June 10, 2009
Seeing the Light
Parashat Beha’alotecha (Numbers 8:1-12:16)
In a series of magnificent discourses on this week’s Torah portion and, more generally, upon the construction and dedication of the Tabernacle’s menorah, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, derived two interdependent perspectives on the Jewish people, from which we can derive similar approaches to understanding humanity. During this pivotal moment in the encounter between Western civilization and the Muslim world, it behooves us to consider the interdependence of these two perspectives to avoid unwarranted risks carrying potentially grave consequences.
Rabbi Schneerson, referred to as the Rebbe by his Chabad followers, reflected on the interpretations of Beha’alotecha’s opening verses by medieval commentators Rashi and Ramban.
Rashi noted that at the outset of Beha’alotecha, God’s charge to Aaron to dedicate the Tabernacle’s menorah follows the dedication of the Tabernacle itself, recorded in last week’s Torah portion, Naso.
To link the two accounts meaningfully, Rashi refers to a midrash, explaining that God sought to console Aaron, given that neither he nor the kohanim (priests) were invited to bring their own offerings during the Tabernacle’s dedication, whereas the leaders of Israel’s tribes, other than the Levites (to whom the kohanim belonged), were so invited.
Perplexed by the midrash underlying Rashi’s reasoning, Ramban wondered why Aaron would have needed consolation, given the numerous Tabernacle and Temple rituals reserved for the kohanim and given that the kindling of the menorah was not exclusive to the kohanim subsequent to its dedication.
Ramban concluded that the lighting of the menorah in the Tabernacle during its dedication was not Aaron’s consolation. Rather, God consoled Aaron by associating his priestly descendants with the menorah as an eternal ritual object, enduring long after the destruction of the temples later to occur, by virtue of the chanukiyah’s kindling throughout the ages commemorating the miracle of Chanukah.
The Rebbe expounded upon a subtle differentiation between the above interpretations. If Aaron’s consolation was his kindling of the menorah, our reflections upon this passage should center upon the menorah’s lights themselves. However, if Aaron’s consolation was the endurance of the menorah, then the menorah’s unique construction, rather than the lights it was designed to contain and support, should be our focus for contemplation.
Drawing upon Rashi’s commentary several verses earlier, the Rebbe noted the uniqueness and independence of each individual light of the menorah, suggesting that these same qualities characterize the Jewish people. Noting that the menorah was sculpted from one solid piece of gold — and Ramban’s derivation that chanukiyahs must be constructed similarly — the Rebbe reflected on the virtue of Jewish unity as the menorah’s fundamental message. The Rebbe concluded that diversity must be grounded in mutual concern and appreciation, and that unity cannot stifle individual aspirations.
Taken together, and applied to humanity more generally, the Rebbe’s reflections can offer guidance as the Western world seeks mutual understanding, reconciliation and peace with the Muslim world. A genuine appreciation of our common origins, of the singular Source from which we all derive, is a prerequisite to the harmony we might achieve through the diversity of humanity’s religious expressions, ethnic and cultural identities or national aspirations.
The radiance of our unique and respective lights could only be understood then to be enhanced by the light of others.
However, there is great danger in confusing and equating as equal to our own the light of adherents and leaders of ideologies that do not appreciate such underlying and overriding pluralistic values. In our rush to compromise with those who see compromise as surrender, we may likely strengthen the more extreme factions among those who seek to extinguish our light, even at the expense of their own, by presenting our light as negotiable. In the name of such compromise — and self-deception via a false mutuality of understanding — we could also come to see misguided merit in abandoning those with whom we share most an understanding of the origins and purposes of our light.
Moreover, we might well render our own destruction unnecessary by forgetting, or worse, by repudiating the very pluralistic values that differentiate our light, rendering us indistinguishable from those who seek to extinguish us.
Some lights so yearn to join with others to illuminate the darkness that they may risk their own extinction. Other lights, however, may well consider extinguishing all light altogether, even their own, toward achieving a world all their own, even if it exists in a sea of darkness. We would be wiser and safer to see the light and remember this distinction.
Rabbi Isaac Jeret is the spiritual leader of Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay, a Conservative synagogue on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, which is online at www.nertamid.com.