Parashat Tetzaveh

Live To Serve

Like the priests and Levites, we must find our unique eternal flame to light the world.

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Provided by the Union for Reform, the central body of Reform Judaism in North America.

Parashah Overview

  • The Children of Israel are commanded to bring pure olive oil for the ner tamid, "a constantly burning light," above the sanctuary. (Exodus 27:20-21)

  • Aaron and his sons, Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar, are chosen to serve God as priests. (Exodus 28:1)

  • God instructs Moses to make special clothes for the priests. (Exodus 28:2-43)

  • Aaron and his sons are ordained in a seven-day ceremony. (Exodus 29:1-46)

  • Aaron is commanded to burn incense on an altar made of acacia wood every morning and evening. (Exodus 30:1-10)

Focal Point

You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly. Aaron and his sons shall set them up in the Tent of the Meeting, outside the curtain that is over the Pact [to burn] from evening to morning before Adonai. It shall be a due from the Israelites for all time, throughout the ages. You shall bring forward your brother Aaron, with his sons, from among the Israelites, to serve me as priests: Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, the sons of Aaron. (Exodus 27:20-28:1)

Your Guide

What does the symbolism of the image "a constantly burning light" suggest? Is that light an external phenomenon or an internal one?

Who "chooses" Aaron's sons to become priests? Do you feel chosen for a special task in life? From where did your mandate come: your parents, your religious life, or an internal mandate?

Perhaps the juxtaposition of the image of light and the ordination of the Kohanim (priests) suggests to us that as a "kingdom of priests," we are all ordained to bring light into the world. What does this mean to you? How do you bring light into the world?

Being a "bearer of light" requires preparation. What do you do to prepare yourself for your role as a bearer of light?

What do you think are the qualities that are suitable for an Israelite priest? What qualities do you invoke in answering your own spiritual calling?

Aaron burns incense every day as an expression of gratitude to God. Do you feel gratitude for the privilege of serving others?

What are the benefits of service to others? What gets in the way of such service? Is living to serve others consonant with our Jewish heritage?

Do you serve others out of fear, out of obligation, or out of love?

By the Way…

A wise religious leader once said, "God has three sorts of servants in the world: Some are slaves and serve God from fear; others are hirelings and serve for wages; and the last are children, who serve because they love." (F. G. Marchant, The Preacher's Homiletic Commentary, Joshua)

A fellow pianist asked Jan Paderewski if he could be ready to play a recital on short notice. The famous musician replied, "I am always ready. I have practiced eight hours daily for forty years." The other pianist said, "I wish I had been born with such determination." Paderewski replied, "We are all born with it. I just used mine." (Funny, Funny World, September 1983)

One of Ripley's "Believe It or Not" items pictured a plain bar of iron worth $5. The same bar of iron if made into horseshoes would be worth $50. If it were made into needles, it would be worth $5,000. If it were made into balance springs for fine Swiss watches, it would be worth $500,000. The raw material is not as important as how it's developed. God says we have spiritual gifts, but their worth to God will be dependent on how we develop them. (Mark Porter in the AutoIllustrator, January 1985)

"I do not know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: The only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve." (Albert Schweitzer in an interview late in his life)

Perhaps what we are called to do may not seem like much. But consider what one scientist has called "the butterfly effect:" Even a butterfly moving its wings has an effect on galaxies thousands of light-years away. (Madeleine L'Engle, A Stone for a Pillow)

The following is a eulogy for Someone Else. "Our congregation is deeply saddened by the passing of an irreplaceable member--Someone Else. For all of these years he did far more than any other congregational member. Whenever leadership was mentioned, Someone Else was looked to for inspiration and achievement. Whenever there was a job to do, a class to teach, or a meeting to attend, everybody always turned to Someone Else. It was common knowledge that Someone Else was among the largest contributors to the church. Whenever there was a financial need, everyone just assumed that Someone Else would make up the difference. Although we are grieved by the loss of Someone Else, his death comes as no big surprise. He was far too overworked and continually stretched too thin. In fact, we may have contributed to his death by expecting too much out of Someone Else. He left a wonderful example to follow, but it appears there is Nobody willing to fill the shoes of Someone Else. I shudder to think what will now happen to our church since we can no longer depend on Someone Else." (Leadership, January 22, 1992)

Your Guide

Do you agree with Schweitzer's assessment of a happy life? What about L'Engle's assessment of our impact on the world?

What is meant by the statement, "Judaism is a religion of deeds more than of creeds?" How do Schweitzer, L'Engle and Someone Else understand this concept?

What gifts has God given you that you have not used or developed? Isn't part of being Jewish devoting a significant part of your life to being a bearer of light in some way? Why do we often let Someone Else fulfill the mitzvah (commandment) that we have been commanded to do?

D'var Torah

The detailed descriptions of the priesthood in the Torah give us insight into the hierarchical society of our ancient ancestors. While there were groups assigned distinct tasks, i.e., the Kohanim and the Levites, in our time we can learn from this parashah that each of us must find our appointed task in the continuing chain of Jewish life.

History does in fact teach us that our people have always been committed to the doing of mitzvot. In our time, this means reflecting and then committing ourselves to Torah, learning; avodah, devotion; and g'milut chasadim, deeds of loving-kindness. In this sense we are all priests, bearers of God's light. The ner tamid (eternal flame) is not only a symbol in the sanctuary, it is also a burning flame within us that ignites our passion to repair the world.

In this time of uncertainty since 9/11/01, many of us have felt a sense of higher purpose than that of simply acquiring material possessions or achieving tranquility. We know more than ever that we have to be generous in spirit and make life not simply comfortable but meaningful. If we can capture the sense that we are all ordained to contribute to the spectrum of spiritual light and life in this world, then each day we live will no doubt be filled with hope and gratitude.

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Rabbi Robert Lennick

Rabbi Robert Lennick is the president and CEO of Religion in American Life, Stamford, CT.