Dedicated to the Memory of Boaz Yaacov ben Vered ve’Dov, z”l

Aaron, the brother of Moshe and the first high priest of Israel, was feeling awful. He had just witnessed the incredible dedication offerings of all the tribal leaders, with their silver and golden bowls, fine animals, incense, oil, and fine flour, and yet neither he himself nor his tribe had been assigned a specific day to bring an elevation offering alongside the other tribes and their leaders. Feeling left out, marginalized, and disheartened, the Midrash records G!d’s consoling words to him: “G!d said to Aaron, “By your life! Yours is greater than theirs, for you kindle and prepare the lamps of the Menorah” (Tanchuma 5).

But, asks the Ramban, why did G!d console Aaron with the service of the lighting of the Menorah, which opens this week’s sedra? Why not speak of the twice daily incense offering that he brought, or the Yom Kippur service that only Aaron and his sons could perform? The Ramban explains that the Midrash (cited by Rashi) soothed him with the prophecy that a great miracle involving the lamp of the Menorah would be performed by his offspring, the Hasmoneans, and that miracle would be commemorated by the lighting of a Menorah.

What’s more, the involvement of Aaron’s descendants in Chanukah would be greater than the parade of the offering of the tribal leaders, for the Altar they were dedicating in the desert would only be used while it and the Temple in Jerusalem stood; while the Chanukah (literally “dedication”) of kindling lights instituted by his tribe would be celebrated for all eternity.

I would add that there is something deeply comforting about the act of kindling a flame, in itself. Have you ever struck a match in total darkness? Whether out camping, fumbling with cold fingers to get a fire going, or after an unexpected blackout hits your home, there is nothing quite like the warm relief that spreads through us when we light even a single candle. The darkness dissipates. We can see again, and once again there is a flicker of hope.

The Menorah

The golden Menorah crafted in the desert to resemble the form of a tree, complete with flowers, knops, and branches, is the oldest symbol of Judaism. Over two thousand years before the “Star of David” became associated with the Jews, the form of the Menorah was inscribed on gravestones to mark the resting place of a member of the nation of Israel.

MENORAH SARDIS
Menorah engravings from Sardis Synagogue, Israel, c. 4th century CE

The name Menorah, Hebrew for “lamp”, consists of the root nur, “flame”, and the prefix mem, which together mean ‘vessel for the flame’. The act of kindling the Menorah, and kindling lights in general, is an ancient practice established by Aaron, and his children after him, in Beha’alotecha.

But why was this Mitzvah commanded? Originally, I assumed that the Menorah, an olive oil candelabra, was naturally placed inside the Mishkan (Tabernacle) as a source of illumination: to light the space. But this week, reading the footnotes to the commentary of the Baal HaTurim, it became clear that this was not its purpose at all.

“Had the Menorah been needed for its light, the Torah would have placed it closer to the Shulchan (Table). By placing these two vessels on opposite sides of the Mishkan, the Torah indicates that the Menorah was not needed for illumination” (Rashi and Tosafot; see also Menachot 86b). Also, had the Menorah been meant to maximize light, its oil cups would have been arranged in a circle with their wicks pointed outward to spread their light over a wider area. Instead, by placing the cups in a straight line with all wicks leaning toward the center, the Torah indicates that the Menorah was not in the Mishkan for illumination (Tanchuma 5; see also Rashi and Gur Aryeh).

If it wasn’t meant for light, why on Earth would G!d have commanded Moshe to fashion this large and incredibly complex candelabrum out of one piece of pure gold, then command Aaron and his descendants to light it? Was it just there for show? For beautification? Why have a fancy candlestick with tiny oil flames in a sacred space, at all?

