Saturday, February 17, 2007

Thoughts vaguely related to parshat Terumah

If you want to understand this week's parsha (and next week's), look here. Meanwhile, let me indulge myself by posting a fuzzy-wuzzy dvar torah. But not too fuzzy-wuzzy, it is Gush-influenced after all.

There are two different kinds of lights in the world. Some lights are utilitarian, which guide you and let you do things which are impossible to do in the dark. Other lights have no practical value, but are beautiful or noteworthy and thus are worth looking at in their own right. The obvious natural examples of the two kinds of lights are the sun and the (other) stars. There is no point in looking at the sun (and in fact it's difficult and dangerous to do so), but the sun's light allows us to do things during the day. Meanwhile, the stars don't provide too much light, but they are certainly worth looking at.

Halacha includes examples of both kinds of lights. Shabbat and Chanukah candles are especially good examples. Shabbat candles are utilitarian; their point is to provide "shalom bayit" by making the house brighter and more fun to be in, and for this reason some authorities say they should be placed in every room of the house. Meanwhile, Chanukah candles by definition have no utilitarian use. After lighting them we say "we have no permission to use them, but only to look at them" and we add a "shamash" candle in case we accidentally do use their light. The only thing we do with Chanukah candles is watch them. Upon seeing the eight candles we are reminded of the eight days of the miracle, and thus the purpose of the candles is fulfilled.

In this week's parsha we read about another halachically required light: the menorah in the Temple. Is this light meant for illumination, or is it meant to be looked at? It turns out that the answer is both. One candle was supposed to be lit "constantly" to serve as a continuous indicator of the relationship between Israel and God. Meanwhile, the menorah as a whole was the only source of light within the Temple. Thus the menorah is both a source of light and a symbol to be looked at.

Finally, the Torah itself is compared in Jewish tradition to light. As with the menorah, it seems that both kinds of light are intended in the comparison. Torah study is of course necessary if you want to find out the halacha. In this sense, the Torah is a useful tool which illuminates and guides our search for halachic decisions and moral standards. At the same time, Torah study is worthwhile even without these practical results. It is an opportunity to encounter God, a potentially prophetic experience by which God speaks to you through the texts. It can and should be desired "lishmah" - independent of its practical value.

Hopefully while studying Torah, and for that matter in our religious life as a whole, we can take advantage of both aspects of the "light": using the Torah creatively and precisely to achieve positive results, while at the same time appreciating and seeking an intimate understanding of it and an intimate relationship with its Giver.

(Derived from a dvar torah by Menachem Lazar, Chanukah 5766)

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