You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly.
Shabbat Akharei Mot begins in a poignant way, with a reminder of a tragic accident. We read about the death of Nadav and Abihu in parashat Shemini, only a few weeks ago, before Pesakh: young men, their first day on the job after much rigorous training, and something, all unforeseen, went terribly wrong. Akharei Mot, “after the death”, presents its contents in that context: the tragic death of the young, with much to live for, and much yet to do.
Accidents such as this tragedy might shake a modern Western American’s faith. Some say “what kind of G*d would allow such a thing?”. Others simply deny that there can be a G*d in a world where innocents suffer.
It makes this parashah all the more compelling, because after the deaths of the two young men are noted, the text goes on to describe the next stage in the training of the surviving priests. When they died, their father, Aaron, withdrew from his public responsibility and took some private time to mourn. And then the life of the community went on, and Aaron went on with his service to his community as High Priest.
The father of the dead boys did not say “I quit because I have suffered unfairly.” Aaron did not say “I don’t believe in G*d because my sons died accidentally.” And he did not say “I proclaim myself against all organized religion because this is horrible and doesn’t make sense.”
Those three responses to tragedy are understandable when they are made as a cry of pain, but they are not intelligible. In essence, all three are ways of cursing the darkness rather than struggling to light a candle.
This is not to say that a better response would be “G*d knows best” or “there was a reason for this” or, G*d forbid, “G*d chose to take them because G*d loved them so much.” Those responses make G*d out to be an emotional terrorist.
There is a third possible response to unimaginable tragedy. Caught between the utter darkness of a father’s grief and his stance so close to G*d, in all its wholeness and joy, the Torah records that “Aaron was silent.” (Lev. 10.3)
There is undeserved suffering in this world. There is much evil as well that we do to each other. But there is also much undeserved joy, and much good that we do to each other. Neither makes sense. There is a mystery at the heart of life that we can approach but will never discern. And in the face of that mystery there is nothing we can say. All we can do is to assert that while we cannot control, or even understand, why bad things happen, we can try to control and understand our responses – and we can choose to reach out to each other, to do what we can when we see suffering and alleviate it. And when all is dark, we can choose not to give in to it, to deny any hope of light or meaning or truth. We can choose to nurture the little light that we can see, if we look carefully, among ourselves.
That is why we gather in organized community and call it religious. It is there that we search together for hope, not certainty. Hope is all the light we have.
The earth was formless and void, and darkness was on the face of the deep (Bereshit 1:2)
First comes darkness, then light. (Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 77b)
At the beginning, there is darkness. This is not only true of the account of Creation as we find it in the Book we call Bereshit, known in English as “Genesis”. It is true of life, as well – our own, as we are conceived, and of much of the rest of Existence.
Darkness is a challenge to those of us life forms which depend upon our eyes to navigate. In the light, we orient ourselves by looking around; we judge our surroundings by visual cues; we can assess threat or safety at a distance, and signal the same. But in darkness we wander, disoriented, perhaps even lost. We seek to relieve it by finding a source of light, and the relief you have felt when you realized that the batteries were still good in the old flashlight is recognizable to us all.
These days of our lives are meant to be so full of joy, as we have just come through our Days of Awe, our fall Sukkot harvest festival, and our yearly blowout with our beloved Torah. But there is increased violence here at home; today there are reports of more than one random shooting in a public place. And there are terrible reports coming in from Israel, where one act of violence after another has led to speculation in Israel’s newspaper of note of a third Intifada. And there are other sadnesses: medical workers come under attack in a bombing raid. Refugees face indifference, and worse. A homeless man begs on a street corner near you.
Here is the real challenge to our lives and the way we live them: do we really believe that the things we do bring light to this world of ours, which so desperately needs it? Jewish tradition urges us not to underestimate the power of the choices we make, and the acts by which we are known. Every small spark of kindness can add to the light in this world by which we find our way out of this terrifying darkness. But the challenge is to stay focused upon the power of a small act, when one might give in to the impulse to believe that there’s no use, that it doesn’t matter.
On this Shabbat, consider your own morale and your purpose in the world. Do you perhaps wonder about whether you can really make a meaningful difference in the misery you see all around you? If so, remember this: your own personal ethics either stay with you under this kind of stress, or they need an upgrade. To turn away and say that there is nothing you can do is to misunderstand your purpose in the world. As another teacher put it:
“Let there be light” was the first statement in Creation, because “light” is the true purpose of existence. To bring light is our purpose: that each of us transform our situation and environment from darkness and negativity to light and goodness. Through the study of Torah and the fulfillment of mitzvot, we strengthen the light of creation.
It’s getting darker. It’s getting colder. And this is when you need the most support for your own ethical choices and your confidence in them. Refuse to give in to cynicism. Get that free upgrade by lending your presence and getting strength from your religious community. This is the village that devotes itself to keeping the light on – through davening, study, and the kindness that can be shown only through social justice work.
Rabbi Hayim of Tzanz used to tell this parable: a man, wandering lost in the forest for several days, finally encountered another. He called out: brother, show me the way out of this forest! The other replied, but I too am lost. I can only tell you this: the ways I have tried lead nowhere. They have only led me astray. Take my hand, and let us search for the way together. Rabbi Hayim would add: so it is with us. When we go our separate ways, we may go astray. Let us join hands and look for the way together.