Light of the Soul

In the proverbs of King Solomon, who is said to be the wisest man who has ever lived, we find the following illuminating thought:

נֵ֣ר ה’ נִשְׁמַ֣ת אָדָ֑ם חֹ֝פֵ֗שׂ כָּל־חַדְרֵי־בָֽטֶן׃

This is such a finely wrought phrase, that all translations fall short of its beauty and nuance. It means something like: “The soul of man is the light of G!d; searching all the inward parts” (Proverbs 20:27). Or, “The lifebreath of man is the lamp of G!d, revealing all his innermost parts.”

However we translate this thought, the emotion of the phrase shines forth with dignity: each of us, the stuff of our very souls, are luminous and precious to the Creator. When dawns this comprehension, the light of reason and our highest conscious selves examine our own being and our actions. The purest spark of ourselves asks whether we are living up to our light.

Light is a powerful metaphor in Jewish philosophy, practice, and mysticism. Light symbolizes the soul, knowledge, and teaching. It symbolizes prayer, gratitude, and self-knowledge. Light is, after all, the very first thing that was created in the universe with the command Vayehi Ohr, “Let there be light.” Earlier in his book, King Solomon compares Torah to light:

כִּ֤י נֵ֣ר מִ֭צְוָה וְת֣וֹרָה א֑וֹר וְדֶ֥רֶךְ חַ֝יִּ֗ים תּוֹכְח֥וֹת מוּסָֽר׃

“For the commandment is a lamp, The teaching is a light; And the way to life is the rebuke that disciplines.” (Proverbs 6:23) But what does this metaphor teach us about the nature and purpose of the Menorah? There is a beautiful Midrash that gives one (of many) explanations of why Aaron kindled:

אִם הִזְהַרְתֶּם לִהְיוֹת מַדְלִיקִין לְפָנַי אֲנִי מְשַׁמֵּר אֶת נַפְשׁוֹתֵיכֶם מִכָּל דָּבָר רָע

, שֶׁנִּמְשְׁלוּ נְפָשׁוֹת כְּנֵר, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (משלי כ, כז): נֵר ה’ נִשְׁמַת אָדָם, וְנֶאֱמַר: בְּהַעֲלֹתְךָ אֶת הַנֵּרֹת

“The Holy One Who is Blessed said to Moshe: If you are careful to light [it] before me, I will protect your souls from every evil thing, since souls are compared to a candle, as it says, “the candle of Adonai is the soul of a person” (Proverbs 20:27) and it says, “When you raise up the candles” (Bemidbar 8:2),” (Bamidbar Rabbah 15:4).

This leads us to the conclusion that kindling the Menorah was a protective act. Its light somehow protects our souls against evil. And yet this explanation feels incomplete, especially because the Menorah was a symbolic set of flickering lamps, not a fiery torch. Why light a Menorah of protection with seven small flames when a literal pillar of fire was outside the doorway to the Mishkan, leading the Israelites through the wilderness?

What’s more, G!d even asks this question in the Midrash. Says the Midrash, “The [Menorah] lighting owes its origin to the celestial fire, and it issues forth and lights up the whole world…” Do I then need your light? Why then did I tell you to give it to Me?    In order to elevate you.”” (Bamidbar Rabbah 15:7-8)

Yahrtzeit Candle: The Ner Neshamah

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In Judaism, we have an ancient practice to light a candle in memory of the departed on the anniversary of a person’s death. The Yiddish name for this memorial flame is a יאָרצײַט ליכט‎ (Yahrtzeit likht), from the German Jahr, year, and Zeit, time. In Hebrew, it is called a נר נשמה‎ (ner neshama) meaning “soul candle”, evoking Solomon’s proverb.

This little flame we light in memory of those gone to their reward is also not meant for illumination. It is solely for the sake of memorializing our loved one. The spark of their soul that has been extinguished from this physical world blooms again when we light a candle in their memory. Rabbi Neal Gold writes that the purpose of kindling a ner neshama is to remind ourselves to “actively pursue acts of goodness and justice in memory of our loved ones by making the world a better place with them in mind.”

