Rabbis: Our Ambassadors to the World

This week’s biblical portion of Beha’alotecha contains an important insight into the necessary qualities and major functions of our rabbis.

The week’s reading begins with the kindling of the menorah, the seven candlestick branches made of pure gold, each culminating in a golden flower with three branches emanating from either side of the central tree-like branch and seven flames spreading warmth and enlightenment within the most sacred area and beyond. The operative verse that describes this magnificent accouterment is “the candle is commandment, and Torah is light” (Prov. 6:23).

Rashi, the classical biblical commentator, is apparently disturbed by the placement of the menorah in our portion; it seems to have belonged in the Book of Exodus, which describes the inner furnishings of the Sanctuary including the menorah (Ex 25:31-40). Rashi, therefore, opens his interpretation of our portion with the words of the Midrash (Tanhuma 5):

Why this juxtaposition of the description of the lighting of the menorah with the offerings of the princes of the tribes? It is because when Aaron saw the dedication of the Sanctuary, he became upset that he had not been included in the dedication offerings and ceremonies; neither he nor his tribe of Kohanim. The Holy One Blessed be He said to him, “By your life, your contribution is greater than theirs; you will kindle and clean the candlesticks.”

What was so special about kindling the menorah? It happened early in the morning, without audience or fanfare.

I would suggest that there were two central furnishings in the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctum of our Sanctuary: the sacred ark, which housed the Tablets of Stone, and the menorah. The former, with the Torah in splendid seclusion behind the curtains, was meant for Israel alone, to form a “ holy nation” ; the latter, with its warmth and light spreading round was the Torah meant for the world, the Torah that would go forth from Zion, the word of the Lord that would emanate from Jerusalem to the nations.

The Midrash (Mekhilta de Rabbi Yishmael, Parshat Yitro, Parsha Aleph) teaches that the Revelation at Sinai was given in a desert, a parousia, rather than on the Temple Mount in order to teach us that the Torah was not meant for the Jews alone, but rather for all of humanity. Just prior to the revelation, Israel is charged by God to be a “kingdom of Kohanim,” teachers to all of humanity, purveyors of a God of love, compassion, morality and peace. This universal charge is given to the Jews to become a sacred nation (otherwise they would hardly be an example to emulate), and to the Kohanim to convey our teaching to the world (Isaiah 2, Micah 4, Zechariah 7,8,9). This is the true significance of the Kohen’s kindling of the Menorah and spreading the message of Torah beyond the Sanctuary to the world.

It is our duty to demonstrate to the world that we have righteous decrees and ordinances (Deut. 4:8); and it is our laws, our unique lifestyle that will elevate us above all other nations, granting us renown and glory worldwide (Deut. 26:18-19). It is the Kohen Gadol, or the rabbis today, who must convey these righteous laws which will inspire the rest of the nations to accept our God of compassion and peace. The rabbis are our ambassadors to the world, those who must bring the light and the warmth of Torah to the world. They must kindle the menorah.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.

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