Posted By The Stash

The opening verse of our Torah portion is a commandment that the Israelites bring purified olive oil to light the Ner Tamid, the Eternal Lamp in the Tabernacle. How strange! The Tabernacle was built solely through voluntary offerings of materials and skills, how then can we explain why the supplying of the oil is a non-voluntary mitzvah?

The answer may lie in the specificity of the mitzvah. Only oil produced by the first cold pressing of the olives could be used. Various midrashim find great significance in this. Some take a Judeocentric view, remarking that the superiority of the oil parallels that of the Jewish people. Other midrashim note that oil, when poured into another substance, remains separate—just like the Jews who (at least historically!) refused to assimilate into their host societies. But neither of these lines of explanation speaks to the Intelligent Jew. We neither advocate Judeocentric superiority, and we fervently believe, as we learned last week, that actively combining “doing and learning” Judaism provides an antibody for assimilation. We will have to look elsewhere.

But Ramban finds an answer through a careful reading of the lengthy narrative of the Tabernacle’s construction. First, he notes that the people were commanded “to bring oil” while in every other case of Tabernacle work they were told “and you shall make.” He ingeniously argued that this reflects the fact that there was no possibility of actually “making” olive oil in the desert, all the oil was from supplies that had been brought out of Egypt. Ramban then argues that a close reading of the narrative of the Tabernacle’s construction uses the word “command” a number of times even though all the workers worked voluntarily. How can this be explained: by realizing that the voluntary workers acted as though these words were a command. This accounts for the precision and care manifested in the building of the Tabernacle, its furniture, and the elaborate vestments of those who officiated within.

Solomon Schechter famously wrote about “Catholic Israel”—the members of the Jewish faith who were totally unified (the Victorian adjectival meaning of “Catholic”) by practice to the point that everything their religion told them was “a command.” Rabbi Stern once spoke admiringly of the how well the Mormon Temple next to his shul in Birmingham, Alabama was maintained. This was because the members tithed themselves with work such as cleaning the building and maintaining the garden. The Tabernacle is a physical testament to the loving labour of those who considered it their duty to “build Me a sanctuary so I may dwell in your midst.”

We are the inheritors of this mighty ethic of “compulsory voluntarism” which the Torah calls the work of “those whose hearts are motivated.” In a society whose bonds are strained by the incessant chant of “me over we,” some would say this is a tired ethic needing rethinking. They are wrong. Our Torah portion’s olive oil lit a flame whose perpetuity depended on daily rekindling. The flame could not burn perpetually on its own without aid from those committed to it. That is the nature of religion—it is only as strong as we make it. As we celebrate Purim together, we can pause for a weekend of self-congratulation that we, and other shuls, are islands of community, camaraderie, and friendship forming a bulwark against a rising tide of individualistic narcissism. We need to remember Peter, Paul, and Mary’s sage advice: “don’t let the lights go out, they have burned for so many years.”

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