Isn't It Romantic?
Isn’t it romantic? Davening by candlelight. Gets you in the Shabbos mood, no?
Actually, these candles really should get us in the mood for this week’s Torah portion.
Parashat Titzaveh, begins: “And you shall command the people of Israel, that they bring you pure pressed olive oil for the light, for the lamp to burn always.” (Ex. 27:20) In its most literal sense, the verse commands us regarding the special menorah that was situated inside the tabernacle and then later in the Temple in Jerusalem. This menorah is to be a ner tamid, an eternal light. It should be lit regularlyit should never go out.
And so it is, to this very day, that we keep a lamp always burning, reminding us of our past, reminding us of our destiny. And tonight we feel this exquisitelyhere in this sanctuary, surrounded by these warm lights.
The commentators of the midrash, however, understood this verse metaphorically. What does the ner tamid really refer to? It is not a physical lamp. Light as we experience it is merely a reflection, a pale reflection, of the ultimate light. And what is this ultimate light? Torah. Torah, according to our sages, IS light. As we sing on Shabbat mornings, torah = orah. Haleiluyah! Torah is light! Praise God.
So if Torah is the eternal light, what is this first verse of Parashat Titzaveh really telling us? What does the olive oil represent? And why should it be pressed? Why this particular detail?
The 20th century commentator, Ed Ya’aleh, interprets as follows:
“It is possible,” he writes, “to study [Torah] when times are good but this [type of Torah study] usually does not lastit cannot be sustained. If one wants words of Torah to exist eternally, one must study in poverty and with a broken body and soul… This is the understanding of the verse (“and they shall bring to you pure olive oil, pressed for lighting…”): that is, one should [be willing to] shatter oneself and be pressed, crushed for the sake of the “light (meor)” that is the Torah. Then and only then can [your Torah study] make of you “an eternal light.”
This is a difficult teaching. We are the olive oil consumed in the ecstatic energy of Torah. If we want our learning to last, if we want it to be l’tamideternalwe must be willing to be pressed, to be crushed for its sake. We must study, not just when times are good, not just when we can afford a little diversion, a little leisure. No. We must study with a broken body and soul.
In so many ways, it seems so antithetical to our approach here at Beth Am. Torah study is fun, we say. It’ll change your life for the better. Fill you up with meaning. Make you whole. Bring you peace. Torah study builds community. Why, we study in the tens and twenties and fifties and hundreds. This is what we say. And we mean it. Thank God. We live in a time when we are free to study. Thank God. There is no secret police monitoring our school. No one outside taking names of those who attend services. This is not the Soviet Union. This is not Nazi Germany.
The teaching of the Ed Ya’aleh seems so distant, antiquated really. We want out kids to love studying Torah. It should be fun, intrinsically rewarding. Why focus on the bad times? Why talk about being willing to be pressed, crushed for Torah’s sake?
So let me tell you about the Ed Ya’aleh for a moment. Some of you have heard me speak of him before. His name was Eliezer Davidovitch. He was born in 1878 in the Ukraine, and he was my cousin. Among his other duties, Rabbi Davidovitch served as the head of the local mishnah society, a group of pious Jews who would dedicate a few hours each morning to studying passages of the mishnah in memory of the dead of the community. Eliezer lived through some terrible times, times most of us can scarcely imagine.
He was murdered by the Nazis in 1942 and buried in a mass grave outside of Lublin. Years later, his son, Israel Jacob Davidovitch, described Eliezer in a letter: “For over twenty years,” he writes, “[my father] went out to studyrain or shine, summer or winterat five in the morning. I have been told that even when the time of sorrow for all of Israel had arrived, he went out at risk of his own life early in the morning to learn. [Once] the evil, cursed Hlinka Guards [members of the anti-Semitic Slovak People’s Party] came and almost killed him. They found him outside, unconscious. That generation! Do you realize the feats of our ancestors, how they risked their lives to study Torah?”
This is a man who knew what it was to be pressed, to be crushed. He was persecuted, in part, because of his love of Torah, his allegiance to a life of Torah.
Here is how I understand his teaching. Here is how it applies to you and me.
Though it may not seem so at first glance, this text about being crushed is really a text about love. The willingness to cleave to Torah even when is causes you to be crushed, to be pressedin poverty, body and soul brokenthis is what it is to love.
On this day, February 14, many of our fellow Americans celebrate love. It’s an opportunity to demonstrate our feelings for those closest to us. But the manner in which we celebrate is rather shallow. I mean really. A heart shaped mint that says, “Be mine”?
How do we really demonstrate our love? There are lots of ways. But one measure surely is a willingness to sacrifice, to take risks, ultimately to do almost anything to be with the one you love, to serve the one you love, to honor the one you love.
What would you do for your spouse? Your beloved? Would you be willing to sacrifice? To suffer?
What would you do for your children? What wouldn’t you do for your children? Would you sacrifice for their well-being? What would you give up to keep them safe, to help them grow, to make them healthy? Would you donate a kidney? Would you lay down your life so that they might live?
Now, I admit it, a little heart shaped mint that says “Be Mine” is easier to market than one that says, “Take my kidney. I mean it.” But the point is, true love isn’t just about laughter and walks in the park and vacations in Maui. True love is also about sacrifice. And sometimes it’s about tears and lonely walks in a hospital waiting room. And sometimes, sometimes for us Jews, it’s about a lot worse. It’s about bigotry and hatred and genocide.
If the only story we tell our kids about loving Torah is the story about how fun Torah study is, how positive it is to be Jewish, we’re not telling the whole story.
We should tell them, when they’re of the appropriate age, that loving Torah is also about a willingness to be pressed for its sake. To love Jewish life and Jewish values deeply is to be willing to sacrifice for its sake.
And this is another nuance of the ner tamid. Torah is, to be sure, the eternal light of the Jewish people, always shining its radiance upon useven in a darkened Sanctuary. But Torah as ner tamid can also be understood as the always light. That which we turn to for illumination always. When times are good and when times are bad. Always.
In these times of trouble, these times of anxiety and fear, Torah can be our ner tamid, our always lamp, reminding us of what is eternal, what really matters, what’s really worth sacrificing for.
That’s true romance. That’s true love.