Between the Lines—B'haalot'kha

Weekly Midrash Learning with Rabbi Andy Shugerman

Numbers Rabbah 15:5

זה שאמר הכתוב (תהלים יח) כי ־ אתה תאיר נרי אמרו ישראל לפני הקב"ה רבש"ע לנו אתה אומר שנאיר לפניך אתה הוא אורו של עולם והאורה דרה אצלך דכתיב (דניאל ב) ונהורא עמיה שרא, ואתה אומר אל מול פני המנורה הוי כי אתה תאיר נרי, אמר להם הקב"ה לא שאני צריך לכם אלא שתאירו לי כדרך שהארתי לכם למה לעלות אתכם בפני האומות שיהיו אומרים ראו היאך ישראל מאירין למי שהוא מאיר לכל העולם

This is what Scripture says: It is You who light my lamp; [the LORD, my God, lights up my darkness.] (Ps. 18:29). Israel said to the Blessed Holy One: "Sovereign of the Universe! Do you say to us that we should shine before You? Surely, You are the Light of the Universe, and brightness abides with You." For it is written, [He reveals deep and hidden things, knows what is in the darkness,] and light dwells with Him. (Dan. 2:22)

Yet You say, [ . . . When you mount the lamps, let the seven lamps give light] at the front of the lampstand! (Num. 8:3) This explains, It is You who light my lamp. The Blessed Holy One said to them: "It is not because I need for you [to do this service], rather [the reason is so] that you may give Me light in the way that I have given you light. For what purpose? To elevate you before the [other] nations, so that they will say: 'See how [the people of] Israel illuminate the One who illumines the whole world!'"

This week, for the first time in fifty years, The Jewish Theological Seminary is hosting the Rabbinical Assembly convention. It is also the first time that I am attending this annual gathering of hundreds of Conservative rabbis. Last Sunday's opening program showed me how the midrash above informs the calling that we as Jews have to serve as God's ambassadors throughout the world.

At the end of a speech entitled "Conservative Judaism: From Division to Integration," Rabbi David Wolpe shared an anecdote about a tour he gave to non-Jews visiting his synagogue, Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. After noting that the sanctuary lacks a depiction of God's presence comparable to a statue or crucifix in a church, he asked his Christian visitors what in that sacred space they thought represented God. Among the answers offered was the ner tamid, the Eternal Flame lit above the Ark holding the Torah scrolls on the bimah. Rabbi Wolpe replied that, indeed, that ornament most closely approximates God's true essence in the synagogue. Just as the ner tamid provides constant light to see the physical presence of others in the sanctuary, similarly does the image of God within enable us to recognize the souls of our fellow congregants when we join together in prayer and study.

That story speaks volumes to me about the thrust of the idea that "the One who illumines the whole world" depends on Israel for illuminating the Divine Presence in creation. This assertion develops from wordplay with the title of this week's Torah portion: we learn that the command of B'haalot'kha, "when you mount / raise up (the lamps)," meets God's need to raise us up (la'alot etkhem, "to elevate you") as God's own personal lamp.

Accordingly, when we declare that there is one God who created all that exists, we attest that the "Light of the Universe" surrounds and fills all things. May we continue to fulfill our unique spiritual role as "a light unto the nations" by enlightening ourselves and others about the unity and interconnectedness of all life.