Tetzaveh: Perpetuating the light of the Torah

Tetzaveh: Perpetuating the light of the Torah

Rabbi-in-residence, Academies at Gerrard Berman Day School, Oakland, 

Rabbi Micah Liben
Rabbi Micah Liben

Our tradition conceives of Torah both as the source of teaching (horaah) that guides our lives, as well as the source of spiritual illumination (orah) that enlightens us. As Proverbs declares, “A mitzvah is a candle, and Torah the light.” In this week’s parasha, the kohen gadol (high priest) is commanded to kindle the ner tamid (eternal flame). If this eternal light represents Torah itself, then we are charged homiletically with that same priestly task, to ensure the light of Torah continues unabated in each generation.

Whether or not you work in Jewish education, the sacred task of passing on our heritage falls to some extent upon each of us. It is a task that can sometimes entail the ebb and flow of a roller coaster, mixing rushes of success with inherent uncertainty and fear of failure. I certainly have more high points than I can count — the students who jump to volunteer for chesed committees, or who submit extra parsha worksheets because they enjoy the learning — but my metaphoric coaster inclined a bit downhill during a recent middle school class. While discussing a Talmud passage about holidays, a tired student sighed dramatically and asked the question all educators have heard at one time or another — “Do we really have to learn this?” I knew the student (who is a mensch!) did not mean to be disparaging. Yet, the affected indifference to Jewish text and practice, coupled with my uncertainty of how to respond most effectively, left me with a knot of anxiety.

I believe a central issue in Jewish education is the tension between educating and indoctrinating. Parents and teachers alike must confront the question: How do we pass on the light of Torah without force-feeding it? How do we instill the Jewish values and practices we hold dear while allowing students to make independent decisions and arrive at their own conclusions? Tetzaveh points to different possible paradigms.

“Bring oil to kindle the ner tamid.” Rashi explains the verse to mean the menorah was lit daily from morning until evening, but Rambam argues that consistency is not enough. According to Rambam, the menorah lamps were supposed to remain lit constantly — all day, every day. Homiletically, the Rambam paradigm is that an educator’s job is to see students through every step of the process, constantly reinforcing the message we seek to instill.

There may be something to this vigilant approach, but there is a danger in pushing too hard. In fact, we may read this into the story of Aaron’s own sons. In Tetzaveh, the text describes how Aaron’s children — Nadav, Avihu, Elazar, and Itamar — are given instructions for carrying on the priesthood. Now, wearing my interpretive midrash hat, I would note that no one asks them if they want to take on these religious duties; they are simply told to carry on their father’s practices. Might they not have chosen a different path? Indeed, Ramban (28:1) points out that the text specifies their names so as to give them their own identities and not be seen as priestly automatons. But sure enough, Nadav and Avihu later bring a rebellious “strange fire” upon the altar, suggesting they truly never wanted to be priests in the first place! Their defiant act brings tragic results. The text demonstrates that when our approach is too heavy-handed, we risk extinguishing the flame.

A golden mean can be found in the second verse, which says the lamps would be set up “mihutz laparochet,” outside the sanctuary’s curtain. The homiletical message is that we begin by setting the light of Torah ablaze in our children, and then we step back — “mihutz laparochet.” We get out of the way just enough so that they know they are free to think for themselves.

Moshe seems to model this behavior in Tetzaveh, which is the only portion in the Torah (after his birth) wherein he is not mentioned by name. He is present, of course — but behind the scenes. In this way he exemplifies a teaching model that entails being a resource for students without being over-bearing. It is a model that finds expression in secular education, as well. In a “constructivist” classroom, an instructor is not the proverbial sage-on-the-stage who gives a didactic lecture, but rather a guide-on-the-side who facilitates active, student-centered learning.

My colleagues helped model this practice during our recent curriculum fair unit, for which students created integrated projects across subjects, such as chumash and math. I was consistently approached for assistance, but students ultimately took charge of their own learning, rather than being fed content. I will not soon forget the coordinate plane floor plan two students created for their model Mishkan, or the “manna vending machine” constructed by two others that required users to solve an equation to feed their tribe. It is a high I won’t soon come down from!

Our daily Amidah begins with the words, “our God and God of our ancestors.” That seemingly repetitive phrase represents two types of believers. Some have faith because it was handed down by their parents (“God of our ancestors”) while others embrace Judaism through their own evaluative reasoning (“our God”). When students engage in a Jewish journey of their own — a journey that culminates in the embrace of Torah on their own terms and not just because an adult said so — it is all the more powerful. May we continue to inspire such journeys, illuminated by Torah’s eternal light.

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