This connection of light to both the soul and to action evokes Solomon’s statement to embrace rebuke in order to continue to grow, as does a healthy flame, and reach our greatest potential. Once a person leaves this world, they can no longer learn Torah, pursue acts of kindness, or perform Mitzvot (Torah commandments).

And yet. We believe that our actions in their merit have a direct positive result on the soul of the departed. Torah learned in their honor, Tzedakah (Just charity) given in their name, elevates the soul on the other side of the veil. We kindle on behalf of ourselves to sooth us with the notion that their soul-flame has not completely disappeared from the universe. We kindle on behalf of others to bring merit to their soul, even after death.

We kindle with the hope that, one day, when grass is growing through our own jawbones, someone will remember to kindle on our behalf. We don’t dwell on it, but we hope that we will be remembered by those who come after.

Such was the awesome role and obligation begun by Aaron. As Freema Gottlieb writes, “In the Torah this commandment to kindle flame was addressed…to the descendants of Aaron who were to fulfill the lighting of the seven-branched Menorah in the Sanctuary on behalf of all of Israel.

Make no mistake: Aaron was lighting on behalf of the living – on behalf of the Jewish people. Yet his act of spreading light was continued even after the destruction of the Temple through the practice of Chanukah lights, and spread again with our adoption of kindling Yahrtzeit candles in memory of loved ones.

Kindling & Crowning

A special, atypical letter in Beha’alotecha raises its head towards the end of the Torah reading, after Miriam is stricken with the skin ailment Tzaraat as a punishment for her having spoken poorly about Tziporah, her dark-skinned sister-in-law. Moshe, who loves his older shvester Miriam dearly, shouts an heartfelt plea directly to G!d to heal her affliction:

וַיִּצְעַ֣ק מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֶל־ה’ לֵאמֹ֑ר אֵ֕ל נָ֛א רְפָ֥א נָ֖א לָֽהּ

“And Moses cried out to G!d, saying, “Please G!d, heal her now!” (Bamidbar 12:13).

Says the Baal HaTurim: According to a scribal tradition, there are tagin (crownlets) on the reish in the word רְפָ֥א “heal”. “This indicates that Moshe said, “You have removed the crown of her head; heal her damages, for she totters.”” (Baal HaTurim, Bamidbar 12:13).

Usually, a reish is not crowned with any tittle: it is bareheaded, like the head of a Tzaraat whose hair has been shorn. Bareheaded, like a king without a crown. The reish in this verse is given either one or two crowns, depending on the scribal tradition.  

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Image from the Baal HaTurim Chumash

In his endlessly illuminating book, The Hebrew Letters, Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh writes that the form of the letter reish literally means “head”, and its shape was originally drawn from the head and profile of a human being.

“Although the letter reish is situated close to the end of the Aleph-Bet, its primary meaning is “head” or “beginning”” (Ginsburgh, p. 296). Rabbi Ginsburgh defines the role of the letter reish as Avodat haberurim: the Art of Clarification.

The reish is an icon of a lifting head: the mark of human dignity. The Aleph-Bet has four beginnings, like the Jewish calendar has four New Years, and the reish is one of these beginnings.

How is this letter connected to a flame? I once remember someone teaching me that fire is the only element on Earth that is always a new creation. There is no place on our planet that has an eternal flame. It might spark from lightning, lava, and the like, but flames burn and go out. Because of this, each time it is kindled, each flame is a new beginning. And because Earth does not have an eternal flame, it is up to humankind to kindle it.

Lighting a flame is an act of profound hope. We will be protected against harm. We will remember those long gone, keeping their bright, flickering memory alive against the crushing darkness of oblivion. We will ourselves be remembered.

Sharing the Flame

Candles

In her Bat Mitzvah speech, my sister Tziporah shared a concept that I will never forget: a candle is not diminished by sharing light. Material possessions may diminish if we give them away, and as Chief Rabbi Emeritus Lord Jonathan Sacks once wrote, this is true for power as well: give some away, and you have less of it. But that is not true for light: The more you share, the more you have.

