March 8, 2001
Parashat Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10)
With the demise of the former Soviet Union and the fall of communism in the early '90s, the story of Soviet Jewry's battle for survival appears to be ancient history. Yet one of the truly remarkable books of our time is the autobiography of one of the famous refuseniks, Yosef Mendelevitch, who struggled valiantly for his right to be Jewish in Communist Russia. Mendelevitch titled his autobiography "Mevzah Hatunah," which translates from Hebrew as "Operation Wedding."
Mendelevitch, together with a group of refusenik friends, tried to escape from the USSR in the early '70s on a plane they had hoped to fly to Israel. But the KGB uncovered their plan, and they were arrested. At the trial they said that they were planning to go to a wedding. That story served as the basis for the book's title.
Mendelevitch records how, during his prison sentence, he was often sent to solitary confinement in a 3-foot by 5-foot room with no heat or blanket, with a light that never turned off and a slop pail that was only emptied every 10 days. One stint in solitary lasted 90 days, but he sneaked in a Bible. He was caught reading his Bible a few days later, and the interrogator offered him the following deal: "If you give up the Bible, I will reduce your solitary confinement by 30 days. But if you keep it, I will add 30 days." He answered, "With my Bible there is no solitary confinement; without it, solitary confinement is unbearable."
This very thought is found in this week's Torah portion. At the very start of the reading, the Torah records the commandment about which oil should be used for the lighting of the menorah in the tabernacle. After telling us that pure olive oil was needed, the Torah states that it was used "to lift the perpetual light." This expression is most unusual, for we would have expected the word to be "to kindle." The rabbis in the Talmud (Yoma 45b) suggest that "to lift" teaches us that the fire for the menorah came from an already existing fire that was continually burning. The Talmud remarks, "A fire about which continually has been stated: It is the one with which they light the lamps of the menorah ... from the fire which is on the altar." It was, if you will, lifted from that source and transferred to the menorah, in order to ignite the flames of the candelabrum.
In this piece of ritual information lies a great insight that has profound moral value. Light, in all literature, is a metaphor for gladness, which uplifts the heart of man. Indeed, in all universal languages, every form of fulfillment is compared to light. What the Torah teaches us via this law of the menorah's lighting is that the source of our happiness is crucial. If there is to be light-happiness in our lives, then it must come from a source of holiness. When this occurs and one's light-happiness is grounded in the correct source, that person then is "uplifted," and the fire burns eternally.
Mendelevitch found his source of light-happiness in the Bible, and it illuminated the darkness of his prison cell. Our challenge is to find our holy source of light and illuminate our lives accordingly.