were defeated, with the help of God, as well as Moses having his hands hands held up in the air. As long as they were being held up, the Israelites were victorious. If he were allowed to let them down, the tide would turn. This is read just prior to Purim because Haman,the villain of the Purim story found in the Biblical Book of Esther who tried to annihilate the Jews, was a descendant of Amalek.

At first glance, this special portion does not seem to connect at all with the regular Torah reading of Tetzaveh, which focuses on the lighting of the Ner Tamid (continually burning lamp) in the mishkan (tabernacle). However, things in the Torah are seldom as they seem.

The regular weekly parashah begins with God giving instruction to Moses, still on Mt. Sinai, that when lighting the Ner Tamid, the priests are to bring clear oil of beaten olives. Throughout the centuries, various commentators have compared Israel to this clear, freshly beaten olive oil.

Some commentators, such as Khaquiz (1672-1761) believed that just as olives "...yield up its oil only when it is crushed, [so] the people of Israel reveals its true virtues only when it is made to suffer."  Certainly, it seems easy enough to make a connection between this commentary and the people's ability to rise above persecution (just as oil rises to the top) and defeat Haman and the Persian Empire in the Purim story.

Though I am attracted to the idea that we have the ability to show what we are made of in the face of persecution, I am simultaneously troubled by the belief that it is "only" when we are oppressed that we
are able to reveal our true identity. For this simply gives support to the image of Jews as eternal victims and never as victors. This interpretation could also be viewed as an impetus for the us to continue focusing on our history of oppression and persecution the primary reason for us to keep our distinctiveness.

Other rabbis have also likened us to olive, in that we keep ourselves separate from the other nations, just as olive oil remains separate even when mixed with other ingredients. Again, though I would affirm the need for us to keep our distinct identity wherever we may be, I also believe that it is possible – and necessary - for us to do so while also firmly planting our feet in the soil of the nation in which we
live, and in the world community. We live in two civilizations, as Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, of blessed memory, wrote over sixty years ago. Actually, these days, most of us live in more than two civilizations! Talk about multi-tasking!

In sociological terms, I support the salad bowl metaphor, where the ingredients mix, but retain their individual identity, as opposed to the traditional image of the melting pot, where the ingredients merge to such a degree that they lose their unique flavor and taste. However, it could be said that many commentators believed we need to take this a step further and provide separate plates for each ingredient. Though this may make for table that is beautiful to the eye, ultimately the ingredients do nothing for one another and may indeed seem bland and unappealing each on its own.

Finally, as I alluded to earlier, some of the commentators focused on the fact that oil rises above the other ingredients with which it is mixed, and that Jews, when they maintain loyalty to Judaism and the Jewish people, immersing themselves in Jewish knowledge and practice, will always rise above the other peoples of the world. Again, I find this belief in the inherent superiority of Judaism extremely problematic. That immersing oneself in the beauty of Judaism can help one rise to a higher level both spiritually and ethically may indeed be true, but this is only in comparison to the person one might otherwise be without the sense of belonging to something greater than oneself. It does not and should not require us to compare ourselves to other peoples and to assert that we shall always raise to a higher level than they.

Finally, Bereshit Rabbah (a collection of I/rabbinic tales on the book of Genesis) likens the idea to the verse in Isaiah that states we are to be a "light unto the nations." I have no problem embracing the concept of "a light unto the nations." We have many traditions and values that can help others learn how to be better human beings. However, this is not the sole domain of Judaism. Other religions and traditions also have light that they can share with us and with others as well. Our tradition may be unique and beautiful, but it is not inherently superior to others. Therefore, we can and should serve as one of the many lights among the nations that help to bring goodness and godliness into the world. To say that we are meant to be the sole exemplar for all others is chauvinistic and more than just a little "chutzpadik" on our part.

This Shabbat we prepare to celebrate the holiday of Purim, which is the ultimate topsy-turvy, crazy carnival holiday, which celebrates the victory of good over evil and weak over strong. We begin this preparation on Shabbat Zakhor by reminding ourselves of the serious story of how Amalek tried to destroy our ancestors (actually us) during their (our) journey in the desert. When we do so, we must also remember what has continually enabled us to triumph over oppression and adversity for so many centuries, in spite of the odds. 

I am not speaking of our chosen status or any sense of inherent superiority. Rather, it is the sense of connection to community, to God, to holiness and the oneness of the universe, which I believe to be at the core of Judaism, that has helped us to triumph. It is the light of the Ner Tamid, the Eternal Light, that burns within each of us, the light of God, that has enabled us to see through the darkness. It is this Divine light that has also enabled us to recognize that Amalek, whichever form he may take at any given moment, may indeed be the enemy, but he is not invincible.

What ultimately weakens Amalek is their belief that they are separate, set apart, superior to and stronger than all other nations. What makes this a fatal flaw is their belief that their strength and power comes from within them and not from a power greater than they. This is ultimately the flaw of all external enemies, as well as the ego-driven enemies that dwell within each of our own psyches and try to destroy or bring down the best that is within us.

Israel, on the other hand, at its best, recognizes that the strength and the light that is within us, communally and individual, does come from the greater light of oneness we call God. By connecting with that light, we join together in strength and unity. That strength and unity allows us to triumph over the more base and mundane aspects of human nature and over the oppressive and destructive forces in the world. Moreover, the way that strength and unity manifests itself in us as Jews is indeed uniquely Jewish (just as other peoples have their own unique ways as well).

This sense of unity allows us to rise, like pure olive oil, above the forces of hatred and oppression. However, if we are truly to serve as one of the lights among the nations and work towards bringing unity to God's fractured world, we must find those qualities within us not only when we are being beaten down or oppressed, but when we are free, content, and happy with our lives. For if only oppression can cause us to rise up, then we are ultimately lost.

We must also shine the divine light not only on our own people, but on all humanity. We must shine it wherever there is oppression, injustice and violence in our world. That is our responsibility both as human being created in God's image and as Jews. We cannot sit by as the blood of others is spilled, whether in the cities of Israel, the streets of the USA, or in Somalia or Sudan. Yet, we must also shine the Divine light where there is beauty, compassion, and peace in our world, lest we start to believe that all of existence is suffering.

In the end, the challenge for each of us as human beings and as a member of the Jewish people is this: to find the strength, compassion, holiness and beauty that is the essence of the Divine light within us, and allow it to shine on all of God's creation; to do so in our uniquely Jewish way, while also recognizing others unique ways, and to do so without oppression as our sole motivation. This is not an easy task, but it is one that we must undertake, moment by moment, in order to bring the light of the Ner Tamid, the light of the Eternal One, into our world and in order to observe the command of Zakhor – Remember. We must remember the ultimate meaning of our Jewishness, our humanity, and the reason why the light of the Divine is indeed within each of us. Once we remember that we can go out into the world and bring light, joy, salvation and happiness where it is so sorely needed.

Shabbat Shalom (and an early Happy Purim!),


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