Parashat Tetsaveh
Rabbi Isaac Mann

Thoughts on Parashat Tetzaveh

This week’s Torah reading, Parashat Tetzaveh, consists primarily of two parts – (1) a description of the priestly garments to be worn during the service in the Tabernacle and (2) detailed instructions to Moses on initiating Aaron and his sons into priestly service, involving mostly various sacrifices to be offered during a seven-day period. However, at the beginning of this parashah there is a two-verse instruction regarding the preparation of pure olive oil for the menorah that stood in the Tabernacle and its lighting by Aaron and his descendants, and at the end of the parashah we have instructions for the building of the altar made of gold that was to be used only for incense (mizbeah ha-ketoret) and that stood inside the Tabernacle.

The opening and ending both seem out of place, especially the initial verses regarding the olive oil preparation and menorah lighting. Indeed, Abravanel (a famous 15th century Spanish Bible commentator) asks why the Torah chose to place this command involving the lighting of the menorah in between the instructions about the building of the Tabernacle (end of parashat Terumah) and the descriptions of the priestly garments. Better, he argues, would have been its placement after we are told of the completion of the Tabernacle and the setting up of the vessels towards the end of Sefer Shemot, or in Sefer Vayikra where we have specific instructions for the priests in carrying out their duties.

Various interpretations have been offered, mostly of a spiritual nature, by which the lighting of the menorah is not seen purely as a technical act of providing light, but also as a mitzvah of bringing illumination to a dark world bereft of Torah and spirituality. Its placement  at this juncture, at the beginning of Tetzaveh, emphasizes its inner meaning and importance as an integral part of the construction of the Tabernacle and G-d’s indwelling among the Jewish people.

I would like to suggest that a careful examination of the text would actually help explain why the Torah began this parashah with the mitzvah of lighting the menorah. Interestingly, in these two opening verses we find instructions being given by G-d to all three components of the Jewish community — Priests (Aaron and his sons), Levites (Moses), and Israelites (Benei Yisroel). The Torah portion begins with instructions to Moses to command the Israelites to bring to him the processed olive oil. Thus, the people were to prepare the oil and Moses, as Ramban notes, would inspect it and make sure it’s up to snuff and suited for the menorah. Only then would it be brought to Aaron or his sons for the actual lighting of the menorah with it.

We thus have a ritual act that involves all three divisions of Israel participating together in harmony in the lighting of the “eternal light” (ner tamid). It should be noted that the Torah does not even mention here the word “menorah,” even though the reference is to it. By referring to the eternal light, the Torah is deemphasizing the connection with the physical vessel that stood in the Tabernacle (and which will eventually disappear with the Temple’s destruction) and is instead focusing on the purpose of the menorah – to be a source of eternal light. And that can only come about with the unity of all segments of the Jewish people, when we all participate in this holy purpose of bringing light.

The construction of the Tabernacle in the desert could not be complete and allow for G-d’s presence in the midst of Israel without the realization of true harmony and unity of purpose amongst all of our brethren. No wonder then that before the Torah informs us of the priestly garments or of the priests’ initiation into service, we are instructed that true service doesn’t belong only to a priestly class but it must involve every group’s participation. Only then can there be real and permanent illumination.


Rabbi Isaac Mann is on the rabbinic faculty of AJR. He is the rabbi of the Austrian Shul on the Upper West Side and serves as chaplain at Metropolitan Hospital and Bronx-Lebanon Hospital.