Light it up, line it up: Parshat Tetzaveh

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I want to bring in two dear preachers and teachers whose words have inspired me this week.

Rabbi David Ingber, my mentor at Romemu, spoke two years ago (20 min.) about this week’s portion of wisdom, Parshat Tetzaveh (Ex. 27:20-30:10). The parsha continues the exhaustive instructions for building the Mishkan, the wandering container of holiness, but starts with a very curious instruction to bring the extra-virgin olive oil for lighting lamps that will never go out. This ner tamid/eternal flame has held such a powerful place in our collective psyche that it is recreated in every synagogue and temple across the world. It is one of the essential features of a properly outfitted beit knesset/house of gathering, along with a Torah scroll, ark, and other things Asiyah doesn’t have yet.

In considering the opening line, “And you shall instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil,” R’Ingber asks a question many have asked before: why doesn’t this start, as so many other similar instructions do, with “Y-H-V-H spoke to Moshe, saying…”? Why is it you? And why is the oil not brought to G-d? Last week, we heard very clearly “make me a sanctuary that I should dwell among them” (Ex. 25:8). Why now you?

R’Ingber puts forth that the you is us. The lamp doesn’t need to be lit for the One who created light from darkness! It is us, humans, who need it to light the darkness. It is us who need the reminder of hope in the gloom. It is us who need the regularity of spiritual practice— whether it’s lighting lamps or prayer or meditation—not the other way around. Because it may or may not be true that a Divine Power wanted that specific act from us, but the doing of it is holy. Our spiritual practices, no matter your tradition, work because we do them. And holiness isn’t something out there; it is an internal cultivation of right alignment.

And speaking of alignment, I listened this morning to my friend the Rev. Joseph A.C. Smith’s inspiring daily preachcast (30 min.). He was bringing in a quote from Matthew 7:21: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Rev. Joe was talking about all the people he knew who go to church and know every hymn, but then "go around cussing people out," for instance.

His teaching is in the vein of our prophets, who railed against hollow ritualizing, or the Buddhist eightfold path, which holds right speech and right action at the same level as right view and right intention. You want achieve holiness? “Line it up,” says Rev Joe, line up your actions with your intentions, your walk with your talk, your life with G-d’s plan. He’s clear (just as I’m clear) to say that “G-d’s plan” means something very different in everyone’s life. I’m more apt to say, “Be the best YOU you can be, because everyone else is taken,” but it’s the same thing.

Line it up. There are ways that this holds some fundamental truths for everyone. V’ahavta l’rea-cha kamocha/love your fellow as yourself is a good place to start. But how do we live it out? How do we line it up? We light it up. We commit to keeping that pure, restaurant-quality EVO oil lamp filled and kindled, day and night. We submit—that’s an uncomfortable word in our modern-day parlance—to a spiritual practice that puts our ego in check and puts us in service of something greater, not because there is Something Greater that requires our service, but because we need it. We need to light it up so we can line it up, but, as Rev. Joe points out, don’t get so lost in the light-ing that you forget the (a)line-ing.

I want to bless you (and ask you to bless me), that we should each find the deepest self in ourselves, and that we should align our whole selves with that expression of the Divine Image. And I want us to bless each other to commit to that alignment through regular practice, whether it’s joining our meditation challenge, joining our community prayer cycle, or some other “you” way. And finally, we should be blessed to hold both in view: light it up and line it up.