Tetzaveh/Parshat Zachor 5762
"The Lord called your [Israel's] name, A green olive tree, fair, full of beautiful fruit..." (Jeremiah: 11, 16)
But the prophet, Jeremiah, in the name of the Holy One, Blessed be He, is pretty much headed in the same direction in the quotation above. A green olive tree...What's the big idea, Almighty?!
Okay, it's true that the prophet might be referring to the beauty and nobility of the olive tree, in form and fruit, as indeed some of the classical commentators have explained. But the Midrash Rabbah (grand repository of oral teachings on the verses of the Torah) on this week's Torah portion quotes that verse from Jeremiah, and focuses its discussion not on tree trunk or branch, but on the OIL of the olive. And appropriately so, for the context in the parsha is the mitzvah of preparing pure olive oil for lighting the golden Menorah that stood in the Tabernacle (and later, in the Temple), as we see in the verses quoted above.
Well, then, are we Jews oily like olives? (It's true that my son, Yehuda, has
Not exactly. One idea behind the simile (as expounded both in the Midrash, and in the later commentaries) is that just as the oil of the olive yields a light that is pure, so too the Jewish soul, with the help of the Torah and its mitzvos, can radiate a pure light of holiness. This soul-illumination warms both the individual "radiator" himself, and those around him, with its beneficent warmth that extends to the very ends of the earth (and beyond). The idea is not so foreign to us. After all, Jeremiah's great predecessor, Isaiah, gave the Jewish people that memorable charge to be a "light unto the nations" (ohr la'goyim). We are supposed to light up our souls, and the world at large, with our mitzvos...not our noble sentiments or even our well-intentioned (secular) social activism. Says the Midrash (36, 3; Soncino translation):
Just see how the words of the Torah give forth light to a man when he studies them; but he who does not occupy himself with the Torah and does not know it, stumbles. It can be compared to one who stands in a dark place; as soon as he starts walking, he stumbles against a stone; he then strikes a gutter, falls into it, and knocks his face on the ground--and all because he has no lamp in his hand. It is the same with the ordinary individual who has no Torah in him; he strikes against sin, stumbles, and dies...But those who study the Torah give forth light wherever they may be. It is like one standing in the dark with a lamp in his hand; when he sees a stone, he does not stumble, neither does he fall over a gutter because he has a lamp in his hand, as it says [in Psalms], Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path...Here the Midrash focuses on the benefit to ourselves of having the Torah as a guide. Without it to illumine our own private path in life, we stumble and fall and can end up touring and exploring all sorts of unimaginably gruesome gutters. Often, we won't even realize just how far we've strayed from "the straight and narrow," or better, from the "the right and holy," until it's almost too late. (But know that it is never too late, as long as we're alive and able to turn back...and re-orient ourselves.)
When we learn Torah, or perform the commandments, we ourselves become illuminated. Or, to be more precise, explains the S'fas Emes, the commandments of the Torah fix (m'taken) our body--our physical nature-- so that all our inner and outer parts and organs become vessels (kaylim) for the spiritual light of our soul...which is a "breath" (neshama) of G-d Himself. In order to be complete human radiators, we need to observe all the commandments--not leaving unconnected a single (precious) divine circuit!
Let's be clear. We're not talking some cheap 10-hour battery illumination (like the batteries that always die in my Discman just as I have embarked on an ambitious bout of jogging)...but an eternal light. The Torah we learn, and the mitzvos we perform, illuminate our souls eternally. Torah (as G-d so created it) is our source of Light and Life.
The Midrash goes on to make this point most beautifully:
The spirit of man is the lamp of the Lord (Psalms) God said: ' Let My lamp [i.e., the Torah] be in your hand [in this world] and your lamp [i.e., your soul] will be in My hand [in the world to come].' What is the lamp of God? The Torah, as it says (in Proverbs), For the commandment is a lamp, and the Torah is light...We may not have the Menorah (or the rest of the Temple) at the present time, but we can still produce with our deeds an illumination as fine as that yielded by the finest olives of the Holy Land. The season of
Purim is upon us, with its many opportunities to light up our
neshamos. We can send gifts of food to our fellow Jews on Purim, and give
tzedaka for the poor, as well as listen to the
Megilla and (of course) feast and make merry...so long as it's with a pure and lofty intention to thank G-d for His salvations, and spread good fellowship among our people. (Needless to say, I'll try to hold myself to that standard as well...but no promises.)
STAY TUNED FOR PURIM EDITION OF INSIGHTS....
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Rabbi Yosef Edelstein, Savannah Kollel. Phone: 355-0157; fax: 354-9923
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