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Connecting the Ner Tamid and Amalek

This week's Parasha, Tetzaveh, is also known as Shabbat Zakhor (remembrance). This Shabbat, which falls just prior to Purim, gets its name from the special portion from the Torah that is traditionally read as the maftir (concluding Torah portion). This portion reminds us to "Remember what Amalek did to us on our way out from Egypt."

Amalek is the quintessential enemy of Israel who attacked our people in the desert and was defeated, so the Torah tells us, with the help of God (and Moses holding his hands up in the air). Tradition also teaches that Haman of the Purim story (boo) was a descendant of Amalek, as are all the enemies of Israel.

At first glance this does not seem to connect at all with this week's parasha which focuses on the lighting of the ner tamid (eternal or continually burning lamp) in the mishkan (tabernacle). But things in the Torah are seldom as they seem. Moses is instructed when lighting this light that the priests are to bring clear oil of beaten olives. Various commentators throughout the centuries have likened Israel to this olive oil.

Some commentators, such as Khaquiz (1672-1761) believed that just as olives "...yield up its oil only when it is crushed, [so] the people of Israel reveals its true virtues only when it is made to suffer." This concept can certainly be linked to the fact that we showed our ability to rise above (as does oil) and exert our virtues against Haman and the Persian empire in the Purim story. Though I like the idea that we have the ability to show what we are made of in the face of persecution I take issue with the belief that it is "only" when we are oppressed that we reveal our true identity. If this were true then it would simply give fuel to those who like to think of us only as victims and not as victors. It would also require the continuation of oppression in order for us to keep our distinctiveness.

Other rabbis likened us to olive in that we keep ourselves separate from the other nations just as olive oil remains separate even when mixed with other ingredients. Again, though I would affirm the need for us to keep our distinct identity wherever we may be, I also believe that it is possible for us to do so while firmly planting our feet in the soil of two civilizations, as Mordechai Kaplan said over sixty years ago when creating the platform for Reconstructionism. In sociological jargon, I believe in the salad bowl metaphor (where the ingredients mix, but retain their individual identity) and not the melting pot (where the ingredients merge to such a degree that they lose their unique flavor). The commentators believed instead in separate plates for each ingredient. This may make for a pretty table, but ultimately the ingredients do nothing for one another and may indeed seem bland and unappealing each on its own.

Finally, as alluded to earlier, some of the commentators focused the fact that oil rises above and that Jews, when they maintain a loyalty to Judaism and the Jewish people and when they immerse themselves in Jewish knowledge and practice, rise above the other peoples of the world. Again, I find the feeling of the inherent superiority of Judaism implied by this, as well as the other interpretations, extremely problematic. The idea that immersing oneself in Judaism can make one rise to a higher level both spiritually and ethically may indeed be true (which I believe), but this is only in comparison to the person one might otherwise be without the sense of belonging to something greater than oneself, and not in comparison to other nations and religions.

Finally, Bereshit Rabbah (a midrash on the book of Genesis) likens this idea to the verse in Isaiah that states we are to be a "light unto the nations." I believe that we can and should be a light unto the nations. We have many traditions and values that can help others learn how to be better human beings, but so do other religions and traditions. To say that our tradition is unique is true, but to say that ours is superior and therefore should be used as the exemplar for all others I believe to be chauvinistic and just a little "chutzpadik" on our part. This is one reason why Mordechai Kaplan and Reconstructionist liturgy rejected the notion of chosenness.

As we prepare to celebrate the holiday of Purim, when we prevailed against evil, by reminding ourselves on Shabbat of how Amalek tried to destroy us during our journey in the desert it is important to remember what it is that has enabled us to triumph over oppression and adversity for so many centuries. However, it is just as important - if not more so -- to remember what it is that makes us unique and allows us to triumph over the more base and mundane aspects of human. We must remember what it is in our nature that allows us to rise, like olive oil, above ourselves and to exhibit the best qualities of being human and being Jewish. In this way we can be one of many lights unto not only the nations, but unto ourselves, our families and our community.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah