Rabbi Jay Moses is an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program (Class 5). He is the Director of the Wexner Heritage Program in The Foundation’s New York office. Jay can be reached a firstname.lastname@example.org.
By all rights of literary logic, this week’s Torah portion has been given the wrong name.
The prior portion, Terumah, is a detailed description of the Tabernacle, the various materials that must be used to construct it as well as how they are to be assembled. It begins with God’s instruction to Moses that the Israelites should be told to bring forth these materials as contributions or gift offerings.
The essence of this week’s parasha, Tetzaveh, is a similarly detailed description, but this time the subject is the priestly garments to be worn by Aaron and his sons, and all future kohanim. If Terumah is Architectural Digest, then Tetzaveh is Vogue.
In between those two long sections of detailed descriptions is one short but impactful paragraph:
“You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly (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 law for the Israelites for all time, throughout the ages” [Exodus 27:20-21].
At first glance, it would seem that this passage belongs in the previous parasha, Terumah. It focuses on a structural part of the Tabernacle, and it provides a perfect bookend to the beginning of Terumah since it talks about the Israelites bringing the oil as a contribution. Finally, although it mentions Aaron and the priests, it is not connected to their vestments.
So by all rights, the passage would be the capstone of parashat Terumah. And this week’s parasha should be called “Hakrev”—the first major word of the next verse, where the description of the priestly garments begins.
And yet, rather than providing the closing bookend for Terumah, this passage marks the beginning of a new parasha, and gives the parasha its name, Tetzaveh. Why? Given that logic and literary structure would argue otherwise, to what does this paragraph owe the honor of leading off a Torah portion?
Both of the long descriptions that surround it—of the Tabernacle and the priestly vestments—codify the structure and appearance of Jewish ritual. They become part of the backbone of Judaism’s response to a basic religious need: the need for a sense of the eternal, unchanging, traditional, and stable. The space in which community and worship is conducted, and the appearance of those who lead and conduct the worship, signals all of this to a religious community. That need for stability and certainty has played out continuously for our people, and its roots in these biblical images are an important part of why we have endured and thrived.
And yet all of this eternally codified ritual and structure—that which provides the comfort of stability— can threaten Judaism’s future as much as it secures it. Religious and psychological yearnings and needs are eternal; but the forms and ideas which meet those needs evolve. The visage of a high priest dressed in these vestments, to say nothing of a Tabernacle draped with lapis lazuli, would be unlikely to have its intended effect on a modern Jew. Times change, and if our community does not evolve in concert with those changes, we risk becoming a mere relic.
Enter our passage and its central symbol, the ner tamid, the eternal or perpetual light. Not only is light one of the most evocative images in our tradition—recalling creation, wisdom, Torah, and God—but it is a timeless symbol, never bound by the fashion of a particular time and place.
And in the various nuances of the word tamid, we have the essence of our lesson for contemporary Jewish leaders. Tamid means “eternal” in the sense that the light must burn continuously and never go out. It should, like its more flamboyant counterparts the Tabernacle and the vestments, symbolize continuity, stability, and sameness.
But tamid in this context also means “perpetual,” in the sense of a repeated action, requiring attention at regular intervals. The ner tamid does not magically burn forever; it is to be kept lit forever by regular daily care and practice on the part of those who tend it.
We are the caretakers of that light. Some of us cultivate and bring the oil. Others set up the lamps and keep them clean. Still others sit watch through the dark night, keeping the fire burning until the sun rises once again.
Leaders must keep the light kindled as it always has been; yet this constancy must be achieved through constant innovation and renewal. New technology, new forms, and changing realities require vigilant and courageous stewardship. Otherwise we risk not only the extinguishing of the light, but perhaps more insidiously, a fire burning in an empty wilderness, its light and heat to dissipated and wasted.
So apologies to literary theory and to “Hakrev,” the Torah portion that never was. The ner tamid carries a message that cannot be buried at the end of a Torah portion. This is a banner headline, reminding us every year at parshat Tetzaveh not to let the light go out.