Toward Shabbat: Tetzaveh

As Shabbat approaches, Purim 5781 draws to a close; and thus, so too do we close out one full cycle of haggim in the era of COVID-19. With each passing holiday, we hoped this would be the last in isolation, all the while sinking into an understanding with ever-increasing gravity that this period was far from over. Pesah seders on Zoom, High Holy Days from our living rooms, Hanukkah without our loved ones, and countless Shabbat dinners in lockdown. We made our way through the rhythm of the Jewish calendar—a rhythm fundamentally rooted in the act of gathering in community—punctuated by tremendous grief and unfathomable loss.

One year ago today, I celebrated Purim 5780 at BJ with my family. My son ran through the shul in his wizard costume, while I clenched my fists tightly in fear as I monitored the news, wondering with terror and trepidation at what might possibly unfold. And, with over 500,000 lives lost and a world still very much in isolation and disarray, what ensued was beyond what I could have imagined.

And yet, one year later, I find myself full of hope, light, and wonder.

Wonder at the magnificence of science—a vaccine developed, tested and deployed faster than ever in history.

Wonder at the resilience of community—our BJ community, showing up for one another so tremendously with acts of hesed.

Wonder at the power of ritual—texts and traditions of our ancestors that have carried us through these trying times, just as they carried those of the generations that came before us.

This week, in Parashat Tetzaveh, we read of the mitzvah to kindle and sustain a ner tamid—an eternal light—in the Tabernacle. Exodus 27:20-21 reads:

וְאַתָּ֞ה תְּצַוֶּ֣ה ׀ אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל וְיִקְח֨וּ אֵלֶ֜יךָ שֶׁ֣מֶן זַ֥יִת זָ֛ךְ כָּתִ֖ית לַמָּא֑וֹר לְהַעֲלֹ֥ת נֵ֖ר תָּמִֽיד׃
בְּאֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵד֩ מִח֨וּץ לַפָּרֹ֜כֶת אֲשֶׁ֣ר עַל־הָעֵדֻ֗ת יַעֲרֹךְ֩ אֹת֨וֹ אַהֲרֹ֧ן וּבָנָ֛יו מֵעֶ֥רֶב עַד־בֹּ֖קֶר לִפְנֵ֣י יְהוָ֑ה חֻקַּ֤ת עוֹלָם֙ לְדֹ֣רֹתָ֔ם מֵאֵ֖ת בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of crushed olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly. Aaron and his sons shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting, outside the curtain which is over [the Ark of] the Pact, [to burn] from evening to morning before the LORD. It shall be a due from the Israelites for all time, throughout the ages.

Indeed, this tradition has endured throughout the ages; in any modern synagogue, one may see a permanent lamp shining above the ark, including in our beautiful BJ Sanctuary. In a midrash on the text’s articulation of the use of crushed olives, the sages write in the Talmud:

Just as the olive yields light when it is crushed, so too are humanity’s greatest potentials realized under the pressure of adversity.

The potential that has been unleashed in these crushing times truly has no bounds. The potential for care and kindness, justice and uprising, perseverance and resilience—in the midst of this adversity, we have, as the sages articulate, kept brightly burning an eternal flame that has served as a guide of hope, even when it flickers.

May we approach this next cycle of haggim not only as year two of unfathomable challenge, but as a new era of potential for ever-present and eternal, enduring light.

Shabbat shalom.
Deborah Sacks Mintz

Written By Deborah Sacks Mintz

Deborah Sacks Mintz is a fourth-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary.