February 17, 2000
Lighting the Way
Parashat Tetzaveh: (Exodus 27:20-- 30:10)
A parable from the Midrash: Once, a sighted person and a blind person were walking along the way. Said the sighted person to his fellow traveler, "Come and grab my arm." He did, and in this manner did the blind person walk. When they arrived at the house, the sighted person spoke again. "Go, kindle the light, and illuminate this dark room for me." When the blind person looked puzzled at the request, the other continued, "I do not want you to feel indebted to me for having escorted you. This is why I have asked you to illuminate the room for me."
In the parasha we read this Shabbat, God commands the Children of Israel to light the menorah each night inside the tabernacle. This command raises a very simple question, and the Midrash invokes this parable to answer the question. The question is: Why would God, who provided the Israelites with the pillar of fire for illumination in the desert, request that the Israelites provide light for His house?
Does God need this light? Is not God the source of light? The answer that the parable apparently offers is that God commands concerning the menorah because He doesn't want us to feel indebted to Him for the light He provides. We should have a way of evening things out. And the account is squared through our faithfully lighting the menorah each evening in His holy place.
This is something curious about this Midrash. What is God's objection to our feeling indebted? Is not human gratitude toward God one of the most fundamental of religious experiences, inspiring, as it does, love and yearning for God? Do we not have dozens of different blessings in our liturgy all acknowledging the blessings of life and sustenance and beauty that God provides? Why should we not feel thankful for the light He provides?
The answer lies in the difference between feeling grateful to the provider of light, and feeling indebted to that provider. The feeling of indebtedness comes with an entire psychological package. A debtor often feels humbled and psychologically diminished by his position. The state of indebtedness can engender feelings of inadequacy, dependency and helplessness. These feelings are easily enough conjured up as we think about the blind person in the parable. (And how blessed we are, by the way, to be living at a time when so much has been done to relieve the unsighted of this burden.) It is of good character to be grateful; it is potentially debilitating to feel indebted.
With this in mind, and with the insertion here of one other piece of rabbinic thought, it becomes easier to understand what this Midrash is about. This second piece of rabbinic thought has to do with the role God envisioned for Israel in the matter of shedding light. As Rabbi Shmuel bar Ami taught, "from the first moment of creation, the Holy One, Blessed be He, yearned for a partner upon the earth." And here is the poetic rabbinic description of God's discovery of that partner, our ancestor Abraham. "Abraham saw that the King was walking in the dark alley below, and so he shone a light through his window, to illuminate the path of the King. Whereupon the King said to him, since you have shone a light for me through the window, come down here and walk before me with your light." What a stunning description. Without partners on Earth, God walks in darkness, unknown and ignored. The role of the partner is to shed light before God, so that God has entry into this world. The lighting of the path upon which the word of God travels to this world, is the task for which we were historically selected.
The Kotzker Rebbe once asked his students, "Where is God?" Stunned, the students replied, "God is everywhere, of course!" To which the Rebbe replied, "No. God is only where you let Him in." There are so many places where we wish the love and compassion of God, the justice and righteousness of God would enter. And we feel frustrated when they remain outside, allowing the situation before our eyes to go on untouched by the presence of God. But did we consciously bring God into the situation? Did we invoke the wisdom of Torah? Did we illuminate the path before God? This, after all, is our what our religious existence is all about.
To make sure we realize the power we possess to do this, God commanded us to light the menorah for Him. The light relationship can't be perceived as being unidirectional. We mustn't feel indebted to God for light, for we mustn't feel that in the matter of providing light we are only the helpless, needy recipients. We need to understand that the arrangement is one in which both partners are givers -- even as God lights our way, we light God's way. And in doing so, we ever expand the places that God is.
Not a day passes without the opportunity to bring God into a place that He has not yet reached. Not a day passes when we do not have the opportunity to be Abrahams, and to light the menorah before God.
Yosef Kanefsky is rabbi at B'nai David Judea in Los Angeles