The parashat hashavua (Torah parashah for the week) begins with G-d’s command to the High Priest, Moshe’s brother Aharon:
“When you raise [b’haalot’kha] light in the lamps, they shall be lit so as to illuminate the face of the menorah” (Numbers 8:2).
If you remember that this was a menorah not of candles but of oil lamps, shaped as in the photo, it becomes easier to understand this instruction. The menorah is standing against the wall of the Mishkan, and the oil lamp upon the top of each branch should be situated so that the wick end is toward the front of the menorah, away from the wall.
This may simply be good fire-prevention advice, but of course our tradition sees the possibility of deeper meaning in these words. Consider:
The Jewish creation story does not describe a conquering and destroying of darkness in order to create light; rather, light is drawn from the darkness, even as forms are drawn from formlessness. The mystical text Sefer Yetzirah describes creation in this way: “Out of chaos G-d formed substance, making what is not into what is, hewing enormous pillars out of ether that cannot be grasped.”
When we kindle light, as Aharon is commanded to do in this parashah, we then stand in the light that that we have created. To kindle light is to move, quite literally, from darkness into light. As we do so, we are invited to consider the deeper meaning of kindling light – to step into the light, to see and to be seen. In a Jewish sense, this does not mean that we should try to eradicate the parts of ourselves that are “dark”, but rather that we should try to stay focused on the light and what it shows us.
All the Israelites were in a state of awe at standing in the presence of G-d. There is an old midrash which relates that Aharon was embarrassed that, as High Priest, his job was merely to light the seven lights of the menorah, and that he had not been called to bring a sacrifice as others had at this point in the Torah narrative.
Yet he obeyed: “Thus Aaron did in front of the menorah” (Numbers 8.3); he did not change what he was doing, nor hide. Only after doing his job did he come to see the importance of the light he had kindled for others as well as himself.
It is easy to shrink from light that reveals you. To focus on the light, to fulfill what is expected of one even when one is overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the All in which one participates, is to stand before G-d, revealed as yourself. To be willing to be revealed – to others, to ourselves – is not easy, but that is the command. “Lift up the light toward the face” of the menorah, that the light may enter the sacred space that you share with us. Only after will you see what you are meant to see by that light.
A mystical teaching promises that one who can approach the light in that way, willing to share what the light will show, can be healed and made whole by the act of that lighting. Anyone lighting Shabbat candles with this kavanah (intention) will fulfill the role of the High Priest, and by the kindling evoke Aharon’s lighting of the first Menorah. And then all will be raised up by that light which you have kindled out of yourself, sharing yourself – up, just a bit more than we were before, unto an Upper World of wholeness, and peace.
One of my favorite English lines from an old siddur is from a Kaddish meditation: “in light we see; in light we are seen.” This kind of light is not only visible, of course; illumination can also be of the “aha” kind, when something suddenly clarifies in the mind. The universal illustration for that at one time was a light bulb suddenly illuminating over one’s head. Suddenly, that which was hidden is visible. We can see, and we are seen.
This week the parashat hashavua is called VaYeshev, “dwell”. It is the last time that the name of the parashah will be taken from a story about Jacob’s life; now the acts of his children become central. The narrative for the year of the Triennial Cycle begins with a story that seems tangential to the action, but has great power to illuminate:
Judah, son of Jacob, has a daughter in law, Tamar; she has been promised that she will marry Judah’s son, but Judah avoids fulfilling the promise. Tamar is hidden away in the tents of the women, where he can pretend not to see her. Recently after being widowed, he travels to Timnah for the sheep-shearing. By the side of the road he sees a veiled woman – the convention of the time was that prostitutes veiled themselves. He sleeps with her, unaware of who she is, gives her his signet and his staff, and then he travels home again, and continues with his life.
Three months later Tamar is accused of having sex outside of marriage (an offense punishable by death for a woman in certain circumstances). “Let her be brought out and burned,” (Gen.38.24) says her father in law. “Wait a minute,” she says. “The father of the baby is the man who owns this signet and this staff.” And Judah admits that “she is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to Shelah my son.” (Gen.38.26)
Judah hides from Tamar by pretending he cannot see her, and rationalizing that she’s probably fine.
Tamar hides from Judah by veiling herself, and the two darknesses kindle a great light, one that would have destroyed her if she had not been clever enough to grab that signet of his.
But the fire that he would have kindled against her becomes the catalyst for a moment of illumination. In it, he sees himself in disgust and her act as brave.
“In light we see, in light we are seen.” It may not be easy to like what we see, and there may be that which is immolated in the moment of truth – but in that moment we will also, inevitably, see the necessary way forward on the path of our lives more clearly, more honestly, and more meaningfully. We cannot always dwell in light; the clarity would be overwhelming for us, as the Zohar teaches. In the future, that great light – from which we will feel no need to hide – will once again shine on the righteous, and it will include us all. That’s the promise of the light that we yearn for, even as we flee, sometimes, from what it shows us.
Hanukkah is a time of light; may it also be a time of illumination, of clarity, and of understanding for you.