Drash on Parashat Tetzaveh
Cantor Michel Laloum
Temple Beth Israel
St Kilda, Victoria
In Parashat Tetzaveh we read the ongoing instructions for the organisation of the Temple in Jerusalem; the ordination of Aaron and the priests; the details of their uniforms; and the installation of the eternal light / ner tamid. The sages saw the eternal light that was to burn perpetually in the tabernacle (ex 27:20) as a symbol for the people of Israel who were to be a “light unto the nations” (Isaiah 42:7). Today, the ner tamid continues to shine in every synagogue around the world.
Already by the 15th Century, the anonymous publication Kol Bo, teaches us that the eternal light was a universal custom, intended to give honour to the Divine presence, which ”rests wherever a quorum of Jews gather to pray”. The ner tamid specifically represents the light of the Menorah, which was to play such a pivotal role in the Chanukah story, with the oil which was to last for eight days when it should only have sufficed for one. Hanging right above the ark in which we keep the Torah, the eternal light symbolizes the permanence of Torah and the radiance of the Jewish people. Its light burns despite adversity and despite each and every re-incarnation of Amalek, the enemy of the Jewish people and faith throughout history.
Parashat Tetzaveh falls on the Shabbat prior to Purim, and so we also call this Shabbat “Shabbat Zachor”, meaning memory or remember. On the Shabbat before Purim we are called on to remember the Amelekite plot to eradicate the Jewish people. Throughout Jewish history, so many of our holidays and festivals remember attempted genocide: Haman at Purim; Chanukah and the Seleucids (Syrian-Greek) army; Tisha B’Av and the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians; the Second Temple by the Romans; Pesach and the Egyptians etc. The archetypal Amalek is also reincarnated in other genocidal tendencies throughout history - whether the Inquisition, Hitler or any of the other innumerable historical persecutions of the Jewish people.
While Purim may have become a festival associated with children in which we primarily celebrate joy through fancy dress and a spiel, the underlying story of Purim is Haman's intended genocide of the Jewish people. The biblical Amelekites defined evil not only because they attacked the Israelites as they were escaping from Egypt, fleeing to the Promised Land, but also because they attacked the wounded and the helpless civilians from the rear. The abhorrence of tactics targeting civilians rather than fighting the army by literally facing their foe, remains a basic principle in the rules of war / conflict today: in an era where there is a level of ‘compassion fatigue’, people still experience an increased level of outrage when armed groups target civilians.
If Jews are to continue to be a light unto the nations, how do we take this permanence of Torah and the impetus to be a beacon of inspiration and integrate this into our daily lives? How can the small pinpricks of light (those mystical sparks called nitsusim in Kabbalistic literature) burning in each synagogue become a bright light of unity against the ceaseless encroachment of darkness? Parashat Tetzaveh on Shabbat Zachor is a reminder to us to rekindle our individual dedication to condemning evil and healing the world.
While Pirke Avot we read “You are not expected to complete the task, but neither are you free to avoid it.” (Rabbi Tarfon, Pirkei Avot 2:21), this parasha invites us to ask –“what can I do today to bring about greater light or greater good? What can I do, on whatever scale it might be, whether within my family, amongst my friends, or within my wider community to bring about the improvement of our world?