I’m going to let you in on a little secret – one that my sorority sisters and college a cappella buddies wouldn’t necessarily be thrilled over me telling you. Well … maybe it’s not a secret so much as a “trick of the trade” or one of those “everyone-knows-this-is-how-they-do-it-but-no-one-wants-to-admit-it” things. Are you ready?
Nearly every religion, subgroup, secret “society” and extracurricular league uses candles – and, thus, light – for significant episodes, rituals and initiations.
Thus, the “special sauce” of some of humanity’s most sacred moments – Shabbat dinner, group initiation or Sunday mass, among them – often involves the kindling of light.
The question of “commandedness” always comes into play for us Jews and this week’s Torah portion hits on that directly. In the first verses of B’ha’a’lotcha God speaks to Moses, instructing him to tell Aaron to “mount the lamps; let seven lamps give light at the front of the lamp stand.” (Numbers 8:1-2) This direction might seem like a simple instruction given from boss to employee – yet dozens of commentaries draw out a deeper meaning of phrase.
What God is telling Aaron to do is not so much a “put this here and move that there” directive – THIS is a message colored by a pursuit of holiness and desire to create a sublime system of worship. Rather than rely on one simple light – the ner tamid alone, perhaps – God insists on multiple lights, drawn together in the form of a menorah. Those lights extend and increase that which has been kindled in the presence of the community, for the community. The light goes further, penetrates deeper into the darkness, and serves as a symbolic anchor for the greater whole. Additionally, the increased light echoes the many faces, names and identities of those gathered there in the first place. Thus, the light is an extension of the community itself.
A long time ago, one of my teachers shared with me that B’ha’a’lotcha is really a message to the community – not just the priests, or the leadership – that each light matters. Each light counts. When we kindle a light, as God instructs Aaron to do, we bring forth increased possibility and potential; we ignite the spark within one person, and another, and another – inspiring them to bring their light and potential to the greater whole. And when we do this, we inspire an entire community to continue bringing forth their light and finding others, thereby raising each and every one of us up to our fullest potential. May we continue to be blessed with the ability to kindle the lights of one another in the days, weeks, months and years ahead.
Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen