Tetzaveh: Holy Places

By Rabbi Thomas Louchheim

Saturday, February 8, 2014

20th Torah portion, 8th in Exodus, 27:20-30:10 (101 verses) 

Synopsis: The children of Israel are commanded to bring pure olive oil for the ner tamid. Aaron and his sons are chosen as priests. The priests are to wear special clothing. The priests are ordained in a seven day ceremony.


                With the building of the Tabernacle in the desert, the question that comes to mind is, when the Israelites leave Egypt, what is their ultimate goal? And by extension, what is your goal? Once the Tabernacle is completed God says to the Israelites, “… there I will meet with you, and there I will speak with you.…” (Ex.29:42-46). Is the goal of the Exodus to reach the Promised Land or rather, to gain intimacy with God? Look at the struggle (what struggle?) in the book of Psalms: In Psalm 11 verse 4 we read, “The Lord is in His holy temple,” and Rabbi Aha, (seriously?) commenting in the third century B.C.E. on Psalm 113 verse 3  –  “From east to west the name of Adonai is praised,” and “The Shechinah will never depart from the Western Wall.” What we learn from these verses is that God is in the JerusalemTemple (Psalm 113) and, we hope, by extension, in our holy synagogues.

                And yet, earlier in this portion we read, l’haalot ner tamid, “kindle the light regularly ‘eternal light’ outside the curtain” (Exodus 27:21). Shouldn’t the eternal light be in the Holy of Holies? That is where the high priest finds the presence of the divine. Perhaps that would be redundant anyway. If the Divine Presence is in the Holy of Holies why would you need to have a symbol of that presence in the same place? Perhaps that light is a reminder that God kindles our light so that we carry the ner tamid  out of the synagogue, out of the house of study, lighting the way outside the curtain – into the street and market place, into our ordinary activities and in all our interactions with other people. Perhaps this why we read nishmat adam ner Adonai, “The human spirit is the light of God” (Proverbs 20:27). Rashi understands ner tamid to mean “every single light.” In other words, each of us is a ner, “a light,” a life through which mitzvot collectively “illuminates” our world.

                Our holy places are not simply refuges, they are the spaces where we become re-vitalized, “rekindled” if you will, channeling our energies for the good – the good that is to be done outside of these holy places. Our prayers connect us to God – our spiritual and moral dimension – and to our earthiness – our place of action. Prayer in our sacred spaces asserts that we carry who we are to the outside spaces. Our ultimate value is not found in our intimacy with the divine, it is found in bringing that shining light out into the darkness of the world.


1.     Do you meet God in the sanctuary of Or Chadash or somewhere else?

2.     Be able to rank in order the specialness and sacredness of a synagogue in Israel, in Jerusalem, Or Chadash, nature, your special place of refuge. Be able to defend your listing.

3.     What kind of light have you brought into the world with your mitzvot?