"To Raise Up an Eternal Light"

  • Harav Baruch Gigi







“To Raise Up an Eternal Light”

Translated by Kaeren Fish



In Parashat Teruma, the Torah commands the construction of the Mishkan and all its vessels.  Parashat Tetzaveh opens with the completion of the construction of the Menora, and a description of its purpose: “to raise up an eternal light.”  We note a great difference between this and the description of the purpose of the Table. The Torah defines the latter (“and you shall place upon the Table the showbread before Me, at all times,” 25:30) immediately after the description of its dimensions and its construction.  Concerning the Menora, on the other hand, the description of its construction is found in parashat Teruma, and the Torah says nothing about its purpose until the beginning of parashat Tetzaveh.  What is the meaning of this difference?


It seems that there is a fundamental difference between the Table and the Menora.  The Table, holding the showbread, is a symbol of man’s food.  The Menora, on the other hand, symbolizes the connection with Torah, with wisdom, with spiritual life – as expressed in the verse, “A commandment is a candle, and Torah is light.”  Chazal taught (Bava Batra 25b), “One who wishes to become wise should turn south; one who wishes to become wealthy should turn north.  This is alluded to in the placement of the Table on the northern side [of the Mishkan] and the Menora on the southern side.”


This being so, we have a model for the man’s natural development. At the outset, in his youth, he altogether occupied with his physical, material needs.  Much time goes by until he is ready to involve himself in spiritual matters.  Similarly, there is no way to describe the Table without the showbread.  The bread is an inseparable part of its essence.  In contrast, the Menora may be described as a vessel in its own right, even without its lights.  Not every person engages in spirituality, and even for a person who does – this stage comes relatively late.


There is another difference between the Table and the Menora.  In each case, the Torah stipulates that the service to be performed in connection with the respective vessel is ongoing.  The Table holds bread constantly; the Menora offers ongoing light.  However, there is a difference between the ‘tamid’ of the showbread and the ‘tamid’ of the lights.  The showbread may not be removed from the Table, even for a moment.  When the time comes to replace it with new showbread, the exchange is undertaken using the new bread to push the old bread into the hands of the kohanim.  At no point is the Table left empty, devoid of bread.  The Menora, in contrast, burns “from evening until morning.”  While the westernmost light may have burned throughout the day, the majority of the Menora burned only at night.  Thus we are presented with two different definitions of constancy: the one is ongoing and unceasing; the other is at a fixed time, with regular breaks.


The Table, as noted, is a symbol of man’s physical needs.  At every moment man needs air to breathe, the energy his body produces from food, and the renewed strength that comes after sleep.  “If one of them is opened or one of them is blocked, it would be impossible to exist and to stand before You for even the shortest time.” A person cannot exist without the fulfillment of his fundamental physical needs.  The human body must receive all that it needs, every day, every hour: “the showbread, before Me, at all times.”


This is not the case when it comes to spiritual needs.  The Talmud Yerushalmi recounts that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said that he would have asked God to create people with two mouths: one for Torah, and the other for the mundane matters of this world.  In other words, what he wanted was the ability to involve himself unceasingly with Torah, with no need to take breaks for the fulfillment of physical needs.  Ultimately, he thanked God for man’s single mouth, for two mouths would end up speaking double the amount of slander and improper speech. 


What Rabbi Shimon’s request implies is the aspiration that Torah study should maintain “constancy,” like man’s physical needs.  However, this is not what God chose for the world.  The constancy of Torah facilitates and requires necessary breaks for man to take care of his physical needs. 


In what way?


God created us as mortals, not as angels.  Hence, involvement in everyday, mundane affairs is essential and inevitable.  Nevertheless, spiritual pursuits should be man’s existential framework: “Let him return to his study,” in the words of the Rambam (Hilkhot Talmud Torah 3:4), as often quoted by Rav Lichtenstein.  Our everyday conduct and business, too, must be a reflection of the injunction, “In all your ways, know Him,” with the understanding that the fulfillment of physical needs is also a form of Divine service, insofar as they serve one’s Torah study and one’s involvement in spiritual endeavors.  For the Tosafot this was manifestly clear.  They write that one does not recite birkat ha-Torah again after taking a break from study because “Torah differs [from other endeavors], for one never really takes his mind off learning… and it is as if one sits [in study] all day without interruption” (Berakhot 11b, s.v. she-kevar).


By its very nature, the constancy of Torah facilitates and requires breaks – on condition that they are gaps of time, not existential severance.  The type of constancy that is “from evening until morning,” with breaks in between each sitting, is justified – so long as the breaks are for the purpose of “raising up an eternal light.”