Though our festival cycle calls upon us to read the Ten Commandments on this holiday of Shavuot when we recall, Matan Torah, the giving of Torah at Mount Sinai, the opening verses of this upcoming Shabbat’s Torah portion remind us that being a Jew requires far more than a nodding approval, a confirmation, of a general, albeit important, list of commands.
בהעלתך את הנרות , “when you light the menorah... 7 candles will give light, will illuminate,” It is an odd instruction that God asks Moses to give to Aaron. What else would happen when you light the candles? Aaron is not told how to do it per se, but rather is told, when you do it, the Temple will be illuminated. As I shared with those who attended our congregational meeting this past Sunday morning, it is a ‘duh!’ moment in Torah – one that compels us to comment on it. Why do we have to be told that when we turn on the lights, there will be light?
The light that comes forth from those candles is certainly not for God’s benefit. ואין צריך לאורם, the Midrash reminds us,“[God] does not need [Israel]’s light.” “Nor, however, are the candles lit solely for the actual light they provide human beings. Rather, the lighting of the lamps is, according to Midrash, לזכותכם לכך, “so that the people will acquire merit.” Never is Aaron actually commanded to light the lamps, the text assumes it will be done, “When you light…" When you put forth the effort and do what needs to be done, light will illuminate from that work. Moreover, the verb used for the work of lighting has the very real connotation of lifting up (the same verbal root as in the familiar word – aliyah, a word we use to describe the ascent we make to the bema for Torah, or the ascent we make when traveling to Israel). The act of lighting, of making sure the task gets done, literally lifts us up and gives merit to those who do it.
Revelation at Sinai was a definitive moment in Israelite history. Torah continues to ground us as Jews. The 10 Commandments you read as a class continues to provide ethical and meaningful, arguably vital, guideposts, not just to Jews, but to those who adhere to all mainstream religious doctrine. But Torah is only one leg upon which the world stands according to Rabbinic tradition. Being a Jew requires more of you than observance of the 10 Commandments.
There is evidence that the 10 Commandments were recited as part of the blessings that surround the Shema in the ancient Temple. Notice, the 10 Commandments do not appear anywhere in the traditional liturgical order today. That exclusion of the 10 Commandments from our order of prayers is by design. Our early prayer book editors and Rabbinic sages wanted to be sure that the community understood that being a Jew extended far beyond a commitment to, as I like to call them, those “Big Ten."
בהעלתך, when we lift ourselves up and do the work, it will get done. Being a Jew demands not only a commitment to the basics of Torah, it demands a commitment to the people around you and to the institutions that support the Jewish community and the world beyond it. The benefit of the lighting our lamps isn’t for God, and it isn’t just for us as individuals. The only way in which we will create light in our building and beyond into our communities is the same way in which Aaron created light in the Temple. Someone must be present and willing to do the work, whether it’s making sure the hardware is functional, the light bulbs are replaced, and the on and off switch is used appropriately. It isn’t magic. It is about our accepting the aliyah, to make it happen. In the Biblical period, those who served the Temple and kept it functioning received their mandate by virtue of biology. Those who were born into the Levitical class were born into service. Today, we rely on a mix of professionals and volunteers. The professionals, like myself, all of your teachers over the years, and the office staff, many of who, have become your second family ("Mom" Abbe!) - we aim to provide all the tools you need for the substance of Jewish life – the Torah (we are here to help you see the difference between that resh and dalet); yet, if you don’t choose to be among those who Be’ha-a-lot’cha, whom we can assume will raise themselves up to being full and active participants in Jewish life, then the candles of our lampstand will fail to illuminate. I hope that we here at Temple Emanuel and the broader Jewish community can depend on each of you to be among those who step up, turn on the lights, and help illuminate our world.