Guest D’var Torah: Inner and Outer Lights

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Photo by Abby Kihano on

Parsha Tetzaveh,  Exodus 27:20 – 30:10

For Shabbat Friday-Saturday, February 11-12, 2022

I had the honor of delivering the Davar at my primary shul last week. It was for Terumah. I now see how closely interrelated are Terumah from last week and Tetzaveh for this week.

Last week, as I interpreted it, the parsha was mostly about the assembly manual for the portable sanctuary and secondarily about the people who would build the sanctuary. I interpreted, “Let them build Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” as less about the building itself and more about that G-d will dwell among the types of people who would desire to build the sanctuary  The phrasing was b’tochem, so that I will dwell among them, not so I will dwell in the building. Life is about being with the people; G-d is about being with the people.

This, surely, has been one of the major lessons of our time. Theologically, we ask, “If G-d is everywhere, how can some places be more sacred than others?”  The Kotzke Rebbe taught, if the question is, “Where does G-d dwell,” then the response is, “Wherever we let G-d in.”  We have even transformed that quote into a song we teach children in synagogue religious schools.

In the pandemic, we have learned to make ZOOM(™) boxes a sanctuary, as well as parking lots and green-spaces. When we turn an ordinary place into an extra-ordinary/extraordinary place, that place can become sacred.

Yet, beyond that, the places we have designed to be sanctuaries first, are very special places indeed. As Joni  Mitchell wrote and sung, “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone.”  We are beginning to see  reflections by clergy of all faiths who are re-entering their COVID-closed sanctuaries to check on them, to prepare them, to pause and meditate there, and to always sense that these are sacred spaces because we have made them worthy of G-d’s presence there with us, because it is as much about us as it is about the building. That was Terumah last week.

This week, in Tetzaveh, I find almost the inverse relationship, that the major emphasis is on the people in the sanctuary and less emphasis on the construction of the sanctuary, yet both elements are still there.

This parsha goes into depth on the outer wardrobe of the kohanim.   As a kohen who is spoiled now, with a wife whose degree and career have been in fashion and who selects my wardrobe, if I was on scene as a kohen in Biblical days, this parsha would have been my wardrobe guideline on what to wear in the sanctuary — on the outside.

Beyond that, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, (z”l), pointed out, “With parshat Tetzaveh, something new entered Judaism:  Torat Kohanim, the world and mindset of the Priest. Here, we are all kohanim, by heritage, like me, and by mindset, with what we all bring to our lives.

Perhaps this is why the one element in this parsha about the construction of the sanctuary, which was not in last week’s assembly manual but rather in this week’s people instructions, is the opening command that “Aaron shall set up a light to burn continuously in the sanctuary. It will serve as a light for G-d for all generations.”  It is the Ner Tamid, the physical light that burns continuously in our sanctuaries.

For all of us to share Torat Kohanim, we need to supplement the Ner Tamid, the outer light, with the Aish within us, the burning passions for what is important for us and for our world.

Therefore, perhaps it is fitting that this element of the sanctuary construction, the eternal light, comes in this parsha, because, we, the people in the sanctuary, need to have our own eternal flames.

In Chanukah, we are blessed by the beauty of candles that last but a short time in front of us. Yet, the contemporary Jewish philosopher, Peter Yarrow, wrote in his song lyrics about the lights of Chanukah, “Don’t let the light go out.”  May we be blessed to have our inner lights, our aish, burn like our ner tamid.

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