Sunday, June 22, 2008

Beha'alotkha (Mitzvot)

“When you Kindle the Lights”

The opening verses of this parasha contain the commandment to light lamps in the seven-branched menorah in the Sanctuary (Num 8:1-4); a commandment that also appears, in even more condensed terms, at the beginning of Tetzaveh (Exod 27:20-21). The kindling of candles, or lights, is a basic symbol in Judaism, appearing in a variety of settings: the lamps lit daily in the Temple; the candles lit in the home to usher in Shabbat and festival days; the Hanukkah candles; candles lit in memory of the dead , on their Yahrzeit or in a house of mourning during the shivah; candles lit for both the living and the dead on Yom Kippur. In many old-fashioned synagogues, it is also customary to light candles at the Reader’s Desk during prayers.

Light symbolizes two interconnected entities: the human soul, and the radiance presence of the Divine Presence, of the Shekhinah. The two are of course related: the soul is in some sense a reflection of the Divine: נר ה' נשמת אדם — “the soul of man is the lamp of God” (Prov 20:27). According to some Kabbalistic views, the soul is tantamount to the Divine element within man; or, from the opposite perspective, it is God’s “little acre” in this world—an element that is somehow pure, unsullied, at least in potentia capable of holiness—through which He resides in these lower realms.

The candelabra also symbolizes Wisdom. Hazal say: “He who wishes to be wealthy should tend northwards [i.e., the location of the shewbread table in the Temple, symbolizing material plenty]; he who wishes to be wise should tend southwards [i.e., the direction of the menorah, on the southern side of the Tabernacle].”

Thus, the lighting of the Lamp, and of lights generally, symbolizes the human longing for the Divine, for the holy, for the palpable presence of something pure, clean, raising us up to a higher sphere of consciousness and wisdom and understanding, and of connection with the Ineffable.


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