Becoming the Lamplighters of the World: Embracing the Sacred Responsibility to Bring Light

I have always shied away from using the phrase “honored and humbled”. It is a seeming contradiction, how can one be both honored, which essentially means to be acclaimed and raised up, while at the same time being humbled means to be brought low and hidden? Today, I was both humbled and honored to recite a prayer for the IDF in front of IDF Veterans representing Israel Heart2Heart, which focuses on making a difference in the lives of IDF Veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder one veteran at a time. As I stood up in front of the group of former combat soldiers and in front of the Donna Klein Jewish Academy students present at the assembly, I suddenly felt inadequate: who am I to bless them, someone who has never sacrificed as much for Israel as they have? I felt utterly humbled by this moment.

It was at that moment that I remembered a lesson from this week’s parashah, Tetzaveh.

In this week’s parashah, Tetzaveh, we read:

You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly (le’ha’alot Ner Tamid). Aaron and his sons shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting, outside the curtain which is over [the Ark of] the Pact, [to burn] from evening to morning before the LORD. It shall be a due from the Israelites for all time, throughout the ages. (Exodus 27:20-21)

In this week’s parashah, we receive the commandment to light the Menorah in the Mishkan which would eventually be placed in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. This light was to be perpetually lit, day after day, year after year, century after century.

When most of us think of the symbol of the Jews, we think of the Star of David (Magen David), which emblazons the Israeli flag, but this only became our symbol much later in history. The Menorah was, and I would say still is, our symbol, and what we should be known for in the world. The symbol of the State of Israel is the Menorah, flanked on each side by an olive branch. This familiar image was adopted as the country’s official emblem by the Provisional Council of the State of Israel on February 10, 1949.

The Menorah, and more importantly, its light, represents God. Just as light is not ‘seen’ but is a presence in our lives, so too is God. We may not be able to see God, but we can feel God’s presence when we see the beauty of the world, and when we experience love and kindness from our fellow humans. This light, which emanated from the Mishkan and eventually the Holy Temple, was different from other lights. A midrash (Pesikta D’Rav Kahanah 21) relates that the windows of the Holy Temple were unlike any other windows. All other windows serve the purpose of letting light into the home, but the purpose of the windows of the Holy Temple was to let light of the Menorah out to the world.

The light of the Menorah, even though it represented God’s light, had to be created in partnership with humanity through fire. Fire, the combustive process that brings light to the world, is also a symbol of God. The Etz Chaim Chumash states, “Like light, fire is not an object. It is the process of liberating the energy hidden in a log of wood or lump of coal, even as God becomes real in our lives in the process of liberating the potential energy in each of us to be good, generous, and self-controlled. If light is the symbol of God, then fire – the product of human technology – represents human efforts to bring the reality of God into our world.”

The Menorah might be lost, as Rome stole it after the destruction of the Second Temple, but the light of God is still with us. In the book of Ezekiel, who speaks from the perspective of exile as he wrote after the destruction of the First Temple, we read an unfortunate prophecy that the people will be scattered amongst the nations. Ezekiel says, “I have become to them as a mikdash me’at, diminished in holiness, in the countries they have gone.” The rabbis use this term, mikdash me’at, in a different way. According to the rabbis of the Talmud, the mikdash me’at should be read not that ‘God is diminished among the people in exile’, but it should be read as a noun: ‘a small holy place’. The mikdash me’at, the small piece of God, is with the people in exile even though the Menorah is no longer kindled. “Rabbi Yitzḥak said: This is referring to the synagogues and study halls in Babylonia. And Rabbi Elazar said: This is referring to the house of our master, i.e., Rav, in Babylonia, from which Torah issues forth to the entire world.” (BT Megillah 29a). The discussion in the Talmud expands the place where God dwells – in all synagogues, in our homes, and in each one of us.

The teaching is simple and yet incredibly profound: our responsibility is to be partners in creation with God to bring the light of goodness into the world.

This is the essence of what it means to be humbled and honored. We are humbled to think that each of us, and as united communities, can think that we can make a difference in this world like God can, and at the same time, honored to know that it is sacred responsibility to bring light into the world.

One of the soldiers who spoke at the assembly, an American born Olah, talked about her choice to join the IDF even though she could have opted out. She spoke about the responsibility that she had to the Jewish people, but also to the world, explaining how the IDF helps counterterrorism all over the world. She said, “The fight against evil is real, and I saved many lives as part of my job. Despite the wounds I sustained, I would do it again. Thank you all for your support; it’s really nice to receive the love back after we sacrificed our lives and well-being to keep everyone safe.” Another veteran talked about how he did not fight in combat, but healed others, including Arab Syrian refugees, even though so many have turned against us. He said, “That is something I want you to know, that is something that the Jewish people do: we do the right thing.”

Every soldier expressed how meaningful it was for them to be welcomed by our Jewish community. As Israelis, they feel so alone in the world, but we gave them a bit of light to help them persevere. It got me thinking about the light that the Menorah produces, and the job we have as Jews in the world.

One day, a student asked their rabbi: “Rabbi, I know that to be Jewish is to have a special role, a special job in the world. Rabbi, what is my job as a Jew in the world?”

The rabbi, never one to answer directly, looked at the students and said: “Friends, what is the most important job in the world?”

“President of the United States!” someone shouted. “Prime Minister of Israel,” said another. Someone even said: “Rabbi! Firefighter! Doctor! Teacher! Artist! Teacher! Parent!” The answers came from all corners of the room.

The student looked at the rabbi and said: “But Rabbi—what is the right answer? What is my job as a Jew in the world?”

And the rabbi said: “Once upon a time, long before iPads and iPhones, before TV and streaming, even before there was electricity—there was a person in every town who was responsible for lighting up the streets. On the street-corners, lamps sat—ready to be lit each night as the sun began to set. And there was one person whose job it was to walk from street to street, from lamp to lamp, with a flame he carried at the end of a long pole. Each evening, this person would walk the route, lighting each and every lamp—no matter how cold it was, or how hard it was to reach.”

“But what if the lamp is in a desolate wilderness, far from everything and everyone,” one of the students asked? The rabbi answered: “Then, too, it must be lit.” “And what,” asked one of the students, “if the lamp is in the middle of an ocean?” The rabbi smiled and said: “Then one must put on a bathing suit, jump into the water, and light it there. Without it, there would be no light,” the rabbi said.

The student looked again at the rabbi and said: “Rabbi, I still don’t know the right answer. What is my job as a Jew in the world?!?”

The rabbi looked at the students and said: “You can be anything that you want to be. But no matter what you decide to do with your life, you must be a lamplighter on the streets of the world.”

My blessing for you this Shabbat is that as you light the Shabbat candles, you realize that it is no small thing. It is humbling to see the flickers of light in a dark home, thinking, how can this flame make a difference, but it is also an act of great honor. You are lighting a flame once lit thousands of years ago; a light that has not only sustained our people, but also which has sustained the world.

Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi David Baum
Congregation Shaarei Kodesh