By Rabbi Shelly Barnathan
The Torah is a blessing, with each Torah portion providing us with a treasure of riches. Each parshah provides the opportunity to discover and to uncover a chidush, something new — something that resonates with or challenges us, something that speaks to where we are today. What are the riches within Tetzaveh?
The opening verse of Parshat Tetzaveh, Exodus 27:20, reads:
“And you shall further command (tetzaveh) the Israelites, and they shall take to you pure oil, crushed for lighting, to kindle the lamps regularly.”
The word tetzaveh usually means “you shall command” from the root Tz -v- h (as in mitzvah — commandment). But the root of tetzaveh can also mean “to connect” (from tsavta — togetherness.) With this meaning, the opening verse of this parshah reads:
“And you shall connect the children of Israel …”
With this translation, G-d asks Moshe to help the Israelites to make connections, perhaps to themselves, to each other and to G-d through gathering the fuel for lighting the holy lamps.
Is this a message for us today? Do we “the gather holy fuel” necessary to connect to our inner selves, to each other and to G-d? As the psalmist says, b’orcha nir’eh or — “in your light, we see light.” Do we take the time to see the light of G-d in each person, to notice that each human being is created B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of G-d?
Also introduced in this opening line of the parshah is the famous Ner Tamid, the “continual light” that was to burn me’erev ad boker (from night to morning.) We note that G-d did not command that the lights burn during the day. By lighting the Ner Tamid from night to morning, our ancestors were performing “regular and continual” lighting. The Israelites were already yarok (green) and were conserving energy by only burning the lights at night when it was dark.
A unique characteristic of Tetzaveh is that it is the only portion in the books of Shmot, Vayikra, Bamidbar and D’varim that does not mention the name of Moses. How is this explained?
Some commentators see this as Moshe’s generously “stepping aside” to let the spotlight fall on his brother, Aaron the High Priest. Others point out that Moshe receives enough attention this week, because his yahrtzeit is the 7th of Adar, which falls during the week in which Tetzaveh is read. Still other commentators see the absence of Moshe’s name from the portion of Tetzaveh, and from virtually all of the Passover Haggadah, as part of an effort to ensure that no cult of Moses worship would ever arise.
As we continue on in Tetzaveh, we learn about the mysterious urim v’tumim (Exodus 28:30) The word urim is believed to come from the root Or — light — and the root of the word tumim is believed to come from the root – T-m, meaning “wholeness, perfection, integrity.”
According to classical interpretation of Torah, the urim V’tumim served as a kind of oracle, an instrument through which Aaron, the High Priest, asked questions of G-d. Based on Talmud and Midrash, Rashi says that the name of G-d was written on a piece of parchment which was placed in the fold of the choshen, the breast plate of judgment worn by Aaron.
Twelve stones were set into the breast plate upon which were written the names of the tribes of Israel. When Aaron asked his question to G-d, the letters of the answer lit up from the power of G-d’s holy name.
Ramban agrees that the urim would cause the stones to light up, but added that the response always came in scrambled form. The tumim then provided ruach hakodesh (divine inspiration) that enabled Aaron to decode the information from the urim.
In “A Taste of Torah,” Rabbi Amy Scheinerman comments, “There is a message about decision-making here for us. When confronted with a difficult or sensitive dilemma, we would often like a simple yes or no so we can stop pondering our decision and move on.
Accordingly, we often latch onto a simplistic reason for our answer, often couching it in all-embracing terms, such as “One should never …” or “It’s always good to …”
This is the answer of the urim. But it is not always a sufficient response to an important question. We must also consult the tumim that imbues us with ruach hakodesh, divine inspiration. When we consider how our situation relates to G-d and others, how our question is situated in the broader and divine scheme of things, and the long-term effects of what we do, we bring more sensitivity and sanctity to the decision-making process.
We unscramble the message of the urim and see it with greater clarity, increasing the chances that we will make a decision that is informed by “light and truth,” arriving in wholeness.
May this message of Parshat Tetzaveh, with its divinely inspired balance of the urim v’tumim, guide us as we go on our holy journey of discerning paths of light and truth in our lives, allowing us to live in holy connection with ourselves, with one another and with G-d.
Rabbi Shelly Barnathan is the founding rabbi of Or Zarua, a co-constructed spiritual community on the Philadelphia Main Line. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.