Former Shaliach in Cape Town
The Torah concludes its discussion of the Mishkan and its utensils with the following commandment, which appears at the beginning of Parshat Tetzaveh:
“And you shall command the Children of Israel, and they shall take for you pure olive oil, crushed for lighting, to kindle a lamp continually.” (Shmot 27:20)
Our commentaries contrast this commandment with Parshat Terumah’s discussion of the Mishkan. There are two main differences:
In Parshat Terumah, the commandment is, “they shall take to Me an offering.” (Shmot 25:2) However, in our parsha, Hashem commands Moshe, “they shall take for you.”
Parshat Terumah describes “an offering, from every man whose heart will inspire him.” (Shmot 25:2) The choice of words indicates that the “offering” is, to a certain extent, voluntary. But our parsha opens with a definite commandment!
The significance of these two differences is underlined by yet a third difference. Parshat Terumah contains descriptions of the Mishkan and its utensils but does not discuss their use. (Actually, the avodah in the Mishkan belongs in Sefer Vayikra.) The commandment pertains to the Mishkan’s construction rather than its daily operation. In stark contrast, our parsha opens with a description of a Mishkan activity that is to be performed throughout the generations: kindling the ner tamid.
Chazal address this issue, and the Rashbam writes:
“Above it says, ‘Speak to the Children of Israel and they shall take to Me an offering.’ Based on [the needs of] the hour – for the needs of the Mishkan. But here, where this commandment is for all the generations, to give oil for lighting each and every year, therefore, it says, ‘And you shall command.’ The language was changed, because every ‘command’ is for the generations.”
The eternal nature of the commandment to kindle the ner tamid has much to teach us – not only about the Mishkan’s essence but also about the essence of avodat Hashem in general.
A religious Jew’s life is bounded by Hashem’s commandments and demands: both the positive and the negative mitzvot. Living in such a world, a person could easily feel that he has lost his freedom and that he is restricted by all these commandments. Yet, the Mishkan, which serves as a manifestation of Hashem’s Presence in the world, represents the proper and appropriate attitude that a person must have towards Hashem.
Hashem does not want to negate our freedom; just the opposite, in fact. Hashem’s requests are to be fulfilled as an “offering”: an action prompted by a person’s internal soul. Thus, “they shall take to Me an offering.” [See also, “And when (v’im – literally, if) you make an altar of stones for Me.” (Shmot 20:22)]
Nevertheless, Hashem does not want our hearts only (in contrast to the teachings of other religions, such as Christianity). Rather, Hashem also commands: “And you shall command the Children of Israel, and they shall take for you.” However, the commandment is not for Hashem’s needs, kivyachol (as it were), but for man’s needs. As Chazal state:
“And they shall take for you – R’ Shmuel bar Nachmani said, ‘for you and not for Me. I do not need its light.’” (BT Menachot 86b)
Hashem does not command us because He needs something from us. Although Hashem “expects”, kivyachol, us to honor Him, we must do so as an “offering.” In other words, Hashem’s commandments are strictly for our sake and for our needs.
The ner tamid symbolizes Hashem’s desire to illuminate our paths:
“Behold how the words of the Torah illuminate for a person when he concentrates on them. And anyone who does not concentrate and does not know – stumbles. It is comparable to one who stands in the dusk. He started to walk, encountered a stone, and stumbled on it… Why? Because he did not have a candle in his hand… But those who concentrate on the Torah have illuminators everywhere! It is comparable to one who stands in the dusk with a candle in his hand. He saw a stone and did not stumble on it… Why? Because he had a candle in his hand…” (Shmot Rabbah 36:3)
Man’s freedom has not been taken away; just the opposite. After all, freedom means nothing to someone who cannot see the possibilities or opportunities which await him. By commanding us, Hashem enables us to see the world as it really is. Thus, we are granted true freedom, which means the opportunity to make a choice:
“Behold, I have placed before you today life and good, and death and evil.” (Devarim 30:15)
But when confronted by all these, a person has one option:
“And you shall choose life.” (Devarim 30:19)
Hashem’s commandments serve to educate us and to provide us with the tools to distinguish between good and evil – so that we may choose the good. The commandment of the ner tamid, in the context of the commandment of the Mishkan, comes to teach us that the essence of the Mishkan specifically – and of the Divine Presence in our world in general – is for our own benefit:
“For our good, all the days, to keep us alive, as this very day.” (Devarim 6:24)