Tetzaveh: becoming mitzvot, bringing light

One-candle

This week we’re in parashat Tetzaveh. The Torah portion takes its name from its first word, which means “You shall command.” (It comes from the same root as mitzvah, commandment.) God is telling Moses to command us to kindle an eternal light in the mishkan, the portable sanctuary. That’s a mitzvah that we still fulfill today — now with the eternal light in every sanctuary.

The Hasidic master known as the Sfat Emet reads this verse in a beautiful way. First he notes the verse from Proverbs, “The candle of God is the soul of a human being.” When we are in dark places, we light a candle to help us see. And God’s response to dark places is us — we are the candles that God lights in order to bring light into the world. It’s our job to bring light.

I want to say that again, because it’s so beautiful to me. We are God’s candles. There’s a ner tamid (eternal light) in every synagogue sanctuary, but the point of that lamp isn’t just to be a lamp: it’s there to remind us that it’s our job to be sources of light in the darkness. The darkness of grief, the darkness of cruelty, the darkness of fear. We can dispel those with our light.

That word tetzaveh, “you shall command” — the Sfat Emet reads it creatively to mean, “you shall bring mitzvot into the souls of the children of Israel, so that they themselves become mitzvot.” Bring mitzvot into our souls, and we ourselves will become mitzvot — holy acts, connected at our root to the Source of all goodness. That’s what it means to be a light in the world.

The blessing for a mitzvah — lighting Shabbat candles, or affixing a mezuzah — contains the words אשר קדשנו במצוותיו / asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav, “Who makes us holy in connecting-command.” The Sfat Emet is saying that this goes deeper than just blessing God Who gives us mitzvot. When we bring mitzvot into our hearts, we ourselves become connections with God. 

Rabbi Art Green writes in his commentary on the Sfat Emet that this is actually the purpose of our lives as Jews: to so thoroughly embody the mitzvot that we ourselves become mitzvot. To so thoroughly embody Jewish practices and values that they become who we are. And maybe that’s another way of saying what Proverbs says, that our souls can be God’s candles.

In Proverbs we read that a mitzvah is a candle and Torah is light. A mitzvah is a candle, an opportunity to bring light into the world. And Torah is light — we sing those words every time we dress the Torah scroll, תורה אורה / Torah orah!  For our mystics, the physical Torah we study in this world is a stand-in for the supernal Torah on high, and that Torah, the real Torah, is light.

So let’s recap: our souls are light — we’re God’s candles. The mitzvot are light — they too are candles waiting to be lit. And Torah is light. Which takes me to the other words we sing when we’re dressing the Torah, from the Zohar: ישראל ואורייתא וקודשא בריך הוא חד הוה  / Yisrael v’oraita v’kudsha brich hu chad hu, “Israel, and the Torah, and the Holy One of Blessing, are all One.” 

Us, and Torah, and God: the Zohar teaches that these are all fundamentally one. Our deepest essence is that we are One with Torah, we are One with God, we are One with the source of all light. Right now it’s Shabbes: we can bask in that light. And in the new week, we can strive to live it — to embody Torah, to embody the mitzvot — so that we can be bearers of light in the world.

Rabbi Rachel adds: This is the d’varling that I offered at CBI on Shabbat morning, and it is cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi. It is offered here with gratitude to my Bayit hevre for studying the Sfat Emet with me each week.

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