If you read this parsha closely, fire can be a gentle, symbolic flame flickering in the mouth of a golden Menorah. It can also take the form of a burning divine rage that scorches the camp, meting out death and punishment.

When we are called upon to spread light, to raise our eyes and see beyond ourselves, that impetus rekindles the dampened spirit. After G!d gave crestfallen Aaron the Menorah-lighting responsibility, he was galvanized into positive action. Indeed, though it would have been acceptable for any of his sons to light the Menorah on any given day, Aaron took care to light the lamps personally, for the rest of his life – so great was his devotion to dedication (Ramban on Bamidbar 8:3). Aaron was in this way crowned with everlasting light. 

Tonight, Jewish women around the world will kindle lights and murmur the blessing “lehadlik ner shel Shabbat/Shabbos”. There will be Jews around the world, too, who light memorial candles for the souls of loved ones who are no longer with us, especially in this time of plague brought on by the corona virus. Not all who we shout to G!d to heal are healed. Not all prayers of protection are answered. But we shall kindle, nonetheless.

The final word I give to a great luminary, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. “From the illumination of our souls, flashes of light will shine on the world. These meanings will all together fill the world with an abundance [of light].”

May the memory of Boaz Yaacov ben Vered ve’Dov be for a blessing. May we all be lights to each other in dark times. May light overcome the darkness, and may we all be comforted by the flickering candles of the Menorot shel Shabbat.


Addendum: 

In my studies on the Shabbat afternoon after initially posting this, I was reminded that there is another biblical figure who is remembered for her connection to light: none other than the Judge and Prophetess, Devorah. Called Eshet Lapidot, the “Woman of Fire” or the “Woman of Torches”, the Midrash tells us that Devorah used to make such robust wicks for the Mishkan’s Menorah that its flames stood steady and strong.

Edward Fram writes that according to two 16th century printed handbooks for Jewish women, and one manuscript, the prophecy of Deborah was attributed to her providing light before G!d.

So G!d enlightened her in return for her enlightening Him.

See Fram’s masterful book “My Dear Daughter”, note 129 on page 115. See also B.T., Megillah 14a.

With kind thanks to Rabbi Abraham Lieberman for recommending Fram’s excellent book.

Menorah hammat tiberias
Menorah (with lulav & etrog, incense pan, and gilded shofar) on synagogue mosaic floor. Hammat Tiberias, Israel, 4th c. CE.

Sources

Baal HaTurim Chumash: The Torah with the Baal HaTurim’s Classic Commentary. Ed. Avie Gold. Mesorah Publications, 2003. pp. 1444-1505.

Chavel, Rabbi Charles B., translator and annotator. Ramban Nachmanides Commentary on the Torah, Numbers. Brooklyn: Shilo Publishing House, Inc., 1975. 

Fram, Edward. My Dear Daughter: Rabbi Benjamin Slonik and the Education of Jewish Women in Sixteenth-Century Poland. Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 2007. 

Ginsburgh, Rabbi Yitzchak. The Hebrew Letters: Channels of Creative Consciousness. Edited by Rabbi Avraham Arieh Trugman and Rabbi Moshe Yaakov Wisnefsky. Jerusalem: Gal Einai Publications, 1992.

Gottlieb, Freema. The Lamp of God: A Jewish Book of Light. New Jersey: Jason Aronson, Inc., 1996.

Kook, Rabbi Abraham Isaac. The Lights of Penitence. Translated by Ben Zion Bokser. New York: Paulist Press, 1978, p. 351.

Further Reading:

Fine, Steven. The Menorah. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016.

Zarchi, Rabbi Shlomo. “What Kindles the Jewish Soul?” Jewish News of Northern California. June 8th, 2017. <https://www.jweekly.com/2017/06/08/what-kindles-the-jewish-soul/&gt;

aaron lighting c.1280
Aaron Lighting the Menorah. Illuminated Hebrew Manuscript, c. 1280